Will the attacks of jihadists – just as the one on Sri Lanka – become a permanent element of a social-political landscape in many Southeast Asian countries?
A series of bloody terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Monday on the 21st April, 2019 surprised and shocked the whole world. In these attacks, for which the small local Islamic groups acting for and in the name of the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, about 260 people (including 40 foreigners) were killed, and almost 600 were wounded. These numbers make the Sri Lankan drama on the top of the list of the bloodiest terrorist attacks in the world in the last decade. Also, it was the greatest – as to the number of victims – attack by the IS from the beginning of its existence.
Easter attacks confirm the fears that in the entire Southeast Asia, there is ongoing pitched battle between the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda (AQ) for the influences among local Muslim societies. An important rivalry element of both these main international jihad structures is the strive for radicalization of local Muslims and their engagement in the activities of own global extremist networks.
Rivalry for Government of Souls
A formal responsibility for Sri Lanka terrorist attacks was claimed for by two local groups of radical Muslims: National Thowheed Jama’ath and Jama’athe Milla’athe Ibrahim. So far, both were known mainly for their noisy demonstrations and verbal attacks on Islam’s enemies, mainly against Buddhists.
The Easter attacks – the target of which became mainly Sri Lankan Christians – are the sign of fundamental change of ideological priorities and targets of local Islamic extremists. This transformation would not be however possible without an inspiration and influence from outside – in this case, from the Islamic State. The group of caliph Ibrahim (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) managed in recent years to establish on Sri Lanka a large and well-conspired foothold, using local Muslim radicalism. The IS outstripped its rival Al-Qaeda in this, which also somehow specializes in waking up Jihadist awareness in local Islamic communities in many parts of the world. Clearly, the emissaries of caliphate had arrived at Sri Lanka earlier, or perhaps their offer was more attractive than the Al-Qaeda’s.
In effect, on the island, for about at least three years, there have been operating several secret cells of the Islamic State, which prepared the attacks and spread among local Muslims an ideology of holy war in caliphate version. Foreign IS operators, including many experienced fighters from the Middle East, had at their disposal the know-how as well as serious financial and material resources, all of which helped them to plan and prepare for terrorist operations.
The radicals originating from local Muslim community were responsible for sheltering organizers of attack, delivering information necessary to prepare the attack, and putting up volunteer terrorists. All shaheeds (Muslim suicide terrorists), who carried out Easter attacks, were true Sri Lankans. The Sri Lankan security services needed as much time as two weeks to eliminate or arrest majority of the IS cells on the island, which counted almost 300 radicals, mainly local Muslims. These people were perfectly organized and equipped (they even had their own training camp in the east of the island). Many of them were moreover trained to be shaheeds, which means the caliphate was ready to carry out another attacks on Sri Lanka, perhaps not only targeted at Christians.
The radicalization of Sri Lankan Muslims and engaging them in a global holy war under the banner of caliphate is nothing exceptional. The process of internationalization of targets and regional relations or local communities of Islamic radicals in different parts of the world is a typical road, which many groups took in the past two decades. This process could be observed in a special way in Central and Southeast Asia, for instance among Pakistani Taliban of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Afghan Islamists of the Emirate of Afghanistan, but also among Uzbek or Tajik Islamists.
Quite often specific local historical, socio-political and economic conditions, such as: pressure or even oppression on the part of a dominating or hostile majority (ethnic or religious), as well as disastrous economic situation making local people poor and void of any perspectives for life are conducive to this phenomenon. The process of Muslim radicalization in this part of Asia is also stimulated by an increasing for over five years rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. They mostly compete for the influences among those Islamic groups that already have been active, often for decades, in many Asian states. They both try, just as the IS did it in Sri Lanka, to educate their own local allies, which would be the best guarantee for success in their long-term strategies.
