Convulsions in Syria are raising fears of a new surge of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants flowing out of the deserts of the Middle East and into the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Turkey’s ongoing offensive against Kurdish rebels in Syria threatens to free an estimated 750 detained ISIS fighters with Southeast Asian origins, including some 700 Indonesians and 50 Malaysians, as well as their potentially radicalized spouses and children.
As many as 100 ISIS detainees have escaped so far amid reports of riots and jail breaks in Kurdish detainee centers, according to a conservative estimate by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Southeast Asian security agencies, including in the Philippines, where scores of Muslim militant groups have pledged varying degrees of allegiance to ISIS, are now bracing for another large-scale return of jihadists trained and hardened in Syria.
A previous wave out of the Middle East and into the southern Philippines contributed ISIS fighters who were instrumental in the 2017 siege of Marawi, a months-long battle that laid ruin to the country’s only Muslim majority city.
It took a combined effort by the Philippine military and key allies, including the United States and Australia, to end the siege.
There are rising concerns that remnants of the ISIS-affiliated elements in the area – and across Mindanao – will benefit from the group’s resurgence in Syria.
Since last year, ISIS fighter returnees have conducted several suicide bombings across the Philippines and Indonesia, mainly targeting Christian churches and communities in apparent hope of sowing sectarian divisions.
An ISIS operative was also behind the apparent October 9 assassination plot against Indonesia’s top security official Wiranto, who suffered severe stab wounds in a lone wolf surprise attack.
Indonesian national ISIS operatives have been involved in several terrorist attacks in the Philippines, including a lethal suicide bombing attack on a Catholic Church in Jolo earlier this year.
Since the 1980s, Southeast Asia has served as a second front for transnational jihadists seeking to hit Western targets and establish militant strongholds outside of the Middle East.
While Al Qaeda terror group elements previously set up training camps across the region, including in central Mindanao, Islamic State has announced its intent to establish a wilayat, or province, in East Asia.
America’s abandonment of its Kurdish allies, who played a key role in the coalition forces’ victory against ISIS in recent years, has raised new doubts over the Donald Trump administration’s understanding and commitment to Southeast Asia’s terrorism-related security.
Turkey’s offensive in Syria, which appeared to have been initially green-lighted by the Trump administration, is targeting Kurdish separatist groups in the Syrian region of Rojava. It’s not clear that an announced US-Turkey ceasefire on Thursday will do anything to stop the armed hostilities.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the ultimate goal is to create a “safe zone” 20 miles deep from its border with northern Syria, where Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) predominate.
Though Ankara has accused the SDF of links to the Turkey-based Kurdish insurgency, especially the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey, much of the world had welcomed the Kurdish fighters as a bulwark against ISIS.
SDF forces have been at forefront of wresting back territories formerly held by ISIS, as well as detaining an estimated 13,000 of their fighters and families, among them hundreds of Southeast Asians, as part of post-conflict counterterrorism operations.
The ongoing Turkish-led invasion has made the release of these detainees and their flight for safe havens further afield, including as recent history shows into Southeast Asia, likelier by the day.
“It’s a zone where ISIS fighters are concentrated, they are still being held by Kurdish military groups,” warned Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support has been instrumental to the Bashar Hafez al-Assad regime’s battlefield victories.
“Now the Turkish army is going in, the Kurds are leaving these camps, and the ISIS fighters inside can just escape. I’m not sure if the Turkish army can take [the fighters] under their control.”
Trump reportedly dismissed such concerns, claiming most dangerous fighters have been placed in “other areas where it’s secure” and that others are “going to be escaping to Europe.”
On October 12, there was breakout in one of the ISIS detention camps, known as Ain Issa, at which as many as 800 suspected fighters and their families were set loose.
“There is a possibility they will escape and go to a third country or return to Malaysia. If they return to Malaysia, it is highly likely they will recruit new members and launch attacks,” warned Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Malaysian police force’s special branch counterterrorism division.
“Of the 65 Malaysians [in northern Syria], 11 are ISIS fighters currently in prison,” the police director added, stating that as many as 40 of them have expressed interest in returning home. So far 11 Malaysians have returned from Syria, with eight of them convicted or still facing trial on terrorism-related charges.
“The latest fighting is going to make it so much more difficult for us to repatriate our citizens,” Ayob added.
Others have warned that the terror group could get a new propaganda boost that fuels further radicalization among its Southeast Asian sympathizers if the families of Islamic State fighters were targeted with violence in Syria.
There are reportedly as many as 70,000 displaced wives and children of suspected Islamic State fighters in camps across northern Syria, according to news reports.
“From the very beginning the real and most immediate threat has been from ISIS supporters who never went to Syria,” Sidney Jones of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a think tank, said to regional media.
“If people get slaughtered in camps that becomes the new narrative and it is particularly powerful if it is women and children who are killed,” said Jones.
“It will just strengthen the ISIS narrative of persecution and hatred and give new justification for waging war.”