Has the Shifting Islamic State Threat Bypassed India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on IS suspects at home, but India has opted not to formally join the US-led global anti-IS coalition (Image Source: US DoD)

Since first bursting into global consciousness in mid-2014 as they rampaged through Iraq – and later Syria – the militants of the Islamic State (IS) have looked to extend their reach eastward across Asia. The notorious jihadist group has since gone on to establish some form of presence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The group has also tried repeatedly to make inroads into India in recent years – but after a smattering of low-profile attacks and other IS-linked incidents threatened briefly to grow into something larger, this traction appears to have stalled.

India – a melting pot of cultures and religions encircled by terrorist-affected Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Bangladesh to the east – appears at first glance to be in an ideal geographical location for IS to infiltrate, with segments of its population ripe for exploitation with its extremist ideological mantra. Yet India has experienced very little jihadist activity since the emergence of IS four years ago, despite its large population of 1.3 billion, of which an estimated 180 million are Muslims. With the risk so-far averted and as IS weakens further as a global force, is India free from the latest jihadi scourge?

Background: concerns over IS-linked activities in India

The first signs of IS activity in India emerged in May 2014, when four young engineering students from Thane – near Mumbai – were reported by local media to have travelled to Iraq to fight with the group. Since then, two terror attacks in India have been linked to IS, amid sporadic reports of recruitment in some areas of the country. The first of these occurred in December of that year, when an explosion outside a restaurant in central Bangalore killed one person and left four others injured. Several men linked to homegrown militant group Indian Mujahideen were arrested but links between the suspects and IS could not be proven, despite speculation. A second bomb attack however was claimed by IS on 7 March 2017, when a powerful explosion ripped through a passenger train on the Bhopal-Ujjain line near Jabri railway station. The attack left ten civilians injured, and marked the first terrorist attack in India with definite links to IS. Police soon identified the perpetrators as belonging to a local jihadi cell spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, making at least seven arrests in the days which followed. The alleged mastermind of the attack – named in media reports as Saifullah – was killed during a siege at his home with elite police counter-terrorism officers in the city of Lucknow.

These attacks appear minor when compared to the scale of the marauding three-day gun rampage in Mumbai in November 2008, which left at least 174 people dead, including 20 members of the security forces and 26 foreign tourists. More than 300 people were also injured during the assault, which sent shockwaves across the country and is often referred to as India’s 9/11. The onslaught was carried-out by ten Islamist militants from the radical Lashkar-e-Taiba group based next door in Pakistan, harming relations and igniting concern from India over the alleged safe-haven provided to terrorists in Pakistan.

While the threat from across the border has been clearly visible since 2008, the internal risk posed by IS has in India remained largely hidden below the surface. The Brookings Institution went some way to exposing the magnitude of this threat in a report last year, documenting the number of reported IS sympathizers – consisting of recruiters, supporters, propagandists and suspected terrorists – present in the country. The investigation revealed that 142 Indian citizens were affiliated with the jihadi group in some way, with the annual figure increasing during 2013-2016 before levelling-out in 2017. It was revealed that the majority came from relatively prosperous states in the south of the country such as Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The report’s authors concluded that the number of IS-linked individuals was very small in comparison to other countries affected by the group. Based on this evidence, IS appears to have made little progress in swaying Indian citizens to its support its cause.

To what extent does IS pose a threat to India at present?

IS’ initial ambitions were to forge a concrete presence in the world’s largest democracy – the group even included India on a map of its desired caliphate back in 2014, and in some literature considered it part of its ‘Khorasan province’ encompassing the south Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Propaganda efforts also focused on India, with a video released in May 2016 threatening the nation’s leaders and appealing to India’s 180 million Muslims to either travel to the caliphate or launch attacks at home. The slickly-produced video – featuring an Indian ‘foreign fighter’ and allegedly filmed in the Syrian province of Homs – warned IS would come to India to avenge injustices committed against the sizeable Muslim-minority population. The man in the video – named as Abu Salman al-Hindi – referred to sectarian rioting in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by mobs in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindus. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of inaction as state governor at the time. The independence struggle in Kashmir was also mentioned as justification for targeting India, along with the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Indian security forces dismantled an IS cell active in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh after a train bombing injured 10 civilians in March 2017 (Image Source: US DoD)

Despite these warnings, the lofty ambitions of maintaining a permanent presence on the ground and incorporating India into some kind of imagined IS super-caliphate have not even come close to being realised. Instead, the main threat has turned out to be from online recruitment and self-radicalization. As mentioned earlier, Kerala and other prosperous southwestern states have been worst-affected, with individuals and small groups of citizens becoming radicalized by extremist ideology disseminated online and through mobile platforms. Websites on the so-called ‘dark web’, social media sites and encrypted messaging apps have served as particularly useful mediums of communication for jihadis seeking to reach out to Indians. A single online recruiter – identified by intelligence agencies as Shafi Armar, or Yusuf-al-Hindi – has been linked to the majority of known cases of radicalization, while rogue Islamic centres and schools may also have played a role in providing a platform for extremist ideology. Radical preachers appearing on television and online platforms represent another area of concern for the authorities. The most prominent controversial preacher – Zakir Naik – has been accused by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) of encouraging unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.

What measures has India taken to combat the threat?

Indian politicians have consistently denied that IS has an established presence in the country but have often warned of the seriousness of the threat posed by the group. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the ‘radicalization of youth’ as a particular concern; but said India had so-far been successful in dismantling ‘modules that were planning to orchestrate terrorist attacks’ on its soil. Singh added that the ‘shift’ of jihadi networks linked to IS and al-Qaeda ‘from the Middle East to south Asia is a phenomenon which is of serious concern to India’. Singh also expressed confidence in the ability of the Indian authorities to combat the lingering threat, stating: ‘the Indian social fabric has not been affected by the emergence of IS – and I am sure this will not have any further impact in our country’.

