Asians, Australians among foreign fighters in Iraq

Asians, Australians among foreign fighters in Iraq
In this still from a video posted on YouTube an ISIS fighter claiming to be a former Indonesian soldier calls on Indonesians to join the fight.

Dozens of Asian and Australian fighters have joined foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria to support insurgent groups, experts and officials have disclosed recently in statements that are heightening concerns over their likely ramifications for the Asia-Pacific region.

Recent arrests and revelations have highlighted the involvement of groups from Malaysia and Indonesia with the leading Iraqi hardline group - the Islamic State in Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) which is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The group has been rapidly increasing areas under its control in Iraq after controlling vast swathes of Syria including oilfields in the eastern part of the country.

But regional analysts say many more South Asians will be involved as well, while Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Wednesday said that nearly 150 Australians had trained with militants in the Middle East.

Areas of Conflict

"I had intelligence briefing from agencies this (Wednesday) morning and (the) best estimate is that there are about 150" fighters from Australia who either have fought or are fighting "with opposition groups in Syria and beyond", Ms Bishop told ABC radio, calling the number "extraordinary".

"In Syria, it seems that over a period of time they have moved from supporting more moderate opposition groups to the more extreme, and that includes this brutal extremist group ISIS," she said.

While many might been killed in the battles currently being waged in the Middle East, experts warn of the consequences once the remaining members return battle hardened and keen to put their acquired skills to use.

Few have forgotten how hundreds of fighters from Asia trained with Al-Qaeda and the Taleban and fought the Soviets in Afghanistan some years ago. A few then returned to strengthen and train new recruits of militant groups taking shape in South and South-east Asia and elsewhere, among them the regional group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which was behind the Bali bombings and several other plots.

Besides, ISIS has already gained a reputation for being deadlier than Al-Qaeda. Such has been its savagery, ruthless killing of Shi'ites in Iraq and its bid to take over the Al-Qaeda outfit in Syria - called the Nusra Front - that it forced Al-Qaeda's general command to issue a statement in February this year declaring that ISIS was not part of Al-Qaeda.

The denouncement notwithstanding, ISIS has been making headway, gaining control over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown which is just over 140km from Baghdad. Iraq's key strategic asset, the Baiji oilfield, was also taken over by the insurgents. And such has been ISIS' gains that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has requested Washington to launch air strikes against the Sunni militants. US President Barack Obama for now has sent 300 US military advisers to gauge the situation.

But observers say that the gains by ISIS is not entirely a surprise given the strategic manner in which it has been progressing under its current emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who took over in 2010. Its bid to take over oilfields in Syria has given the group financial muscle. Arrests and seizures also point to meticulous planning by a core group of members enabling the group to build its capabilities.

ISIS has also been on a campaign to revitalise the group by inducting younger recruits. And such has been its appeal that it has attracted many foreign fighters. Estimates of the strength of ISIS range from 6,000 to 12,000, with some observers saying that at least a third of the group is now made up of militants who do not hail from Iraq or Syria, the two strife-torn countries, where it has a strong base.

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