THE MOTIVATIONS OF SYRIAN ISLAMIST FIGHTERS

CTC By Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt

During the last three years, jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq have developed a strong international component, attracting around 12,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries.[1] Among these are Southeast Asian jihadists who have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a range of other jihadist groups.

This article outlines how these volunteers, who mostly hail from Indonesia and Malaysia, have become involved with ISIL and other groups, and the likely implications of this in their home countries, in Syria and Iraq, and further afield. The article also examines how events in Syria and Iraq have impacted existing Southeast Asian jihadist and militant groups, including the potential for ISIL and other organizations to inspire increased militancy in the region.

Indonesia
The head of the Indonesian National Police, Gen. Sutarman, said in August 2014 that at least 56 Indonesians were believed to have joined ISIL, of whom three have been killed, although this figure may also include those who have joined other jihadist groups.[2] Most fighters seem to have traveled to Syria from Salafist-influenced religious schools in the Middle East, although they often have prior involvement in radical Indonesian circles. Typical of these is Riza Fardi (aka Abu Muhammad al-Indunisi), who was killed in East Ghouta, near Damascus, in November 2013. According to the radical Indonesian website “Voice of al-Islam,” Fardi was born in West Kalimantan and attended the hardline al-Mukmi boarding school in Solo. The school is closely associated with Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and six of the Bali bombers were educated there.[3] After this, he attended the al-Iman University in Yemen, run by Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani, a longstanding senior leader of al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Fardi then traveled to Syria to join the small Suqour al-Izz jihadist group, mainly composed of Saudi Salafists, before being killed while fighting against Syrian government forces.

Other Indonesian jihadists have died in Iraq conducting suicide attacks with ISIL. Wildan Mukhollad bin Lasmin, 19-years-old, died carrying out a suicide car bomb attack in Iraq in February 2014, having earlier fought in Aleppo.[4] He too had previously studied at a hardline Islamist school in Indonesia, followed by study in Egypt.[5] In July, ISIL published a video titled Join the Ranks that featured alleged Indonesian members calling for volunteers to “migrate to the Islamic State as an obligation decreed by Allah”; however, it is unclear from the content (which features seven gunmen on a tropical-looking beach) if it was even filmed in Iraq or Syria.[6] On October 12, 2014, jihadist websites published Indonesian-language statements saying that another Indonesian ISIL volunteer, Hanzhalah al-Indunisi, had died conducting a suicide attack near Beiji in Iraq “killing dozens of Shi`a soldiers.”[7]

Hardline and militant Islamist organizations in Indonesia have meanwhile provided rhetorical support for Syrian jihadists, and for ISIL in particular. Most prominently, according to local media, on July 18, 2014 Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed former leader of the regional terrorist group JI, along with 24 other convicted terrorists in Pasir Putih prison, publicly announced support for ISIL fighters. It is reported that he did so in a message to Mochammad Achwan, chairman of Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), JI’s successor group, although Achwan said this fell short of a formal pledge of allegiance to ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.[8] Soon afterwards, Achwan and other senior JAT members left JAT to set up their own group after refusing to follow Bashir’s public declaration of support for ISIL.[9] Other smaller militant groups, such as the East Indonesia Mujahidin, also pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi.[10]
Elsewhere, small-scale pro-ISIL demonstrations have occurred sporadically, while in Bekasi city in August 2014 supporters of JAT publicly swore allegiance to ISIL at a local mosque, underlining divisions in JAT over ISIL.[11] Although such stunts can raise broader public awareness of ISIL, notwithstanding occasional arrests of suspected militants there has been no perceptible increase in the number or scope of reported militant plots in Indonesia. The above pledges are likely to have a limited real-world impact, largely because those involved are generally veteran Islamists already committed to radical agendas.

Malaysia
According to the Malaysian police, around 40 Malaysians are believed to have joined armed groups in Syria and Iraq as of August 2014.[12] Meanwhile, the Syrian government has said that 15 Malaysian jihadists have died in the conflict, but this cannot be independently confirmed.[13] Of these, the most visible and active Malaysian fighters are based around Hama, in western Syria, where they operate as a self-contained group within the relatively small Ajnad al-Sham Ittihadiyya al-Islamiyya (Soldiers of the Levant Islamic Union) jihadist group, sometimes in conjunction with al-Qa`ida’s official affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.[14] From their prolific social media output, this Malaysian group appears to be composed of around 15 fighters, grouped around a core of older individuals, but including others from a wide range of backgrounds. The group’s main leader, until his death in early September 2014 following a Syrian government airstrike in Hama, was 49-year-old Mohammed Lotfi Ariffin, a preacher who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Tajikistan in the early 1990s; upon his return to Malaysia he was detained under the Internal Security Act from 2001 to 2006.[15] He subsequently joined the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and was a leader of its youth wing in the northern state of Kedah; PAS publicly expelled Ariffin when news of his involvement in Syria became widely known, although after his death some PAS officials hailed him a “martyr.”[16]