This confidence appears to be well-founded, given the authorities’ record of cracking-down effectively on the activities of IS sympathizers. Several years ago, the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IIB) launched Operation Chakravyuh, designed to identify and entrap potential IS recruits online before they could be radicalized fully. Intelligence officers created social media accounts posing as IS recruiters, through which they interacted with more than 3,000 unassuming Indian youths seeking to join the global jihadi movement. The operatives were able to gather information related to the identity of the individuals concerned, which was then used to monitor and impose surveillance on targets and track the activities of emerging terrorist cells. It is thought that this initiative led to the arrest of multiple suspects before they were able to either travel abroad to join IS or carry-out attacks at home. The NIA and local police forces have also played a key role in conducting investigations and launching raids to arrest suspects. The Brookings Institution reported last year that 85 of 142 known IS suspects at the time had been detained. At least 11 others had been confirmed killed either while fighting abroad or during police operations in India, while many of the remaining 43 individuals were also reported to have been killed.

The national police and state intelligence services are also looking to improve their capabilities further, having recently taken part in a new two-day workshop with the EU aimed at countering radicalization online. The NIA has stressed the importance of closer global co-operation in this area, describing the internet and social media as ‘the main vehicles used by extremists and terrorist organizations to incite violence and sow hatred…and allow them to reach a far greater number of people than ever before’.

Future forecast: how might the threat from IS evolve?

Aside from the online sphere, several other areas of concern exist when it comes to IS in India. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir may be a particular weak spot, with IS-claimed attacks in the regional capital Srinagar last November and this February exposing the potential for a worrying new dynamic to the conflict. The attacks left two policemen dead, while a militant killed during the first incident was wrapped in an IS flag for his burial. While the attacks appear to have been isolated incidents, they indicate that a small number of IS sympathizers exist in the region, which some observers say could serve as a potential recruitment pool for extremist groups in the future. However, other analysts in the region argue this is unlikely due to the dominantly separatist nature of the long-running Kashmir independence struggle, while most of the armed groups active in the region are openly opposed to IS.

Secondly, sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also be a potential flashpoint. IS often looks to stir up such tensions in all countries where it operates, through its production of literature and audio-visual propaganda materials. A previous video aimed at India has disparaged Hindus as ‘worshippers of cows, trees and the sun’, while encouraging Muslims in the country to disassociate themselves from other religious groups. Prime Minister Modi’s alleged failure to take stronger action as state governor in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, along with the Hindu nationalist policies of the current administration, could also increase feelings of marginalization among disenfranchised Muslims and play into the hands of the militants. There also remains the dual risk of low-tech, small-scale lone-wolf attacks along with the threat of larger attacks from militants based across borders in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Such an eventuality has happened before, in Mumbai in 2008.

The need for continued vigilance against IS

India – as one of the world’s most populous and religiously diverse countries, located in the heart of a volatile region long-beset by problems related to Islamist militancy – has so-far been remarkably unscathed by IS. Yet as the group continues to lose territory in its former Middle Eastern strongholds of Syria and Iraq, it may yet attempt to open up new fronts to ensure its survival. This is less likely to be in the form of a fixed caliphate, but more likely something more akin to the loose global terrorist network developed by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. As authorities around the world crack-down on the group’s activities, remote and long-volatile regions such as Kashmir may become an attractive option for IS. At first glance this appears unlikely, yet there is an existing precedent for such a scenario. Last year on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, IS was able to infiltrate and manipulate a decades-old insurgent movement that had previously been purely separatist in nature, to the point where it was able to take over and rule parts of a mid-sized city – Marawi – under the black flag of IS for almost six months. A similar scenario in Kashmir is just as unlikely; but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, along with India’s intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, will need to remain vigilant and on high alert even as IS’ global influence continues to wane. Although fading, IS’ ambitions for south Asia are not yet dead. Complacency at this stage from India – or any state around the world which appears to have avoided IS’ scourge – would be very dangerous.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

Indonesia Launches Anti-Terror Crackdown After Surabaya Church Bombings

Since the ISIS-inspired triple suicide bombings in Surabaya on 13 May, elite counter-terrorism police have detained more than 70 alleged militants across Indonesia (Image Source: AWG97)

A spate of suicide bomb attacks on three churches and the police headquarters in the Indonesian city of Surabaya last month shocked the country and made headlines around the world. The attacks came less than a week after more than 150 Islamist militant convicts laid siege to a prison on the outskirts of Jakarta, killing five police officers and exposing the growing threat posed to Indonesia by ISIS and its affiliates. This report provides an overview of the major terrorist incidents that shook the country last month and discusses the response of both Indonesia’s lawmakers and law enforcement agencies.

After avoiding a major Islamist attack for more than two years – since the ISIS-claimed gun and bomb attack on Jakarta’s Thamrin business district killed four civilians in January 2016 – signs of increased militant activity first rose to the surface on 8 May, when armed clashes broke-out between convicted terrorists and police officers at a high-security prison in Depok, near the Indonesian capital Jakarta. The situation quickly escalated into a tense two-day siege, resulting in the death of five police officers and one militant. The siege eventually came to an end after officers from the elite police counter-terrorism unit – Detachment 88 – stormed the prison in an attempt to free hostages, triggering the militants’ surrender. Soon after the incident, President Joko Widodo said the state would ‘never give space to terrorism or any effort to undermine national security’. However, worse was still to come.

On 13 May, suicide bombers linked to the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militant group detonated their devices at three Christian churches in the East Java city of Surabaya, killing at least 13 people and leaving in excess of 30 wounded. ISIS soon claimed responsibility for the attack, and authorities later revealed that all six of the attackers came from the same family, several of whom were young children. The following morning, another five suicide bombers blew themselves up nearby at the city’s police headquarters, leaving ten people wounded. As with the first incident, the attack was again carried-out by a single family. On 16 May, a third attack occurred in the space of just three days when four men wielding samurai swords attacked a police station in the city of Pekanbaru, in Riau province. A police officer was killed and three others injured, while all four of the attackers were shot dead at the scene.

The wave of attacks shocked Indonesia and its neighbours, despite Southeast Asian countries having already been on a raised state of alert since last year’s siege of Marawi in the Philippines and amid fears of ISIS fighters returning from war zones in the Middle East. However, the unexpectedly large scale and nature of the attacks – in the sense that children were used – heightened the shock factor.

In the wake of the turbulent few days endured in mid-May, Indonesia’s authorities have been swift to respond. In a direct response to the siege at the prison in Depok, police announced that all of the 155 militants involved would be transferred to a maximum-security detention facility on Nusakambangan island in Central Java. In the weeks immediately following the attacks in Surabaya and Pekanbaru, officers from the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism squad launched a series of raids across the nation. On 22 May, national police chief Tito Karnavian announced that 74 suspects had been arrested in the previous ten days, adding that officers had seized ‘ready-made bombs and other explosive materials’.

