There are growing signs of support for the Islamic State group in the southern Philippines, despite assertions by Manila that militants in the region are little more than criminal gangs.
It fits a pattern of increased alarm in other parts of Southeast Asia, where analysts say poverty and the manipulation of Islam for politics or profit are leaven for the jihadi movement.
“They are trying to create a mini-Islamic State in Southeast Asia, all the way from [northern Indonesia’s] Aceh to the southern Philippines, and that will take in Malaysia as well,” said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
The latest warning from the Philippines is from an individual whose interfaith dialogue mission helped to bring about the Mindanao peace process.
The Rev. Sebastiano D’Ambra, an Italian priest, said the situation in the region is now “alarming” and it may be difficult to keep a lid on the jihadis.
“They are spreading here,” D’Ambra said by phone from the city of Zamboanga. “God knows what will happen next. Everybody is trying to maintain control of the situation, but I am afraid that sometime, in some way, it will go out of control.”
An Internet video that emerged this month purported to show the merger of four Philippine militant groups under allegiance to the Islamic State. It declared that they would establish a province under Shariah rule.
On Wednesday, a Philippine intelligence official discounted the claim, saying local militants are “only interested in making money.”
“What we have in the south are pure criminals hiding behind IS masks to gain prominence and raise more ransom money,” the individual said, using one of several abbreviations for the Islamic State group.
Many analysts dispute this assessment, noting that hundreds of Malays and Indonesians in particular are reported to have traveled to Syria.
Faced with such numbers, the Islamic State has created a special unit for them, the Nusantara Brigade, and has released recruitment materials in the Malay language.
Now the tide may be moving the other way.
“At the end of last year, the top leadership sent a message out telling its supporters . . . they should start their own campaigns in their home countries,” said Chin, the analyst.
Authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia acknowledge the threat. Security forces there have reported breaking up cells or learning of planned attacks.
In a New Year’s message, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told his nation the Islamic State threat is not limited to Syria and northern Iraq.
“The battle against radicalization and against those that blaspheme the name of Islam with their barbarities must also be fought here in Malaysia, not just in the Middle East,” Razak said.
Some analysts accuse Malaysian politicians of inadvertently fueling the problem by invoking Islam for nationalistic ends in a bid to create a Malay Islamic state and not a pan-ethnic theocracy.
“The irony is, the Islamic State has actually told its supporters to target the Muslim governments,” Chin said. “The IS considers these governments ‘kaffirs,’ nonbelievers, so they are targeting them first.”
In the southern Philippines, some analysts say Manila is in a bind because it cannot send troops to an area that enjoys autonomy under a March 2014 accord.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is discussing the threat.
On Jan. 25, Japan and Malaysia will co-host an ASEAN workshop in Kuala Lumpur to consider a regional response to Islamic State and possible approaches to de-radicalization. Japan hosted a similar ASEAN event in Tokyo in 2013.
“Southeast Asian countries are right to focus on the threat from ISIS in the face of mounting evidence that their ideological influence is growing in the region,” said analyst Anthony Measures of the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, a unit of the London-based Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
“But the challenge for Southeast Asia must be seen in a global context. The defeat of ISIS, and whoever picks up their ideological mantle if they are destroyed, will require long-term policies to counter the ideas that inspire and drive the violence.”
In the long term, the viability of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia may be dependent on what happens in the Middle East, said the University of Tasmania’s Chin. So long as the group controls territory there, it will retain a hold on imaginations elsewhere.
“As long as the conflict in the Middle East remains unresolved, I don’t see a way out,” he said.
Information from Reuters added