Other notable members of the Hama group included Zainan Harith (aka Abu Turab), a 52-year-old veteran jihadist from the Malaysian militant group Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), who was killed by Syrian government shellfire in the town of Arzeh, near Hama, in August 2014.[17] Another KMM veteran, 47-year-old Zainuri Kamarudin, was injured in the same incident. Other members are more diverse, including Akel Zainal, a former drummer in 1990s Malaysian rock band “The Ukays,” and several younger volunteers, including a 21-year-old who first contacted Ariffin by messaging him on Facebook.[18] As this illustrates, this Malaysian group sees social media as a key recruiting and propaganda tool. Both Ariffin and Zainal have regularly posted photos, short Salafist-tinged ideological admonitions, and updates on their current activities in Syria on Facebook, although both their accounts were taken offline in September/October. Their posts, which showed not only combat images but also the Malaysians’ apparently relaxed and friendly interactions with local Arab fighters, had a relatively limited but enthusiastic following of Malaysian online sympathizers. Ariffin had 16,000 “likes” and Zainal had 1,600 “friends” on Facebook.

By contrast, very few Malaysians are known to have joined ISIL. According to an ISIL statement in Malaysian entitled Malaysian Mujihadeen’s Martyrdom Operation (Mujahidin Malaysia Syahid Dalam Operasi Martyrdom), Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, a Malaysian former factory worker, drove an explosive-packed SUV into the local headquarters of an Iraqi special forces unit near Ramadi in al-Anbar Province on May 26, 2014, in conjunction with an ISIL conventional assault on the facility.[19] ISIL claimed extensive Iraqi casualties, but this could not be confirmed. Malaysian media reported Maliki had received ideological training and some militant training in Malaysia, notably at Port Dickson in 2013, before heading to the Middle East in April 2014.[20] Although officials did not explicitly connect the cases, in May 2014 one individual in Port Dickson was charged with “promoting acts of terrorism” in Syria.[21]

Although evidence is necessarily limited, there are some important differences between the Malaysians active with Ajnad al-Sham and those with ISIL in Iraq. For instance, the former have been permitted to organize themselves in a small unit, engaging in mainly conventional fighting, running their own social media operations, and enjoying friendly relations with Arab fighters.[22] By contrast, as with Indonesians, there is no evidence of Malaysians engaging in conventional fighting in ISIL or of any quasi-independent Malaysian grouping within ISIL, as is the case with Ajnad al-Sham. Moreover, the lone recorded Malaysian suicide bomber with ISIL likewise does not appear to have been part of any wider Malaysian or Southeast Asian group. In addition, the fact that within approximately a month of his arrival, ISIL used him as a suicide bomber possibly suggests they regarded the training he had received in Malaysia as of little or no utility.

Unlike in Indonesia, there is some evidence that ISIL and other groups are inspiring increased militancy in Malaysia. Most notably, in August 2014 police arrested 19 suspected militants for allegedly planning attacks on several targets in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, including pubs, discos and a prominent Carlsberg brewery.[23] Although the authorities said the group’s plans were still at the “discussion” phase, the suspects had reportedly purchased aluminium powder, a potential bomb-making ingredient.[24] The police claimed the group had been “inspired” by ISIL, and that some of the suspects intended to travel to Iraq or Syria for further training, although the exact nature of their link to ISIL remains under investigation.[25]

Philippines
In the Philippines, the response from existing jihadist groups to events in Syria and Iraq has been enthusiastic but largely rhetorical. On July 23, 2014, supporters of Abu Sayyaf, the country’s most hardline jihadist organization, uploaded a video to YouTube of one of its leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, and a group of apparent fighters collectively pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi. They promised al-Baghdadi “loyalty and obedience in adversity and in comfort,” although adding this would be void if they “see in him any obvious act of disbelief.” It is unclear if this bay`a represents the whole of Abu Sayyaf, particularly given its fragmented leadership.[26]