After a recent surge in Islamist attacks, Indonesia’s armed forces are set to play a greater role in counter-terrorism operations alongside the national police (Image Source: Kurniawan3115)

In some instances, militants tried to resist arrest, resulting in several armed skirmishes and fatalities. On 10 May two jihadists attempting to join the prison siege in Depok were shot by police officers after attempting to seize their weapons in Bekasi, leaving one dead while the other sustained injuries and was later taken into custody. On 14 May two suspects were killed by police in Sidoarjo after opening fire on officers. Two days later a militant was shot dead in Tanjung Balai in similar circumstances. Of the 74 people arrested, Karnavian said most had ties to JAD while at least 37 of the suspects were linked to the Surabaya bombings. Describing the police response, Karnavian said on 31 May that his force had ‘moved fast’ to ‘identify the perpetrators’ and restore a semblance of stability in the country.

President Widodo condemned the attacks as ‘barbaric’, labelling the actions of the perpetrators as ‘cowardly’. Widodo also urged lawmakers to push through a raft of new counter-terrorism legislation which was first proposed after the Thamrin attack in early-2016 but has since faced repeated hurdles in Parliament. The national police chief also echoed the need for tougher anti-terror measures, with Karnavian requesting assistance from the army to conduct joint operations targeting JAD and several other domestic ISIS-inspired militant groups, such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT). Less than a week after the attacks, President Widodo confirmed that he would reactivate the military’s Joint Special Operations Command – known as Koopsusgab – to aid the police in counter-terrorism operations. A greater role for Indonesia’s armed forces in tackling terrorism now appears certain as public opinion has shifted in the wake of the sudden resurgence in jihadist violence.

In the final days of May, lawmakers in Jakarta passed the new counter-terrorism laws first proposed more than two years ago. The new legislation is set to give the authorities enhanced and wide-ranging powers to arrest and question suspected terrorists at an earlier stage in investigations. Police will now be permitted to detain terror suspects for up to 21 days, increased from the previous limit of seven. Officers will also be able to apply for an extension if more time is required. Prosecuting authorities will now also be able to charge individuals suspected of either supporting or recruiting for both foreign and domestic militant groups. Sentences are also set to be increased for those convicted, including lengthy jail terms and the death penalty for those found guilty of the most serious terrorism offences.

The attacks by Islamist militants in Surabaya and Pekanbaru expose the growing threat posed to the country by ISIS and its regional affiliates: JAD, JAT, MIT and the remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). A secondary threat also emanates from so-called ‘lone wolves’, who may strike at any moment using unsophisticated weapons such as knives or vehicles. These low-tech attacks require little planning and are notoriously difficult for the intelligence services to prevent. At present, Indonesia is facing a dual threat from both homegrown jihadists and foreign fighters returning from conflict zones in ISIS’ former heartlands in Syria and Iraq. Just a few weeks ago, President Widodo’s Chief-of-Staff revealed that almost 1,500 Indonesian citizens have attempted to travel to the Middle East to fight alongside ISIS and other extremist groups in recent years – and many of them succeeded in their aim. Of these, 590 are thought to remain in Syria while 103 have been killed and 86 have already returned of their own accord. In addition, more than 500 were forcibly deported back to Indonesia while 171 others have been prevented from leaving the country after suspicions that they intended to take up arms overseas.

These figures may represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the threat posed by Islamist militants in Indonesia, a country which has until recently done a remarkable job in keeping the jihadists at bay. In the current climate however, the task for intelligence and law enforcement agencies has become far more difficult. Despite the wave of arrests and introduction of new counter-terrorism laws since the attacks last month, it may be many years before Indonesia can turn the tide on its rising militancy.

Almost a Year on from ISIS, Marawi’s Displaced Residents Face a Long Wait to Return Home

Many of Marawi’s former residents remain displaced across Mindanao. The city’s central Banggolo area remains off-limits while the military works to clear unexploded bombs and war materials left behind from the conflict. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Five months since President Duterte declared Marawi city ‘liberated from terrorist influence’ after the slaying of militant leaders Isnilon Haplion and Omar Maute during the final throes of battle, the vast majority of the city’s war-weary former residents have not yet been able to return to their homes.

More than 200,000 of Marawi’s inhabitants remain displaced and are at the epicentre of what has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, which is beginning to foster an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair among the resilient but increasingly forlorn community of Marawian evacuees.

The exiled are desperate to resume their lives and begin the slow process of rebuilding everything they have lost, yet the path ahead appears uncertain, dangerous and littered with obstacles.

The government says the full reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi could take up to four years to complete, whilst the flattened streets of the city centre remain littered with unexploded ordnance. The scale of devastation across the war-ravaged city makes a return to normality a distant prospect.

In the interim, the prolonged marginalization and disenfranchisement of Marawi’s exiled community could create fertile ground for recruitment by ISIS in the areas of western Mindanao worst-affected by the displacement crisis. Should the government be doing more?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge. More than 353,000 people from around 77,000 families were displaced by the five-month war which pitted government forces against jihadists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups. The vast majority fled during the early days of the conflict after militants took the authorities by surprise and over-ran the city on 23 May last year, leaving only around 2,000 civilians stranded in areas of heavy fighting. Several-hundred were taken hostage by the Mautes.

Most internally-displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge in the nearby provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, with smaller numbers residing in Misamis Oriental and South Cotabato. The majority of those who fled have stayed with friends or relatives, yet tens-of-thousands more have been forced to seek shelter in cramped conditions in hastily-established state-run temporary evacuation centres.

The military initially hoped to defeat the jihadists within a few weeks, but as residents anxiously waited for news the conflict ran-on for five long months as the city was reduced to rubble through intense ground battles and sustained aerial bombardment. The scale of devastation was immense, as security forces engaged in some of the heaviest fighting witnessed in the Philippines since World War Two.

Whilst the small number of civilians trapped in the conflict zone endured a desperate daily battle for survival, dodging bullets and launching daring attempts to escape from their captors, those who had already managed to flee to safety were confronted with a new set of dire challenges.

