Muslim terrorist organizations in Central, South, and Southeast Asia frequently blur the lines between “jihadist group” and “Muslim separatist movement.” As a result, a spectrum exists from strictly transnational jihadists, to Muslim separatists utilizing jihadist rhetoric and perhaps accepting assistance from transnational jihadist groups, to violent separatist groups that simply happen to identify as Muslim. The variety and scale of ethno-nationalist leanings can make it difficult to discern groups’ true motivations, as they may borrow each other’s rhetoric to broaden their constituency and secure greater support. This diversity stands in contrast to groups operating in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, which are more frequently transnational jihadist organizations.
Terrorism in Asia has recently tended to slide toward the nationalist end of this spectrum with some notable exceptions, particularly Bangladesh. This small South Asian nation has experienced a surge in violence since 2013, when Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah to life in prison. Upon immediate backlash from anti-Islamists, known as the Shabagh movement, Mollah’s sentence was revised and he was sentenced to death. The powerful Islamist counter-response that followed was subsequently co-opted by ISIS and al-Qaeda. This appropriation has also been the fate of other globalized local (sometimes known as “glocal”) conflicts. As a result, ISIS and al-Qaeda’s global competition continues to play out locally in Bangladesh.
Historically, MENA hosted a number of left-leaning ethno-nationalist and separatist groups, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization – an umbrella group containing State Department-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Front and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – and the National Liberation Front in Algeria. Both organizations touted a more secular and socialist or left-leaning line, though were comprised of and represented a Muslim population. Today, such groups have developed political wings which participate in their country’s political systems or have otherwise fizzled out or been defeated. The obvious hotshots in MENA now are the transnational jihadist behemoths ISIS and al-Qaeda. With affiliates in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, ISIS and al-Qaeda’s capabilities, influence, and brutality have grown to near unimaginable levels over the last 20 years.
Asia, however, presents a different landscape. While violent Islamist groups do operate in Central, South, and Southeast Asia, many prioritize nationalist goals in their grand strategic aims, while a number of other groups appear to merely pay lip-service to global jihad through their rhetoric. Unlike in MENA, terrorist groups in Asia appear more driven by 1) separatism and the desire for recognition as an autonomous or otherwise independent nation or region within the international community, or 2) ethno-nationalism resulting in a pan-Islamic state whose violence does not extend to third parties not directly involved in the territorial dispute.
A number of these groups include those fighting for a Muslim homeland in the Philippines, the liberation of Kashmir, independence in Thailand, and recognition and rights in Burma and China. On the spectrum discussed above – with transnational jihad on one side and violent ethno-nationalism on the other – Kashmiri and Philippine groups lean toward the former, though by no means fully qualify as “transnational jihad” groups. These groups formed out of a desire for independence or autonomy centered primarily around their populations’ Muslim identity.
Many modern Philippine groups trace their roots to groups like the Moro National Liberation Front, which claimed to represent the Moro people (Philippine Muslims who have been discriminated against since Spanish and American colonialism). The Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf Group favor ISIS’s brutal ideology, having taken over and held the city of Marawi in southern Philippines for five months in 2017, while others steer clear of such support and rhetoric. Those that overtook Marawi last year did so under the guise of formally establishing “ISIS in the Philippines,” using ISIS money and its ominous black flag in their efforts. While these transnational jihadist leanings have captured international attention as an apparent extension of the “caliphate,” ultimately most Philippine groups remain locally focused, using violent means to realize a Muslim homeland in their backyard rather than conduct jihad against the West.
Both indigenous Kashmiri groups as well as those created by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence seek to end Indian governance of the province, a grievance stemming from Kashmir’s problematic accession to the country during partition in 1947. Though some reportedly have links to transnational organizations like al-Qaeda, and both ISIS and al-Qaedahave recently established new branches in the region, many groups appear immune from such transnational influence and remain focused on freeing the South Asian province from what they view as an illegitimate Indian occupation.
Groups in Thailand, Myanmar, and China fall closer to the ethno-nationalist end of the spectrum. The Muslim insurgency boiling in Southern Thailand appears to remain free from transnational jihadist influence, although the secessionists’ weapons end up in the hands of other jihadist groups in Southeast Asia. The Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army maintains that it has no links to transnational jihadist groups and seeks only the protection of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. In China’s Xinjiang province, groups like the Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) continues its efforts to establish an independent Muslim state, while China brutally cracks down on the Uighur population writ large (Notably, Uighur terrorists are active in transnational jihadist efforts in Syria, where many have gone to participate in the civil war.)
These conflicts represent the ethno-nationalist facet of violent Muslim organizations in Asia. At times using transnational jihadist rhetoric or receiving recognition in ISIS or al-Qaeda propaganda, in the end they remain focused on their own territorial and governance concerns. Understanding these groups’ ethno-nationalist motivations will help counterterrorism practitioners narrow their focus to more effectively counter the threats these groups pose.