Separately, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) pledged loyalty to ISIL, although a spokesman said the group would not impose ISIL-style Islam in the Philippines, somewhat undermining the pledge’s credibility.[27] Despite these statements, however, there is no clear evidence of Filipinos heading to Syria or Iraq. Although government documents leaked in August 2014 estimated the number of Filipinos with ISIL at “close to 200,”[28] the country’s influential armed forces responded that they were unaware of any Filipinos fighting in Iraq or Syria, [29] and the Foreign Ministry has said any numbers were “hypothetical.”[30] In contrast to Malaysia and Indonesia, there is no evidence from Iraq or Syria of Filipinos fighting alongside ISIL or other groups; likewise, no related domestic plots have been reported.

The Rest of the Region
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, there is only fragmentary evidence of other nationals taking up jihad in Iraq and Syria. For instance, in one English-language ISIL video, There Is No Life Without Jihad, a British jihadist claimed that the group included a volunteer “from Cambodia.”[31] Although the country has no significant history of Islamist radicalism and this claim was dismissed by Cambodian Muslim leaders, this could feasibly refer to a member of the country’s small Cham Muslim minority.[32] Similarly, a lone Japanese individual was involved with the Islamic Front militia in early- to mid-2014 near Aleppo, before being captured by ISIL during fighting between the rival groups on August 14, 2014; his motivations are unclear.[33]

Conclusion
Given the large size of Southeast Asian Muslim populations, the number of recruits to jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria are relatively low, even lower than those from European countries.[34] While this may partly reflect the difficulties and cost of traveling to the Middle East, levels of engagement with pro-jihadists at events and on social media are also low, suggesting limited overall support for jihadist groups compared to levels of interest in the other Middle East conflicts such as the Israel-Palestinian issue. At present, it appears unlikely that events in Iraq and Syria will trigger a broader, popular revitalization of Southeast Asian jihadism, particularly as Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries enjoy strong – if uneven – economic growth, while their maturing political systems also allow outlets for peaceful dissent. Likewise, ISIL’s rise has mostly been used by local jihadist groups to rhetorically underline their existing ideological positions rather than to radicalize local populations or mount fresh attacks. That said, the Malaysia plot and the increased activism of some Indonesian groups demonstrate the continuing potential for ISIL, particularly through its use of evocative concepts like the caliphate, to trigger a limited uptick in regional militancy. Indonesian veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad played an important role in inspiring the 1990s-2000s wave of militancy in Indonesia. This illustrates the potential for even small numbers of jihadist returnees from the current conflicts to trigger a significant increase in domestic militancy.

In the Middle East itself, the small numbers of Southeast Asian fighters are unlikely to significantly alter the military balance. However, as shown by ISIL’s use of Malaysian and Indonesian suicide bombers in Iraq, foreign volunteers can also bolster groups’ unconventional capabilities, potentially preserving better-trained local Arab fighters for other tasks. That said, available evidence suggests that, so far, most Southeast Asians who are fighting in the region have joined smaller, relatively less extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ajnad al-Sham rather than ISIL, perhaps because these groups have existing, visible, and contactable Southeast Asian members with a strong social media presence. By contrast, Southeast Asian radicals safe in their home countries seem more likely to offer rhetorical verbal support to ISIL, particularly following ISIL’s declaration of a caliphate. The presence of Southeast Asian jihadists in Syria and Iraq may have other impacts, however, as shown by the British jihadists’ video references to a Cambodian volunteer. Exotic foreign fighters can be used to powerfully reinforce jihadist narratives that Muslims worldwide are rallying selflessly to the jihadist cause. It is therefore quite possible that the appearance of Southeast Asians in Syria and Iraq may prompt more radicalization in third countries than in their home nations.

James Brandon is an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in London and is the former Director of Research at the Quilliam Foundation. He presently works in Singapore for an international risk consultancy.