In overcrowded evacuation centres, health became a major concern as cases of fever, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses soared. Inadequate sanitation facilities increased the risk of waterborne diseases, whilst safe drinking water was in short supply. Dwindling food supplies led to a rise in malnutrition among the elderly and young children, many of whom remain out of education as twenty of Marawi’s 69 schools were totally destroyed. Most other schools suffered extensive damage and remain closed.

The sheer extent of the unfolding humanitarian emergency overwhelmed local authorities, who were ill-prepared to cope with the burgeoning crisis. The siege of Marawi not only destroyed homes but also jobs, livelihoods and entire communities, prompting a sudden exodus with little prior warning.

Some families from the outer-regions of the city were able to return home in the weeks immediately following the ‘termination of military operations’ in the city by the armed forces in late-October. A few thousand others have been moved to temporary resettlement villages built by the government, the largest of which is in Sagonsongan and will eventually be able to accommodate 4,600 families.

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants from the radical Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi on 23 May 2017. The authorities were initially taken aback at the scale of the assault, and it took almost five months for the Philippine military to retake the city. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Yet the majority of Marawians remain displaced. According to the latest figures released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only 87,306 individuals from 16,930 families have returned to Marawi so-far, leaving another 266,615 residents from 53,323 families still without a home.

Contamination of the main battle area with IEDs planted by the militants and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from military air raids presents the most immediate barrier to return. Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBN), the multi-agency group set-up by the government to co-ordinate the rehabilitation effort, is currently working alongside military engineers to clear the hard-hit central Banggolo area.

As of the end of December, TFBN said 30% of the area had been cleared with the army having removed 2,853 items of UXO and 415 IEDs from the ruins. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner says clearing operations in the area, which covers 24 of the city’s 96 villages, are scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Even then it will not be safe for residents to return permanently, only to pay a fleeting visit.

The government estimates that full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city will take up to four years and cost PHP50bn, yet some have predicted the final bill will surpass PHP150bn. International organizations such as the World Bank and foreign governments including Australia, China, Japan and the US have all pledged financial support, whilst President Duterte has allocated an initial PHP10bn for the rehabilitation of Marawi in this year’s budget. Despite these commitments, little can be done to speed up recovery and get residents home sooner.

More however could be done to support Marawi’s displaced inhabitants while they are living in a state of flux. Nine months after the siege began host families are still struggling with the burden of care, whilst the basic needs of many IDPs staying in evacuation centres are still not being met. It is now clear that most evacuees will not be able to return home for years, prompting calls for greater support.

In the present void, resentment and anger are rising. This could play directly into the hands of the very people who drove Marawi’s residents from their homes. The Philippine military has already voiced concerns over radicalization in the provinces surrounding Marawi, warning that ISIS-linked groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and remnants of the Maute group are actively seeking to recruit new fighters, first targeting young men from the most marginalized communities.

Marawi’s residents are eager to return home, but their city has been reduced to rubble and large parts of it will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The conflict will leave lasting scars not only on the landscape, but also in the minds of those who witnessed the horrors inflicted by ISIS and those who have lived through its aftermath in desperate conditions.

By extending Martial Law until the end of 2018 and looking to bolster the military’s presence in Mindanao, as well as reaffirming his commitment to pass a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the south, President Duterte is at least attempting to ensure that the siege of Marawi is not repeated elsewhere in the region whilst concurrently dealing a blow to ISIS’ recruitment ambitions.

Yet with an eye on securing peace for the future, Duterte’s administration is arguably not doing enough in the present to help Marawi’s displaced residents recover and get their shattered lives back on track. Despite starting the process of rebuilding the city and providing various means of assistance to IDPs, the state’s response has been criticized in some quarters as being too slow and inequitable.

The void is being filled by NGOs and the charitable nature of victims’ friends and families. Yet as time passes and funding dries-up, these additional resources will likely wear thin. Duterte must hope that radical groups are not able to also fill part of the void and take advantage of the situation.

Just like the siege itself, the path home for Marawi’s displaced inhabitants is set to be long, arduous and fraught with setbacks.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

What Underlies the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters’ Campaign of Terror in Western Mindanao?

Since the end of the Marawi siege in October, Philippine troops have been redeployed to take on the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

In the three months since the jihadists of the ISIS-linked Maute group were routed by Philippine troops in Marawi, another radical band of Islamists have risen from the shadows to take their place as the vanguard of ISIS in western Mindanao. Since the five-month siege of Marawi ended in late-October, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) have launched a wave of IED attacks and regularly clashed with security forces, whilst their de-facto leader Esmael Abdulmalik has been touted as a possible replacement for slain Abu Sayyaf militant Isnilon Hapilon as ISIS’ new emir in Southeast Asia.

In the post-Marawi climate of heightened threat awareness, the BIFF’s recent spike in activity has garnered an increased amount of attention not only in the Philippines, but across the wider region. Yet the group has been around for almost a decade and has been involved in high-profile incidents before, notably the Mamasapano clash of January 2015 which left 44 special forces soldiers dead and sent shockwaves throughout the country. The BIFF has also claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in the past, whilst a small cohort of its fighters are thought to have taken part in last year’s Marawi siege.

What underlies the BIFF’s intensified campaign of terror? And how has this previously little-known militant group emerged from being a mere footnote in Mindanao’s long-running armed Islamist insurgency to positioning itself as the last bastion of ISIS’ ambitions to carve out a regional caliphate?

The BIFF has its roots in the decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency which has been fought on the Philippines’ conflict-plagued southern island of Mindanao since the early 1970s. In its initial stages, the insurgency was fought by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founded by Nur Misuari, and later by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) founded by Hashim Salamat, which broke-off from the MNLF in 1981. Both organizations enjoyed support from large sections of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region, which has long suffered from underdevelopment and high rates of poverty in comparison to other parts of the majority-Catholic country, leaving its residents feeling marginalized.

The MNLF and the MILF both started out fighting for a fully-independent state for the Muslim-majority Moro population in the south, leading to a protracted conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths. Yet in recent decades their stance has softened as both groups have turned their attention away from armed struggle and towards peace talks with the government, aimed at securing greater autonomy in the south rather than independence. This shift angered hardline elements within the separatist movement, resulting in the formation of several radical groups to revive the campaign for a fully-independent Muslim state. A breakaway faction of the MNLF – Abu Sayyaf – emerged in 1990 and went on to gain global notoriety after launching a spate of kidnappings in the region and brutally beheading several Western hostages. Twenty years later, in 2010, a second splinter group emerged this time from within the ranks of the MILF, and called itself the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

The BIFF was formed by Ameril Umbra Kato, who was educated in Saudi Arabia and espoused a more radical brand of Islam based on Salafi-Wahhabi ideology, practiced more widely in the Middle East than in Southeast Asia. Frustrated with the MILF’s decision to accept autonomy at the expense of full independence, Kato led around 300 former MILF comrades in a campaign of attacks targeting the military and civilians in rural areas across the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato. The primary aim of the attacks was to disrupt the peace process between the government and the MILF.

