National Security

After Establishing a Presence in Europe, ISIS Sets Its Sights On Asia

“Estimates peg the number of groups pledging allegiance and support to the Islamic State at upwards of 60—60 groups of which many are tied, with stronger relationships growing with each attack.” 

With ISIS meeting defeat in Mosul and momentum with rebel forces countering the group in Syria, the Islamic State is due for a new battleground mainstay. As estimates peg their number of sympathizers in the millions worldwide, it would appear the standard bearer of extremism is not at a dearth of options. Though an outright move from the Middle East isn’t necessarily required, as the group still maintains a semblance of control in parts of Iraq, a look around the globe shows that ISIS has plenty of places to call home.

A review of the group’s sympathizers and attack inspirations in Asia shows ISIS has the chance to leverage an existing terror infrastructure via homegrown cells and capitalize on weak military and security to grow its brand.

Opportunities in Asia will almost undoubtedly flow through the Philippines, most notably Marawi—or, as it’s officially known, the Islamic City of Marawi. No small coincidence that earlier this year after the ISIS banner was raised in corners throughout the Filipino Island. It was the culmination of conflict between the country’s military and extremists sympathetic to ISIS fighting in part to protect the group’s designated amir for Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon (aka Abu Abdullah al-Filipini). His prominence within the ISIS international hierarchy grew from his concurrent role as a senior leader with the Abu Sayyaf group—that is the group of “the bearer of the sword.”

It is this area that mimics in some respects the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan (FATA), where al-Qaeda’s core leadership has taken safe haven for years.

Though small in numbers, Abu Sayyaf is thought by many in the know to be one of the most violent in the region. Its roots are steeped in Islamic extremism, and its leaders have touted Osama Bin Laden as their greatest inspiration. They have also received support by way of funding from the likes of al-Qaeda, but their brand of barbarism these days appears to fit in nicely with ISIS, making them a worthy and dangerous franchisee. They are not alone either, mind you, with ISIS having other formal affiliates whose bona fidas have gained prominence this summer via attacks that have left innocent people dead and a feckless military further weakened.

In the short term, with the backing of ISIS, these groups will be further emboldened to conduct more kidnapping for ransom operations—the kinds that if demands are not met almost always end in the murder of the victims. And they will be poised to continue expansion throughout the lawless tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

It is this area that mimics in some respects the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan (FATA), where al-Qaeda’s core leadership has taken safe haven for years. Book-ended by the Philippines and Indonesia with Malaysia sitting in between, this part of Southeast Asia has seen innocent lives lost at the hands of terrorists who originate from within and also have gone to fight abroad, most notably in Syria, where it is believed at least one of the more higher-profile attacks in the last year was directed by a Malaysian ISIS fighter.

The success and support for extremist groups in these countries in particular stems from the common cast of characters that make for a recipe for terrorism and lawlessness: poverty, government corruption, and limited access to fundamental resources, just to name a few. Much of this has led to millions of displaced natives, many of whom become disenfranchised with the lack of government of support and the high degree of corruption. As a result, and as it has done in places like Africa, ISIS offshoots and allies have capitalized on what was a growing rebellion by the citizenry. And now, the movement has morphed into an all-out pursuit of a caliphate.

The marching orders to boots on the ground by ISIS leadership have identified this as the goal. And indications are that it’s being met with widespread appeal among those already inflicting terror throughout the region. Estimates peg the number of groups pledging allegiance and support to the Islamic State at upwards of 60—60 groups of which many are tied, with stronger relationships growing with each attack. The increased coordination by way of logistical support, personnel sharing, and funding will no doubt yield applause from the ones in the Middle East to whom they have sworn allegiance.

Brandon Blackburn

Brandon Blackburn is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer. During his time in the CIA, Blackburn served multiple tours in the Middle East; including Iraq, Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Since departing the agency, Blackburn co-founded Tip Of The Spear Productions and Consulting, where he and his team work on media productions aimed at telling the stories of law enforcement and military and also consults with law enforcement and private businesses on national security related issues. Additionally, he is a Consulting Producer for “Live PD” on A&E and co-hosts and produces the Talking Terrorism Podcast, along with reformed terrorist Mubin Shaikh. Blackburn also holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business.

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