ISIS distinguished itself from other violent Islamist groups through its focus on securing territory and resources in the Middle East. In capturing these goals, and in establishing a Caliphate, the self-titled Islamic State (IS) created a destination for thousands of radicalised individuals from across the world. 20,000 people heralding from around 90 countries have now travelled to fight under the black flag of IS. Whilst the bulk of these fighters arrived from Middle Eastern states such as Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, around 4000 have arrived from Europe and over 500 of these Europeans were from the UK.
Over the last 6 months, IS has begun to organise these foreign elements into specialised divisions. The Anwar al-Awlaki Battalion, comprised of English-speaking fighters, was established in early 2015. Katibah Nusantara, a Malay-based fighting unit, was established in late 2014. These groups have gained experience through fighting in Iraq and Syria, with Katibah Nusantara capturing five Kurd-held territories in Syria in April 2015. News of these victories was then translated into Indonesian and Malay languages, in order to aid recruitment in South-East Asia. Aside from recruiting, Katibah Nusantara have also been charged with planning attacks in and outside of Malaysia. In April, 17 were arrested in Malaysia for plotting to attack the capital Kuala Lumpur. To date nearly 100 Malaysians have been arrested for their links to IS. Just like Katibah Nusantara, the Anwar Al-Awlaki group are currently fighting in Syria, with the aim of earning experience before being sent back to the UK, Australia and other English-speaking states.
The formation of these groups also shows an evolution in the tactics and goals of the Islamic State. They illustrate a greater global focus, a desire to challenge the far enemy. This has not replaced the war for territory in Iraq and Syria. IS have still secured some advances in the region such as the recent conquest of the Iraqi city of Ramadi, just 70 miles from Baghdad. Yet IS, in the face of continued airstrikes, have lost ground, including the strategically important border town of Kobane and the Iraqi city of Tikrit. Instead this global focus is a tactical redeployment, keeping IS in the headlines and presenting itself as a powerful world player, an attractive selling point for recruits. In turning to its foreign legions, IS is starting to capitalise on its international reach. Ideologically it is a step more in line with the Al-Qaida (AQ) beginnings that IS mutated from. IS grew from Al-Qaida in Iraq, an AQ franchise similar to Al-Qaida in the Peninsula (AQIP) and led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. However since 2005, ideological differences between AQ leadership and Al-Zarqawi and his successor Al-Baghdadi began. The AQ leadership used civilian and tribal connections to help support its fighters against the far enemy, America. By contrast, Al-Zarqawi condoned the indiscriminate killing of civilians in order to cause sectarian violence in Iraq. Instead of relying on civilian support, IS began to dominate areas, in a move to establish territory through conquering. This caused the split between the two, a split which now sees the groups fighting against each other in Syria. Yet the mutual roots of AQ and IS are beginning to show as IS refocuses on global targets. Even naming the English division after Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American Al-Qaida operator killed in Yemen in 2011 and revered within IS circles, is indicative of this tactical shift. In collecting and organising foreign fighters and transforming them into units designed to later operate in their original homelands, IS has developed a strategy that the international community must react to.
The growing threat of international IS violence was highlighted in the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit. At the summit Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned about the prospect of IS establishing a presence in the region. Katibah Nusantara, through with IS, presents a direct threat to Malaysia and the rest of South-East Asia. Increased security measures and greater scrutiny of potential IS elements within countries is now a priority for the International community. To this end Malaysia passed the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act Bill in April. This legislates for the detention of terrorist suspects without trial for up to 59 days before being presented to a Prevention of Terrorism Board who reserve the right to increase detention to 2 years.
Statistical evidence of returning fighters shows that only a small proportion of returnees continue to plot violent actions. Thomas Hegghammer, one of the most prominent academics on foreign fighters, studied a data pool of 945 Islamist foreign fighters that originated from Europe and the US from 1990 to 2010. He found that only one in nine fighters eventually returned with the intention of committing terrorist actions at home.
However with the knowledge that IS are preparing groups like Katibah Nusantara, the prospect that returnees are more dangerous is impossible to ignore. The post 9/11 zeitgeist led to a number of countries passing anti-terror laws. Like the US Patriot Act, that were in danger of upsetting the balance between social freedoms and security. The global reaction to AQ and Islamic extremism did lead to the death of Bin Laden, but 14 years after 9/11 we are faced with a more established, financed and ruthless threat that is showing the signs of a new global focus. Will continuing along the vein of tighter security, as Malaysia are doing, at the expense of freedoms be the answer to this threat? If these developments within IS are to be heeded, then this is the question that has to be had within legislatures with the utmost urgency.
About the Author
Tom Walpole is currently studying Arabic and Middle East Studies at the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. During his degree, Tom lived in Cairo and has focused his studies on security policy and Islamist movements within the Middle East. Tom is also alumnus of the European Youth Parliament and has an interest in researching the potential role of the European Union in Foreign Affairs.
Cover image ‘City of Lights, Kuala Lumpur‘ by Hadi Zaher