Kato was succeeded as leader by Mohammad Ali Tambako after suffering a stroke in 2011, yet Tambako left to establish another militant group two years later. Kato died of natural causes in 2015 and the BIFF appointed Ismael Abubakar as its new figurehead, signalling a new era in which the group separated into factions and became more of a splintered guerrilla organization than a co-ordinated or hierarchical group. The BIFF remains loosely-structured today, and is not thought to have a defined leadership structure or central chain of command.

The BIFF has its roots in Mindanao’s long running Islamist separatist insurgency, but in recent years has fought under the banner of ISIS (Image Source: Keith Bacongco)

Amidst the uncertainty over its direction and leadership, the group had pledged allegiance to ISIS in late-2014. At the time, this was not viewed as a concern by the authorities and was seen as more of an attention-grabbing ploy aimed at aiding recruitment and boosting the group’s profile. This view changed suddenly when in May last year, militants from the ISIS-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups launched a brazen assault on the city of Marawi. The threat from ISIS had become visible, having materialized itself on a large scale in Southeast Asia for the first time. The Marawi crisis led the security forces in Mindanao to take pledges of allegiance to ISIS by smaller militant groups far more seriously.

The jihadists from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf took five months to dislodge. In mid-October, the Philippine military announced the end of the siege after the deaths of militant leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon in the main battle zone. More than 900 militants were killed in total, dealing a serious blow to Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities and virtually destroying the Maute group as a fighting force. Whilst a small number of the BIFF’s members were thought to be present in Marawi, many of the group’s fighters remained in its heartlands elsewhere in western Mindanao. These BIFF fighters now constitute the surviving remnants of ISIS in the southern Philippines, and have taken up the mantle vacated by the Mautes with a renewed sense of purpose and authority.

Since the end of the Marawi siege clashes between government forces and the BIFF have intensified in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato, where the group has its rural strongholds. Government airstrikes, ground offensives and gun battles resulted in the death of 28 BIFF members in the final three months of 2017, whilst two government troops were also killed. In December, the BIFF launched a series of attacks targeting the indigenous Teduray tribe whilst attempting to seize pockets of territory in rural villages in Maguindanao province, setting fire to houses and killing several tribe members whilst driving thousands more from their homes. The BIFF has also launched a spate of bomb attacks targeting police patrols, military bases and civilians. On New Year’s Eve, the militants detonated an IED outside a crowded bar in Tacurong city, killing two civilians and injuring twelve, having earlier in the day killed one and wounded five policemen in a bomb blast in Datu Hoffer town.

The BIFF remains split into at least three main factions, the largest and most active of which is led by Ismael Abdulmalik, also known by the alias Abu Turaife. In a particularly worrying development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has reported seeing ‘foreign-looking’ gunmen fighting alongside BIFF militants in Maguindanao province, indicating that terrorist fighters from elsewhere in Southeast Asia may have joined-up with the group. It is possible that surviving Maute group members, including a number of Indonesians and Malaysians believed to have fought in Marawi, may have bolstered the BIFF’s ranks. At present, the BIFF appears to be the new group of choice for the region’s militants.

Local authorities have said they are monitoring the recruitment activities of jihadist groups in western Mindanao and are bracing themselves for another Marawi-style attack. Cotabato city has been muted as a possible second target. President Duterte has responded by extending Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 and has promised to destroy the BIFF, whilst recently-installed military chief Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero has vowed to redeploy resources from Marawi to tackle Islamist groups across the south. Mindanao’s civilian population remains on edge as its security forces maintain a heightened state of alert, having conducted several urban warfare training exercises in recent months to prepare for a repeat scenario. In Marawi last May, the authorities had been caught off guard.

Military operations against the BIFF have intensified in recent months in the group’s rural strongholds in the provinces of Maguindanao and North Cotabato (Image Source: AFP)

The rise to prominence of radical groups such as Maute, and now the BIFF, comes at a crucial stage in the southern Philippines’ drawn-out peace process with the MILF, which has laid down its weapons since a provisional peace deal with the government was signed in 2014. Currently, lawmakers are debating the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) which would pave the way for a new autonomous region in the south to replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), constituting a final negotiated end to hostilities with the largest groups in the Moro rebel movement.

The bill is expected to be passed later this year. Yet after slow progress in getting even to this stage, concerns have been voiced that if the bill is delayed further, or in a worst-case scenario fails to pass through Congress, frustrations will grow and fertile ground for jihadist recruitment will be created. President Duterte and MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim have both warned of the radicalization risk. Duterte has talked repeatedly of the importance of correcting ‘historical injustices’ committed to the Moro people, whilst Ebrahim has described the BBL as being of ‘great importance for stability and security in Southeast Asia’. In a November interview with Channel News Asia, the MILF leader said ‘the longer this process takes, the more people are going to be radicalized’. Despite expressing his own frustration over the slow progress being made, Ebrahim has said the MILF remains firmly committed to the peace process and is staunchly opposed to radical groups such as the BIFF and Abu Sayyaf.

President Duterte has extended Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 to crack down on the BIFF and other militant groups active in the region (Image Source: Philippine Government)

Whilst the passage of the BBL may be an important step in quelling the long-running insurgency, it must be noted that previous peace agreements have not succeeded in ending the violence altogether. Despite the creation of the ARMM in 1989 and the signing of separate peace accords with the MNLF in 1996 and the MILF in 2014, several new groups have been spawned and the insurgency has evolved.

At present, it is the BIFF which pose the greatest concern going forward. Radical groups such as the BIFF will remain attractive to those who will never accept autonomy and maintain a desire to see a fully-independent Islamic state created in the southern Philippines. This is especially true for those living in the most impoverished areas of Mindanao, who may feel disenfranchised and excluded from the potential benefits that any political settlement may bring.

