Today the so-called foreign fighters seem to pose a serious threat to the security of countries across the world, including many in Asia.
The phenomenon is not an absolute novelty. Since the 1980s, several areas of conflict in the world have attracted tens of thousands of volunteers for political - religious reasons. Before the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, some 30,000 Muslim fighters took part in armed conflicts in countries, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, Iraq, Mali and, of course, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Pakistan.1
Nonetheless, in recent years the flow of jihadist fighters to Syria and Iraq has been unprecedented. Unfortunately, there is no international database on this phenomenon and the proposed estimates vary significantly. Nonetheless, it can be said that overall, since 2011, over 40,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq from more than 80 countries.
In particular, it may be useful to consider the estimates presented in a recent report by Cook and Vale.2According to this work, out of around 41,000 affiliates of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, over 8,000 (around 20%) came from Asian countries.
As in other continents, the distribution is uneven by country and by region. Central Asia is by far the most affected region,3with almost 6,000 individuals having travelled: in particular, up to 2,500 from Uzbekistan, 1,500 from Tajikistan, over 800 from Kyrgyzstan, up to 600 from Kazakhstan and up to 500 from Turkmenistan. Approximately 1,000 volunteers come from both East Asia (almost all from China)4and South-East Asia (approximately 800 from Indonesia alone, plus smaller numbers from Malaysia and the Philippines), respectively. Finally, over 400 individuals come from South Asia (which includes, in descending order of national contingents, Maldives, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka).
In relative terms, on the basis of these estimates, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan stand out for the number of foreign fighters in relation to overall population, with around 170 and 140 per million inhabitants, respectively. However, the ratio is particularly remarkable in the case of the Maldives ,as while it is the smallest Asian country in terms of population (less than 500,000) it has a significant contingent which varies from 60 to 200 foreign fighters, depending on the estimates.
Since the self-proclamation of the caliphate in June 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi asked every Muslim believer to fulfil their individual duty and immigrate to the land of the self-proclaimed “caliphate”. This made traveling to this “jihadist proto-state”5attractive for an unusually diverse group of people compared to previous waves of Muslim volunteers (i.e., Southeast Asians headed for Afghanistan through Pakistan during the 1980s). Hence the reason for the diversity within the various national contingents of foreign fighters, which can include women and children.
In this regard, while keeping in mind that unfortunately reliable data is missing for many countries, it is interesting to note that Eastern Asia appears to be the region of the world with the highest proportion of recorded IS-affiliated women and minors (about 700, i.e. up to 70%).6
In terms of entries, the influx of jihadist foreign fighters dropped significantly with the weakening of the diverse jihadist fronts in Syria and Iraq in 2017. On the other hand, in terms of exits, the potential threat appears to have increased during this period, as a growing number of jihadists may be interested in leaving the area due to the collapse of the “caliphate”.
Clearly, in addition to the military contribution offered in the war theaters, the concern is that the jihadist foreign fighters who survived the hostilities may return to their countries of origin or move to other countries to support or carry out terrorist attacks, benefitting from the social bonds, training, experience, and social status that they acquired while living in the conflict areas (the so-called “blowback effect”).7
According to the rough estimates provided by Cook and Vale,8at least 1,100 individuals have already returned to their countries of origin in Asia. In particular, the proportion of returnees would be rather high in the (relatively small) contingent from Southern Asia.
Many Asian states are countries of origin for jihadist foreign fighters, but some also represent countries of destination. To give a recent example, on July 31st2018, a foreigner, incapable of speaking the local dialect, carried out an attack that caused the death of ten people at a military checkpoint in the Philippines – a key country for jihadists in the continent. Although details about this episode are still unclear, it is remarkable that Amaq, the news agency associated with IS, reported that the organization claimed the episode as a suicide bombing and specified that the perpetrator was a Moroccan national.
The role of foreign fighters in Asia was again apparent in the battle of Marawi, which took place on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines in 2017. During the battle, a significant number of foreigners from other countries in the region (in particular, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) reportedly fought alongside Filipino IS-affiliated fighters. There were also reports regarding the participation of non-Southeast Asian jihadists, in particular from the MENA region, but they have proven difficult to verify.9 According to recent estimates, today there could be between 40 and 100 jihadist foreign fighters in the Philippines (Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Vivian Hagerty and Madeline Dement 2018).
Afghanistan and Pakistan also saw an influx of jihadists travelling directly to the two countries, following the pledges of allegiance from different local groups in 2014 and the official proclamation of the IS Province in Khurasan in January 2015. Furthermore, it also recently appeared to be a destination for a small number departing from Syria and Iraq.
Many studies have shown that, at an individual level, there is no common profile among jihadist foreign fighters, in terms of socio-demographic characteristics,10psychological traits and motivations. At the group level, pre-existing (off-line) social relationships are often relevant for jihadist militancy and mobilization.
In particular, kinship ties seem to play a part in many Asian countries, from the Philippines to Indonesia. The relevance of kinships ties, along with the growing role of women and even minors, were particularly evident in the sequence of serious and sophisticated attacks that were carried out in May 2018 in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, by three family units, which included young children. These attacks, like others in the country and in the region, seem to reflect a complex “glocal” (global + local) dimension, combining IS’s “global” inspiration and narrative with “local” grievances and dynamics.11
In conclusion, the issue of foreign fighters in Asia deserves attention. Events such as the temporary conquest of Marawi showed that some areas in the continent could represent potential fertile ground for jihadist militancy and struggle. As various experts have noted, after thecollapse of the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, other foreign fighters could return or move to countries in the continent, while IS could further reinforce its efforts eastwards. On the other hand, some “local” issues and dynamics, like the Rohingya conflict and its consequences, the treatment of Uighurs in China, and the growth of anti-Shia sentiments in Southeast Asia,12could facilitate these tendencies, according to a “glocal” logic.
1A.P. Schmid (with J. Tinnes), Foreign (Terrorist) Fighters with IS: A European Perspective, Research Paper, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT), December 2015. See also T. Hegghammer, The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad, in «International Security», Vol. 35, No. 3 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 53-94.
2Joana Cook and Gina Vale, From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State, Report, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), July 2018. Cf. R. Barrett, Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees, Report, The Soufan Group, October 2017.
3Among others, T. M. Sanderson, From the Ferghana Valley to Syria and Beyond: A Brief History of Central Asian Foreign Fighters, Commentary, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), January 2018.
4On China’s Uighur foreign fighters see C. Clarke and P. Rexton Kan, Uighur Foreign Fighters: An Underexamined Jihadist Challenge, Policy Brief, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT), November 2017.
7Among others, see T. Hegghammer, Should I stay or should I go? Explaining variation in western jihadists' choice between domestic and foreign fighting, in «American Political Science Review», Vol. 107, No. 1, pp. 1-15.