The heinous terrorist attacks against churches and hotels that killed 258 people and injured at least 500 in Sri Lanka on Easter Day, caused political turmoil and confirmed a worrying trend already on the rise in the last years: for Islamic State (IS), South and Southeast Asia are the next hotbeds of jihadism, and are an area where the terrorist organisation can sponsor local groups and merge its brand with local guerrillas.
After the attacks, the semi-official Amaq News outlet of the Islamic State took credit for the bombings, releasing pictures and videos of the attackers: their profiles – they all came from local, wealthy Muslim families – increased the jingoistic propaganda spread in several Southeast Asian countries, depicting the Muslim minorities as part of a wider conspiracy led by Middle Eastern powers to eradicate Buddhism and Hinduism, and finally convert the whole area to Islam.
In the aftermath of the attacks the Srilankan government found itself on the brink of a larger crisis, and eventually had to suspend the access to social medias for weeks, to prevent religious clashes and the spread of fake news. A closer investigation, however, showed that the attackers were part of National Thowheed Jamath, a splinter cell of a local radical group, and, according to the available information, they were not directly connected to the 32 alleged foreign fighters that had returned to Sri Lanka from Syria and Iraq, but the strategy deployed by IS in several other occasions proved successful once again: smaller groups were gathered under the Islamic State flag in a mutual exchange that was useful for both, with the previous gaining prestige and international attention, and the latter proving to be alive, active, and ready to spread its tentacles to the other side of the planet.
This process has already been occurring for years in the Philippines: in 2016, IS propaganda videos invited militants that were unable to reach the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq to travel to the southern islands of Mindanao. There, an odd coalition of local insurgent groups that had claimed allegiance to Daesh – Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah, Maute group – managed to take control of Marawi (a city with a population of 200,000 people), and keep it for months.
When the battle for Mindanao between terrorists and Filipino troops was over, in October 2017, (after leaving 1,200 people dead), president Roderigo Duterte declared victory over the Islamic State, however, further attacks soon proved him wrong: in July 2018 a suicide bomber from Morocco killed 11 people in Lamitan City in an attack that Islamic State media labeled as a "martyrdom" operation; last January IS claimed another operation, when two suicide bombers destroyed the Jolo Cathedral during Sunday mass, killing 23 people. An illustration circulated days after on Islamic State chat groups that showed Duterte kneeling on a pile of skulls and a militant with a dagger behind him, while the audio echoed a warning: “The fighting has just begun”.
Militants from the Philippines share the dream of founding a Caliphate that spans among the many islands of the area with their Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts. While in these two nations Muslims represent the vast majority of the population – and Islamic State propaganda therefore can not play the card of the "oppressed minority", which is often employed in other contexts –, Indonesia and Malaysia have been facing their heavy share of attacks.
In Indonesia – the most populated Islamic country in the world, and with a constitution that recognizes five different official religions – jihadism is on the rise: its 477 prisons, meant to house 125,000 inmates, are overcrowded with 254,000 prisoners, and these facilities have turned into a dangeroud recruitment pool of radicalisation. Radical clerics, such as the infamous Abu Bakar Bashir, convert inmates to jihadism on a daily basis, but this radicalisation has also spilled into day-to-day politics.
Extremist groups are in fact becoming increasingly vocal, gaining momentum after the incarceration of Ahok, Jakarta's former mayor and possible future president, who was indicted for blasphemy in 2017.
The country is still shaken after the 2018 Surabaya attacks, where three entire families – including 9-year-old-children – carried out suicide bombings against Christian churches and police stations. The attacks were again claimed by the Islamic State through Amaq News claimed, and Indonesia is now facing the heavy burden of a high number of foreign fighters coming back from Syria and Iraq.
Malaysia is seen more as a financial hub for planning attacks in the region, due to its porous borders and its capacity to attract foreign investments, however – according to local media – since 2013 the authorities have thwarted 23 planned attacks, including an assault against the closing ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games held in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.
Due to the Islamic State’s influence, the whole region is experiencing a second wave of terrorism, after the first that spread through Southeast Asia between 2002 and 2008, starting with the 2002 Bali bombings. Between 2016 and 2017, Southeast Asia saw a 36 percent increase in the number of deaths caused by terrorism, and in 2017 alone jihadist groups supporting separatist and insurgent causes committed 348 terrorist acts, killing 292 people. The militants responsible for these attacks came from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand: while all these groups had different agendas, most of them are now converging on the Islamic State brand, that provides them a wider perspective, a stern ideology and an effective military training from terrorists already experienced on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
The Caliphate of the Archipelago is the old dream of bitter, radical ideologues from the area; it could be renewed by the meeting with IS forces, turning Southeast Asia into a nightmare.