As long as the underlying conditions of instability remain present in Mindanao, transnational terror groups such as ISIS and aspiring militants from across the region will seek to take advantage of the situation. These links pose the biggest challenge to the ongoing peace process in the Philippines’ troubled south. Despite efforts on both sides to secure a lasting peace, the spread of ISIS’ global ideology to the region continues to aid recruitment, giving new meaning and impetus to the localized battles fought by formerly little-known militant groups such as the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf and now the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.

How Malaysia’s Counter-Terror Strategy Has Kept ISIS in Check

During the tenure of Prime Minister Najib Razak, Malaysia has introduced a raft of new counter-terrorism laws amid heightened regional tensions (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

Since ISIS burst onto the scene after rampaging through northern Syria and Iraq more than three years ago, Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries have watched the chaos unfolding in the Middle East amid concern that the new wave of jihadist terrorism would spread to the region.

These fears have indeed been realised: a deadly gun and bomb attack rocked Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, killing four civilians in January 2016; whilst last year ISIS-inspired militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for more than five months, resulting in hundreds of deaths and brazenly confirming the arrival of a dangerous new era of jihadism in Southeast Asia.

As the regional threat environment has evolved rapidly over the past year, Malaysia is one of the countries watching its back. In the first few years after the emergence of ISIS, the threat appeared more distant; yet now there is a very real risk of fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi to launch attacks in Malaysia, in addition to the threat emanating from ISIS’ online recruitment and radicalization efforts aimed at inspiring sympathizers to carry-out low-tech, lone-wolf attacks.

Yet despite the rise of ISIS and the recent deterioration of security in its neighbours, Malaysia has continued to enhance its record of counter-terrorism success, and a major Islamist attack within its borders has so-far been prevented. This report assesses how Malaysia has avoided suffering the same fate as neighbouring countries, and asks if its strong record in thwarting attacks can be sustained amid the rapidly shifting regional threat picture.

The evolving threat from Islamist terror

Malaysia has long possessed an excellent counter-terrorism record. In past decades, domestic terror groups such as Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), regional groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and transnational groups such as Al-Qaeda have all been thwarted by the Malaysian authorities. In the 2000s, as neighbouring Indonesia was shaken by a wave of deadly attacks – most notoriously the JI-claimed Bali nightclub bombings which killed 202 people in October 2002 – Malaysia escaped the decade of elevated risk which followed 9/11 relatively unscathed, without suffering a major attack.

Regional authorities clamped-down hard on JI and Al-Qaeda, and by 2010 the terrorism threat to Southeast Asia had significantly reduced. Yet the sudden and dramatic emergence of ISIS reignited the threat, sending alarm bells ringing across the region. Soon after ISIS declared its Middle Eastern ‘Caliphate’ in 2014, fears emerged over the growing number of Southeast Asian nationals travelling to join the group as foreign fighters.

The head of Malaysia’s Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, says at least 53 Malaysians are known to have joined ISIS in Syria. In reality, the number could be far higher. ISIS has even formed a separate armed unit in Syria – known as Katibah Nusantara – made-up solely of Indonesian and Malaysian citizens who have travelled to the region. At least 20 Malaysians are thought to have died during battle in Syria, including nine who have detonated themselves in suicide bombings. ISIS has also released several Malay-language videos through its Al-Hayat media centre, encouraging Malaysians to carry out attacks in their homeland. The recruitment and radicalization of Malaysians has also occurred through social media channels and encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram, prompting concern over the potential for ISIS-inspired lone-wolf attacks.

The last two years have provided particularly dangerous warning signs for Southeast Asian nations. The deadly attack in Jakarta in January 2016 was followed by an ISIS-claimed grenade attack on a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur later that year, which injured eight people but failed to inflict any fatalities. The botched attack was the first to be claimed by ISIS in Malaysia. The five-month siege of Marawi from May-October 2017 has further stoked fears and raised the regional terror threat to its highest level, signifying the arrival of ISIS as a fighting force in Southeast Asia. 2017 also witnessed further suicide blasts and attempted attacks in Indonesia, whilst Philippine authorities continue to battle the ISIS-inspired Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mindanao.

However, the threat has so-far not resulted in large-scale fatal attacks within Malaysian borders. The reason why this is the case, has much to do with Malaysia’s multi-faceted counter-terror strategy.

Malaysia’s reinforced counter-terror strategy

In response to the rise of ISIS in 2014, Malaysia quickly identified the risk and immediately set about reinforcing and upgrading its counter-terror measures, as the government in Kuala Lumpur sought to build upon its strong historical record in confronting violent extremism.

Firstly, lawmakers updated anti-terror legislation, replacing the outdated Internal Security Act (ISA) with a raft of new measures. The new Security Offences and Special Measures Act (SOSMA) had already been passed shortly before ISIS emerged in 2014, adding to the existing Penal Code a range of provisions covering terrorism-related offences and crimes against the State. The listed offences include violent attacks aimed at causing fear, in addition to encouraging terrorist acts and financing, harbouring or providing assistance to terrorists. The new laws enable judges to sentence those convicted of terror offences to lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases even the death penalty.

In 2015, Malaysia also introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act (SMATA), giving the police greater powers to arrest and detain individuals, as well as designating two detention centres to house terror suspects. Whilst legitimate human rights concerns have been raised over the powers granted to law enforcement agencies, the updated legislation has so-far achieved its aim of preventing attacks within Malaysia.

The Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division says that since 2013, 19 large plots have been foiled and more than 340 terror suspects have been detained. The numbers have been increasing year-on-year. In 2013 just four individuals were arrested, rising to 59 in 2014, 82 in 2015 and 106 in 2016. In 2017, the number of terror arrests passed the one-hundred mark for a second successive year. The country also has one of the highest conviction rates for terror offences, with 101 individuals found guilty and sentenced in the last four years. Whilst these figures indicate an ever-rising threat, they also indicate the increased capability of the Malaysian authorities to respond in turn.

Secondly, Malaysia has sought to crack-down on terrorist financing – an area which required improvement after widespread criticism of its past performance. Malaysia passed the Anti-Money Laundering and Anti-Terrorism Financing Act (AMLATFA) back in 2001, which required financial institutions to submit Suspicious Transaction Reports (STRs) to the Malaysian Central Bank. Full implementation of these measures was initially weak. However, Malaysia’s compliance with global counter-terror financing standards has improved markedly, and in 2016 it was granted membership of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), marking Malaysia out as a country committed to cutting-off funding for terrorist groups. These improved anti-terror finance capabilities add to the legislation already discussed, making Malaysia an unattractive base for Islamist terror groups.

