Is ISIS’s global growth unstoppable?
By: Dr. Theodore Karasik
Ever since discussion began of a coalition effort led by the United States to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, al-Qaeda groups from Africa to Southeast Asia seem to be showing various types of support to ISIS. This development is significant because the ISIS, as a Sunni extremist group, is garnering backing from around the globe for unity among jihadists.
In an unprecedented move, two branches of al-Qaeda’s international organization, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have released a joint statement urging jihadists in Iraq and Syria to unite against their common enemy, America, “the head of infidelity.” The two al-Qaeda branches lament the “negative effects” of the infighting between jihadist groups in Syria, which has pitted the Islamic State against the al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and others. The joint statement is also notable for its frankness: “The sadness of jihadi factions for the loss of the best of their leaders and sons in infighting is not absent from our minds,” “Indeed, the infighting only benefits the sons of Zion, the worshippers of the Cross, the Rawafidh [Shiites], the Alawites.” In other words, AQIM and AQAP are literally not only aiming at solidarity but also wish to take up the cause of rejecting and fighting America’s campaign “and its satanic alliance.”
AQIM and AQAP are facing their own internal problems with the growing attraction of their own members to the needs of ISIS. Their call to stop the infighting helps to build links between the two groups—Islamic State and al-Qaeda—with a common enemy but also opens the door to the widespread belief that Coalition attacks on ISIS will spread to al-Qaeda groups in Syria thereby setting off a chain reaction with the Sunni extremist universe.
International jihadist trend
Significantly, a statement from Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi (KUN), a joint AQIM-Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia effort in support of the Islamic State as a Caliphate reflects an international jihadist trend to boost ISIS in the face of the U.S.-led coalition. Another group splintered from AQIM, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, pledged support to the Islamic State. According to an Arab official, “there is concern that the Sunni extremist movements will ignite retribution attacks on the interests of property of Coalition members responsible for violence. It is not the Arab street that will react; it is clearly the Sunni extremists whether affiliated to the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.” Without a doubt, AQIM and AQAP announced their statement on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the very same day that U.S. President Barack Obama made his forceful speech announcing America’s declaration of war against ISIS. The timing of both announcements is significant of the pending battle, whether kinetic or through hearts and minds.
In South Asia to the Far East, the Islamic State is gaining traction in the international jihadist network. There are now emerging more expressions of support for Islamic State, especially the formal offerings of allegiance, and reports about Muslim youth moving to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State, as well as support from Maldives, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and others. Youth from various states are attracted by the jihadist message of the Islamic State. For them, they are perhaps unable to distinguish the Islamic State from Al-Qaeda. According to a Southeast Asian counterterrorism expert, “nationals from various states are getting caught up in the desire to fight in Syria and Iraq. They are being attracted by the usual tools: Facebook contacts and other social media “invites”, they become introverted and more pious, and finally make their way to the Levant via Turkey.” Already there are several incidents where South Asia or Southeast Asian nationals have been involved in suicide bombings on behalf of ISIS.
Indeed, Muslim youth, motivated solely by jihad, are joining either ISIS or al-Nusra, over the past few years. These youth went from Afghanistan-Pakistan region as well as from Bangladesh, the Maldives, Jammu & Kashmir state, and elsewhere in India, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia to fight in Iraq and Syria. Overtime, these nationals are being attracted more and more to the Islamic State. According to an Arab official, the South Asia and Far East fighters are switching from al-Nusra to ISIS: “The shifting nature of fighters in ISIS not only attracts Westerners, there are also more Southeast Asians appearing in theater and are more attracted to ISIS ever since its declaration of “state” on the first day of Ramadan 1435.”
Far East emergence
The emergence of an Islamic Caliphate in the Far East around the time of the declaration of the Islamic State is of note. Importantly, four new terrorist organizations are aiming to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Far East region called Daulah Islamiah Nusantara that is to comprise Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, southern Thailand and southern Philippines — have emerged and are embarking on an aggressive recruitment drive. Also, in June, the Islamic State released a video which claimed that Muslims from Cambodia were among its ranks. Clearly, the desire to form an Islamic Caliphate in the Far East will be deeply energized by the growing attacks on fellow Sunni extremists in the Levant.
As the American-led coalition takes shape and enacts its plan against ISIS, there is likely to be more support for the group from around the world. Either these groups or individual members will take up arms in support of their movement or commit acts of violence to show support for ISIS. The interrupted plot to behead through a “demonstration killing” in Australia points to exactly what may be in store in the coming months. Nowadays, as the war on ISIS grows, all states need to be vigilant of extremist Sunni criticism and sympathy for “brothers” in the Levant specifically support from Al-Qaeda to ISIS. ISIS is and will be growing in one form or another whether we like it or not.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.