The rise of the Islamic State group [IS] shocked the world four years ago. The militants overtook the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, then established franchises from Afghanistan to Libya.
Prominent radicals as far as Nigeria and the Philippines pledged allegiance to the extremist group.
IS never bothered to establish itself in Myanmar and Thailand, where Muslims have long faced persecution and waged insurgencies.
In both countries, Muslim rebels are fighting non-Muslim militaries that ignore human rights.
Because IS intervened in similar conflicts in Kashmir and Mindanao, its absence in Myanmar and Thailand seems striking. Experts on Southeast Asia have offered a few theories.
“Several factors explain why IS’s presence in Southeast Asia has been more limited, including the matters of time and effort,” Dr Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder, told The New Arab.
“IS’s original proselytising effort focused on the Middle East. When it was rising, it put less effort into and focus on Southeast Asia.”
Dr Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College and author of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: A Crucible of Terror, believes the “most simple answer is racism.”
He cited the Islamic fundamentalist screed Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through Which the Ummah Will Pass, a how-to guide on insurgency popular with some commanders in al-Qaeda and IS as an example, describing the text as “very condescending toward Southeast Asians.”
For their part, Muslim rebels in Myanmar and Thailand may have little interest in associating with a Western-labelled terrorist organisation led by Middle Eastern, Arab militants.
The Rohingya, Myanmar’s largest Muslim minority, have tended to look for support from the international community. Rohingya insurgents show no signs of sympathising with IS.
Thai Malay insurgents portray themselves as engaging in a war of independence for the historical region of Patani.
In the report Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace, the International Crisis Group expressed doubt that IS could make inroads in Southern Thailand.
These insurgents’ campaigns centre on local grievances and objectives, not the millenarian goal of establishing a worldwide caliphate.
This reality limits IS’s capacity to build a following in Myanmar or Thailand. The Southeast Asians who did go so far as to appeal to IS in the early days of its caliphate rarely found a receptive audience in the militants’ Raqqa-based leadership.
“In 2014, when Southeast Asian groups started to pledge allegiance to the group, IS didn’t need them,” Abuza told The New Arab.
“IS was growing so quickly, and Southeast Asia was so peripheral. It took two years before IS even began to acknowledge the Southeast Asian groups’ pledges of loyalty, and it showed no interest in declaring the establishment of an Asian province of the caliphate.”
As IS’s losses in Iraq and Syria began to mount, the militants started to rely more on their affiliates in Africa and Asia to continue dominating Western headlines.
“Southeast Asia is becoming more important to IS as it loses territory,” suggested Abuza.
He noted that the Battle of Marawi, during which IS overtook a Philippine city for five months, began after an American-led coalition retook most IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Observers have noticed other signs that IS is re-prioritising Southeast Asia. In May 2017, the Royal Malaysia Police caught part of an IS cell that had been smuggling weapons from Southern Thailand to conduct attacks in Malaysia.
The next month, then Commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces General Gatot Nurmantyo admitted that IS had cells across Indonesia.
“In Afghanistan and places like Nigeria, the direction of working out the association came from local groups who had split off from their original organisations, such as the Taliban or Boko Haram, or were expelled by their mother organisation,” Felbab-Brown told The New Arab.
“It was not so much that IS was successful in sending its emissaries into those locations – rather that local actors were reaching out.
But with the outflow of former IS fighters from the Middle East, including to Southeast Asia, IS may intensify its proselytising there, whether under the IS label or local ones.”
While IS will likely face challenges in Myanmar and Thailand, anecdotal evidence suggests that it may target both countries in the future.
In April, an unnamed Malaysian official told Channel NewsAsia that a Malay Thai rebel wanted to establish an IS cell in Southern Thailand.
The Straits Times has also reported that IS is recruiting Malaysians to fight in Myanmar.
“IS is desperate to show its followers that it remains a global movement, capable of fighting the infidels,” said Abuza.
“Southeast Asia has become central to its – albeit diminished – central media. Now that IS has shifted its model to a global insurgency, Southeast Asia has increased in relevance.”
As the heart of the IS caliphate collapses in the Middle East, the militants are looking for new opportunities in Southeast Asia. Myanmar and Thailand should get ready.
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