Malaysia has so-far avoided suffering large-scale ISIS attacks, but battle-hardened militants returning from Syria, Iraq and Marawi pose a new risk (Image Source: Flickr, Luke Ma)

Thirdly, Malaysia’s deradicalization programmes are among the most successful in the world. Of the 229 suspects enrolled between 2001 and 2012, only seven relapsed into terrorism-related activities, giving the programme a 97% success rate. These efforts are a collaboration between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA), Ministry of Education (MoE), the prison authorities and religious institutions. Counselling sessions aim to counter extremist interpretations of Islam and successfully reintegrate radicalized individuals back into society, whilst post-release support mechanisms are designed to continually engage both the participant and their family members, lessening the risk of relapse.

Malaysia is often cited as a leading example in the field of deradicalization, and has willingly shared its expertise and best practice with other nations. In the age of ISIS, Malaysia has also taken steps to combat radicalization online, spearheading a new regional initiative – the Digital Counter-Messaging Centre (CMC) – established in September 2016, to counter extremist ideology in cyberspace.

The threat of returning fighters in 2018

Despite the success of these combined measures in recent years, the threat posed by ISIS is entering a dangerous new phase. In the last few months of 2017, Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi were wrestled from the hands of the jihadists, shrinking the size of ISIS’ territory in the Middle East whilst dealing a hammer blow to its attempt to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate in the southern Philippines.

Security analysts have raised concerns that given the collapse of ISIS as a military force, hordes of foreign fighters could now seek to return to their countries of origin, including Malaysia, in 2018.

Malaysia has responded quickly and kept up the pace of its counter-terror operations, in an attempt to pre-empt the threat. The Navy has taken part in trilateral sea and air patrols in the Sulu Sea since June alongside the armed forces of Indonesia and the Philippines, in an attempt to stem the flow of jihadists between Mindanao and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia to the west. In addition, high vigilance has been maintained in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ) to prevent the infiltration of ISIS fighters into Sabah state; which has become Malaysia’s front-line in the battle against militancy.

In October, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak launched a new National Special Operations Force (NSOF), comprising personnel from the armed forces, police and the Maritime Enforcement Agency, created to respond immediately and effectively any terror scenario which may unfold in the country. The unit aims to smooth the chain-of-command to ensure a highly co-ordinated response in the event of an attack. The authorities also conducted a wave of anti-terror raids in the final weeks of 2017, detaining at least 20 individuals in raids across Johor, Sabah, Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.

Conclusion: Malaysia’s hybrid approach is working

Malaysia appears resolute and determined to keep a lid on the threat from Islamist terrorism, and prevent ISIS infiltration into the country. Considering the chaos wrought by jihadists in surrounding countries, it is remarkable that Malaysia has been able to continue preventing attacks since the emergence of ISIS in 2014.

It has achieved this through adopting a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures: a hybrid strategy which has approached the threat from opposite angles. Strengthened counter-terrorism legislation and frequent law enforcement operations tackle the threat visible on the surface, whilst sustained deradicalization initiatives mitigate the threat away from the glare of public spotlight, taking on the warped ideology which underlies Islamist terrorism. Malaysia has continually emphasized that a military solution alone will not solve the problems of radicalization and violent extremism.

Malaysia’s counter-terrorism measures have proven highly successful, yet it remains impossible to eliminate the threat entirely. Low-tech lone-wolf attacks inspired by ISIS remain particularly difficult to prevent; whilst in a rapidly-changing regional threat environment, the authorities must maintain heightened vigilance and be prepared to respond to new challenges.

In a world where a lasting solution to Islamist terrorism appears a distant prospect, Malaysia’s hybrid counter-terrorism approach – aimed at preventing attacks and reducing radicalization – serves as the leading example for every state confronting the scourge of ISIS to learn from and follow.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor

Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.

Counting the human cost of Syria’s destruction

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11 million Syrians have been displaced by the war: 4.8 million have fled the country, whilst another 6.1 million are internally displaced. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

Now deep into its sixth year, Syria’s increasingly complex and intractable civil war continues to dominate headlines around the world. After more than half-a-decade of extensive international media coverage, the narrative of the conflict presented to Western audiences is becoming increasingly familiar, with major news outlets focusing predominantly on the fight against Islamic State and the growing role of international actors – the US and Russia – in the conflict.

Whilst this wider geo-strategic context and the global fight against terrorism are certainly important angles from which to report the Syrian civil war, there is a danger that news coverage will become increasingly sanitized and dehumanized as the conflict drags on and as ‘compassion fatigue’ begins to set in amongst audiences. It is therefore vital to ensure that the increased media spotlight on the high politics of diplomacy, military strategy and superpower rivalry does not come at the expense of highlighting the everyday suffering of the millions of Syrians caught in the middle.

This article will seek to explore the direct human impacts of the complex geopolitical drama which has unfolded across the previous six-and-a-half years at the heart of the Middle East, and will endeavour to consider the likely long-term physical and psychological impacts on what remains of Syria’s decimated population once the war comes to an end.

First however, in order to more-fully understand and comprehend the scale of human suffering in Syria, it is necessary to briefly review the major developments since the outbreak of the conflict and outline the key actors involved in the on-going violence.

The conflict began in 2011, after security forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrators taking part in pro-democracy protests which had erupted across the country, forming part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of the year, the country had descended into full-scale civil war as rebels formed the Free Syrian Army to lead the fight against government troops. Over the coming years, the violence dramatically escalated and the situation became increasingly complex, as opposition groups splintered into factions and foreign fighters poured into the country to join Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

As the conflict progressed it began to develop pronounced sectarian undertones, sewing division between elements of the Shia and Sunni population. This sparked the involvement of regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have each backed rebel groups aligned with their interests. The conflict has also drawn in world powers such as Russia and a multi-country coalition led by the United States. Russia has been a firm supporter of president Assad’s government and has launched airstrikes against opposition groups, whilst the US and its allies have predominantly targeted IS through an air campaign launched in late-2014, providing support to Kurdish militias and more moderate rebels whilst remaining firmly opposed to the Assad regime. The UN has accused almost all parties of war crimes and the killing of civilians over the course of the conflict, whilst all peace efforts and attempts to secure a meaningful ceasefire have failed.