[1] “Americans Among 12,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria: US,” Agence France-Presse, August 21, 2014.
[2] “ISIL Recruiter in Video Linked to Santoso,” Jakarta Post, August 4, 2014. See also: “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, January 30, 2014.
[3] “Keluarga Besar Ponpes Al Mukmin Bergembira dengan Kesyahidan Alumninya (Al-Mukmin Boarding School rejoices),” Voice of al-Islam, November 30, 2014.
[4] “Indonesian Man’s Death in Iraq Jihad Evokes JI,” The Jakarta Globe, February 20, 2014.
[5] “Rakyat Indonesia sayangkan nyawa jihadis yang tersia-sia,” Khabar South-East Asia, March 14, 2014.
[6] “ISIS Recruitment Video Join the Ranks Urges Indonesian Muslims to migrate to the Islamic State,” ABC (Australia), July 29, 2014.
[7] “Hanzhalah Al-Indunisi, Pelaku Istisyhad Yang Tewaskan Puluhan Tentara Syiah,” Al-Mustaqbel.net, October 12, 2014.
[8] “Abu Bakar Ba’asyir Calls on Followers to Support ISIL,” The Jakarta Post, July 14, 2014.
[9] “Sons, Top Aides Abandon Ba’asyir Over ISIL, Form New Jihadist Group,” The Jakarta Post, August 13, 2014.
[10] “Government Bans Support, Endorsement of ISIL,” The Jakarta Post, August 5, 2014.
[11] “Bekasi Group Swear Allegiance to ISIL,” The Jakarta Post, August 06 2014; “Sons, Top Aides Abandon Ba’asyir Over ISIL, Form New Jihadist Group,” The Jakarta Post, August 13, 2014
[12] “Malaysian Militants Plotted ISIL-Inspired Attacks, Say Police,” The Star Online, August 20, 2014.
[13] “Wisma Putra: 15 Malaysian ISIS Militants Allegedly Killed in Syria,” Malay Mail, June 24, 2014.
[14] “Lotfi On a Do-Or-Die Mission,” The Star Online, June 28, 2014.
[15] Wong Chun Wai, “Of Facebook, Selfies, Jihad and PAS,” The Star (Malaysia), July 1, 2014.
[16] “PAS pecat Lotfi Ariffin yang sertai gerakan bersenjata di Syria, kata Mustafa Ali,” The Malaysian Insider, June 26, 2014; “PAS Leader Labels Fallen Jihadist a Martyr,” The Star Online, September 14, 2014.
[17] “Bank Robbers, ISA Detainee Among Malaysian Jihadists Killed, Wounded in Syria,” Malay Mail, August 22, 2014; “Killed Jihadist was KMM Member,” New Straits Times, August 22, 2014.
[18] “No Going Back to Malaysia,” New Straits Times, June 21, 2014.
[19] “ISIS and the First Malaysian Suicide Bomber,” The Star (Malaysia), June 14, 2014.
[20] “Local Militants Undergo Extensive Training Before They Arrive in Syria,” The Star (Malaysia), June 24, 2014.
[21] “Four Linked to Terrorism Face Rap in 3 Courts,” New Straits Times, May 24, 2014.
[22] See for instance, “Malaysian Jihadists in Syria,” YouTube, June 25, 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFb6sw4UvRg.
[23] “Malaysia Says Putrajaya, Brewery, Discos, Pubs on Militants’ Target List,” The Straits Times, August 16, 2014; “Malaysia Foils Islamic State-Inspired Plot to Bomb Pubs, Discos and Carlsberg Brewery,” South China Morning Post, August 19, 2014.
[24] “Malaysian Militants Bought Bomb Material in Plot to Attack Carlsberg Brewery, Say Cops,” Malay Mail, August 21, 2014.
[25] “Malaysian Militants Plotted ISIL-Inspired Attacks, Say Police,” The Star Online, August 20, 2014.
[26] “Alert raised vs Pinoy ‘jihadists’,” Manila Standard Today, August 10, 2014; “Shaikh Isnilon Hapilon (ASG) Made Bay’ah to ISIS,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCOA97_o1nU.
[27] “BIFF, Abus Pledge Allegiance to ISIS,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 16, 2014.
[28] Arlyn dela Cruz, “More Filipino Militants Fight in Iraq,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 9, 2014.
[29] “Filipino Muslim Fighters Not Training with jihadists: Philippine Military,” Xinhua, August 20, 2014.
[30] “DFA Cannot Monitor Muslim Filipinos Going to Iraq, Syria for Supposed Terror Training,” InterAksyon.com, August 27, 2014.
[31] “Cambodian Jihadists Among Us: ISIS video,” Phnom Penh Post, June 23, 2014.
[32] “Hun Sen Denies ‘Muslim Extremists,’ Pledges Ramadan Funds,” Cambodia Daily, July 19, 2014.
[33] “Japanese Believed Held by Islamic State in Syria Said he Planned to Support Rebels,” Japan Times, August 20. 2014.
[34] See, for example: Joesph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher and Peter R. Neumann, #Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks (London: The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2014).

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