From among all activity regions of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, it is Southeast Asia – particularly the Afghan-Pakistani region – that is specifically significant for the Islamists. It is here, on the area partially responding to the territory of historical land of Khorasan, where – according to the Muslim apocalyptical tradition in apocryphal writings (Hadith) – there is to be born a movement of the faithful, which will lead to liberation of Jerusalem from the hands of the unfaithful. Although since 2014, the rivalry between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda for this part of Asia has been going on mainly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, for quite some time a rapid increase in the activity of Islamic extremists in other regions of Southeast Asia has been observed.
Under the Banner of Caliph
This problem doesn’t only regard Sri Lanka. In the Philippines, where the tensions between Christian majority and Muslims have a long tradition, two large Islamist groups have been active for a long time: Abu Sayyaf (earlier related to Al-Qaeda, presently declaring its loyalty to the IS) and the so-called Maute Group. The latter one (also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, and formerly known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in 2017 for several months occupied the city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao. It made it a capital town of a newly created Philippine province of caliphate – Wilajet al-Falabin, introducing sharia and persecuting local Christians.
In the Philippines, there are actively operating IS cells directly subordinate to the central leadership of this organization, which consist of – similarly to those on Sri Lanka – experienced foreign fighters who had come to the archipelago to spread jihad. It is these structures that probably stand behind the suicide terrorist attack on the Roman Catholic cathedral in the town of Jolo in January of 2019. The territory of Indonesia is also the arena of operation for the Islamist jihad groups, a lot of which were formed many decades ago. One of them is the infamous Jemaah Islamiyah (The Islamic Group – IG), an organization which is still a formal branch of Al-Qaeda in the entire East Asia, responsible for many bloody attacks (e.g. 2002 Bali bombings).
Other active Indonesian Islamist group is the East Indonesia Mujahideen (also known as Mujahideen Indonesia Timur – MIT), which defines itself as an Indonesian province of caliphate. Being part of the Islamic State, MIT remains in opposition to the IG, and clashes between them are frequent. Jihadist ideology also spreads in Bangladesh, where in recent years found shelter almost million Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar (Burma), who belong to the Rohingya ethinc group. Their presence violates a delicate socio-political and ethnic-religious balance of Bangladesh, which is already used by the radicals of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh, related to the IS.
Comparatively disturbing for experts is a situation on the Maldives – an island state on the Indian Ocean, with a population of almost entirely Muslim, who quite rapidly are becoming radicals. On the archipelago, the IS’s influences are increasing – following 2014, about 200 citizens of about 400,000 Levant’s population joined the ranks of caliphate. This luxurious paradise for western tourists is generally considered to become another, after Sri Lanka, potential place for terrorist attack by the Islamists under the banner of caliph.
The End Which Never Happened
A successful terrorist operation of the Islamic State on Sri Lanka was carried out shortly after the collapse of the last IS bastion in Syria. A territorial defeat of caliphate in Levant made many western politicians and diplomats deliver optimistic opinions and comments on the state of war with caliphate. The Easter drama clearly indicated however that the Islamic State does not need – just as Al-Qaeda – its own territory to be effective in carrying out its terrorist goals. Several years ago already it has become clear that the Islamic State’s caliphate means much more than only a defined territory in the very heart of the Middle East. Today, it is mostly an ideology and uncompromisingly implemented strategy – to which Muslim masses are intensely responding – for introducing the Islamic version of god’s kingdom in the world. It is also quite an expanded global network of organizations and Islamic groups, which univocally recognize a leading role of caliph Ibrahim in the fight for Islam’s dominance in the world.
The collapse of the caliphate’s central leadership in the Middle East can paradoxically make the Islamic State much more threatening that it has been so far. Defeated in Levant, humiliated and deprived of the sources of its financial power, forced to become decentralized (so far, the Islamic State tried to avoid that, contrary to Al-Qaeda), it becomes much less predictable and even more radical. It is so also because of the increasing pressure on the part of Islamic competition, which after several years of regress is regaining its vigor. It seems that the region of Southeast Asia in particular may in the near future become one of the main (next to African continent) places of sudden escalation of jihadist activity, performed under the banners of both Al-Qaeda and caliphate. This, in turn, may mean that there will be more and more such dramas as there was in Sri Lanka.
autor zdjęć: XINHAU / East News