With no end in sight, Syria is now the battleground for what has become a large-scale ‘proxy war’ with much at stake for regional and world powers – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States – who have all invested significant resources to influence the conflict according to their interests.

However, amidst the chaos and confusion of Syria’s seemingly never-ending destruction, many international observers seem to have overlooked the group which has by far the most at stake and the most to lose in this conflict: the Syrian people.

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Estimates suggest that 470,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

After 68 – and counting – consecutive months of fighting since the March 2011 crackdown on protestors sparked a tidal wave of bloodshed, the war has resulted in human suffering and a humanitarian crisis on a scale which is almost incomprehensible. In total, a staggering 470,000 people have been killed over the past six-years of conflict, according to a recent report released by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR). Of these deaths, approximately 400,000 were as a direct result of violence, whilst another 70,000 have perished as an indirect result of the war due to the lack of medical treatment, food, water and sanitation. This statistic reflects how the war has created a deadly, almost inhospitable environment within which starvation is rife and disease can spread easily, constituting disastrous secondary effects of the conflict which negatively impact the health and well-being of the population. The death toll in the SCPR report is significantly higher than the 250,000 quoted by the United Nations, which stopped collecting statistics in 2014 as a result of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from inside the country. The latest figures indicate that almost 12% of Syria’s population has been killed or injured since the conflict began, with an estimated 1.5 million people having been wounded.

The conflict has also sparked the world’s worst refugee crisis since WWII as a result of massive population displacement across the country. In total, around 11 million Syrians – half of the country’s pre-war population –  have been forced to flee their homes. Around 4.8 million have fled across the border into neighbouring countries, whilst 6.1 million people have been internally displaced and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Syria’s immediate neighbours have taken the largest share of the burden. According to Mercy Corps, 2.7 million refugees have entered Turkey, whilst Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million and Jordan has taken in around 650,000. Even war-torn Iraq is host to an estimated 225,000 Syrian refugees.

Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp serves as a particularly notorious example of the scale of the problem, now effectively constituting a medium-sized city which provides a semi-permanent home to more than 80,000 Syrians. The camp is beset by difficulties: there is a shortage of clean water and food supplies are scarce, whilst sanitation in the crowded settlement is inadequate for such a large number of people, facilitating the spread of contagious diseases such as cholera and polio.

In addition to those still in the region, more than a million Syrians have attempted the dangerous journey to mainland Europe, taking the difficult decision to leave behind livelihoods and family members. Many have faced uncertainties and endured months of hardship living outdoors as the land routes into Europe through the Balkans have gradually been closed, whilst thousands more have attempted the dangerous journey by boat across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece.

For those who have been unable to leave or have decided to remain in Syria, the impacts of the war on their lives has been severe: families have been torn apart, towns and cities have been flattened, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods have disappeared as the economy has collapsed. Those injured have found it increasingly difficult to seek help, with the World Bank noting that more than 50% of hospitals across Syria have been either completely or partially destroyed, whilst thousands of doctors and nurses have been killed or have fled the country. In a particularly worrying development, hospitals appear to have been deliberately targeted in the northern city of Aleppo, which has experienced repeated bombardment from pro-regime forces. The SCPR report also found that at least 45% of Syria’s children are no longer attending school, which it said would have a ‘’dramatic impact’’ on the country’s future as generations were being lost. The number of children missing out on their education constitutes a disaster for the youth of a country which could once boast of having amongst the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. For the children growing-up in war-torn Syria, future prospects in terms of health are also fading rapidly, evidenced by a dramatic fall in average life expectancy from 70.5 years before the war, to just 55.4 years in 2015.

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Syria once had one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East, yet now less than 45% of children attend school. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

It must not be forgotten that as well as having to contend with poverty and deprivation, those who remain in Syria continue to face the fear of violence on a daily basis. Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 Country Report on Syria summarizes the multiple threats faced by Syria’s civilian population, and details horrific human rights abuses which have been carried out by multiple actors in the conflict. The report’s introduction states that government forces and non-state armed groups have ‘’committed war crimes, other violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses with impunity’’ across the duration of the armed conflict, whilst US-led coalition and Russian airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The report goes into further detail, providing specific examples and outlining the main types of violence perpetrated against civilians by a range of actors on the ground. It says that government forces have carried out ‘’indiscriminate attacks that directly targeted civilians, including bombardment of civilian residential areas and medical facilities with artillery, mortars, barrel bombs and…chemical agents, unlawfully killing civilians.’’ Regime forces were also accused of ‘’enforcing lengthy sieges, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities’’, whilst the government’s security forces are blamed for the arbitrary arrest of thousands of ‘’peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers’’, with detainees often subjected to systematic torture and ill-treatment at the hands of their captors.

In addition, the report accuses numerous rebel and jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State, of carrying-out ‘’direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks including suicide bombings…and alleged chemical attacks’’, whilst perpetrating numerous unlawful killings of non-combatants.

The report did not accuse international actors of intentionally seeking to inflict harm upon the civilian population, but noted – as has widely been reported in the media and by observers on the ground – that scores of civilians have been killed in airstrikes carried out by both Russian warplanes and US-led coalition forces.

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Much of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving millions homeless and without access to adequate supplies of food, water and medical equipment. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

Overall, the scale of death and human suffering inflicted upon the Syrian population since hostilities began in 2011 is impossible to fully comprehend, in spite of the shocking nature of statistics documenting the number of those killed and injured. It is clear that over the course of the conflict, civilians have borne the brunt of violence: they have been attacked purposefully and indiscriminately by almost all armed groups operating on the ground, and are subjected to the additional fear of being killed in airstrikes carried out by international forces.

When the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war does eventually come to an end, it will leave behind a population both physically and psychologically scarred, with the effects reverberating across generations. The fighting will end at some point in the future and the Syrian people will begin to rebuild their country, as international actors re-focus their attention elsewhere in line with readjusted priorities and interests. The spotlight of the international media will also fade away, and for audiences in the West the Syrian war will likely become a distant memory – however as the world’s eyes look elsewhere, the very real experiences of suffering and the imprint of the war will remain in the minds of the Syrian people for decades to come.