The long arm of Islamic radicalism

The long arm of Islamic radicalism

This year, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is seen as the primary threat arising from Islamic radicalism. It has rapidly overtaken Al-Qaeda in international coverage and in the attention paid by governments around the world, including South-east Asia. Yet, ISIS, which is also known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic State (IS), did not exist three years ago.

It now controls large stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria, mounts a sophisticated social media campaign and elicits pledges of loyalty worldwide, far from its roots in the brutal civil war in Syria.

The rise of ISIS reflects the bitter Sunni/Shi'ite sectarian conflict in the Middle East. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad's military and intelligence services, Iraq's Shi'ite Islamist militias, Lebanon's Hizbollah - strongly supported by Iran - confronted Syria's Sunni Arab opposition.

The conflict was rapidly brutalised and internationalised as foreign Sunni radicals joined the struggle, with the Al-Nusra Front emerging as the centre of Al-Qaeda activity in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Nouri al-Maliki administration marginalised Sunni tribes.

The result was the rapid ISIS takeover of Iraq's four Sunni Arab provinces. That followed the earlier seizure of Sunni-majority areas in Syria and the proclamation of a worldwide caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph and the establishment of the Islamic State on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, on June 29 last year.

The United States and its partners decided to intervene through air strikes and training of the Iraqi military after the execution of an American hostage, journalist James Foley, in August.

ISIS versus Al-Qaeda

ISIS and Al-Qaeda had split in February last year, leading to similar splits among supporters globally. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS controls and administers territory and does not focus only on spectacular acts of violence. It has used former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's military officers and bureaucrats as well as foreign Islamist experts to build the rudiments of a functioning administration. The proclamation of a caliphate is a powerful tool in attracting adherents as it establishes a claim to global Islamic authority, recalling the glory of Islam's seventh-century legacy.

Last year was marked by a higher level of Islamist activity in South-east Asia because of the rise of ISIS. Rivalry between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS was replicated in the region.

In Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and the Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia rejected Baghdadi's claim to be the caliph as he was self-proclaimed and not selected by a council while ISIS was an organisation, not a state, and could not be a caliphate.

However, the imprisoned JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir pledged his allegiance to the caliphate.

That split his own organisation Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid, with a majority of members - including Bashir's sons - breaking away to form Jamaah Anshorul Syariah.

Leading militants such as the Poso-based Santoso of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur and the imprisoned cleric Aman Abdurrahman backed ISIS.

Radical university students and IT-literate younger Indonesians were also influenced by the well-crafted YouTube videos and online messages produced by the ISIS information machinery.

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