Islamic State growing threat in Asia, leaders at forum say
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 30, 2015
SINGAPORE — The Islamic State group’s reach eastward into Asia is a growing security threat, world leaders and defense officials said at a high-level security summit this weekend.
Groups with links to Asian organizations such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah have pledged their loyalty to Islamic State, a worrying but not especially surprising development for many U.S. allies in the region.
What is more startling for Asian leaders, particularly in the southeast, is how Islamic State has drawn thousands of disaffected citizens to join the group in Syria and Iraq.
“Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told delegates at the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday. “ISIS has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that they form a unit by themselves.”
Lee and other leaders estimated that 20,000 foreign nationals worldwide have joined ISIS. Some analysts at the summit pegged the number of Asians from outside the Middle East at more than 1,000.
While that figure still represents a small minority, the concern is the training and plans that small groups of Islamic State members might bring back to their respective countries.
“The idea that ISIS can turn Southeast Asia into a province of a worldwide Islamic caliphate is a grandiose, pie-in-the-sky dream,” Lee said. “But it is not so far-fetched that ISIS could establish a base somewhere in the region, in a geographical area under its physical control like in Syria and Iraq.”
Southeast Asia was seen by many observers as a “second front” in fighting extremist groups after 9-11, according to Ahmed Hashim, an associate professor with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
By the mid-2000s, Asian countries began working together, developing better intelligence and largely defeating over-extended militants. The United States lent a hand with Special Forces deployed on assistance missions in the south Philippines, as well counterterror exercises with several other nations.
Even as disagreements over territory and maritime rights divide some Asian nations, there is broad consensus on the need to stop the Islamic State.
Outside of Syria and Iraq, there won’t be a uniform way to address the threat, said Nigel Inskter, a former British MI6 intelligence officer and current director with the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
“There are some situations in which the involvement of armed force, in counterterrorism and counterintelligence, is essential,” Inkster said. “There will be other situations where I think the role of the military is going to be very limited, or borderline nonexistent.
“It’s going to be more a function of civilian intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies,” Inkster said.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who participated in a roundtable discussion on terror at the summit, argued that the battle in the Middle East couldn’t be decoupled from stopping Islamic State in Asia.
McCain has been deeply critical of President Barack Obama administration’s handling of the fight against the Islamic State. Thus far, the administration has relied on air strikes while attempting to retrain Iraqi security forces.
McCain advocated deploying about 10,000 U.S. servicemembers, including air controllers, Special Forces and logistics servicemembers.
“America will be judged in Asia in large part by what we do in the Middle East,” McCain said.