Southeast Asian fighters used as ‘cannon fodder’ by Islamic State

Jakarta attacks are an alarming sign of the militant group’s expanding influence within the region, with suicide bombing on the rise as a result

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 10:01pm

Thursday’s attack in the heart of Indonesia’s capital by suicide bombers was funded by Islamic State (IS), Indonesian police said yesterday, after they arrested three men on suspicion of links to the plot and seized an IS flag from one of the bombers.

Until now, the group was known only to have sympathisers with no active cells capable of planning and carrying out a plan such as Thursday’s, in which five men attacked a Starbucks cafe and a traffic police booth with handmade bombs, guns and suicide belts. They killed two people – a Canadian and an Indonesian – and injured 20.

Suicide bombings have not historically been employed by groups in Southeast Asian but the attack, the first in Southeast Asia to be directed or inspired by IS, demonstrates the jihadi network’s growing reach and is part of an alarming trend that must now be confronted by security forces within the region.

Three weeks ago, Malaysian Mohd Amirul Ahmad Rahim, 26, strapped bombs to his body, got into a car and blew himself up in the IS capital, Raqqa. The blast killed 21 Kurdish fighters during an IS offensive against the 44th Syrian Democratic Forces, according to Malaysian police.

Before he died, Amirul wrote a will asking his wife and two-year-old son to remain in the war zone to continue his “jihad”.

We don’t have to wait for IS members to return from Syria to carry out bombings. They are already here
Noor Huda Ismail

“I have been trying to persuade my daughter to return home,” Amirul’s father-in-law, a trader from the state of Johor who declined to be named, told the South China Morning Post.

“My grandson is less than two years old. And my daughter is currently pregnant. I hope she will come home. But if she doesn’t, what can I do? I have to accept it. It is their ideology and belief.”

According to a senior counterterrorism source, there are currently eight Malaysian children in Syria. Two of them, aged nine and 11, are being trained to become fighters and are learning how to shoot and perform martial arts.

Amirul is one of the six Malaysians who have died as suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq. Another 11 Malaysians have died fighting for IS. A total of 100 Malaysians are estimated to be in Syria currently.

Amirul’s father-in-law recalled his daughter’s words: “People queue up to register as a suicide bomber.”

He described his deceased son-in-law as a very polite and well-behaved person who never got into trouble.

“There was no sign they were going to leave Malaysia,” he said. “I called and called them one day and there was no reply. The next thing, my daughter Whatsapped me to say they have gone to Syria.”

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has more than 1,000 people in Syria, according to senior counterterrorism officials. There is no official data for Indonesian suicide bombers but some experts believe there have been nine.

“My heart is broken seeing Malaysians and Indonesians killed in Syria and Iraq,” said Noor Huda Ismail, founder of International Institute for Peace Building, Indonesia’s first private deradicalisation programme.

“Southeast Asian fighters are used as cannon fodder by IS. They are treated as second-class citizens by IS Arab leaders who look down on non-Arabs. They are placed at the front line during battles where many of them are killed. Some of the Southeast Asian fighters who died as suicide bombers are not even mentioned in IS’ social media.”

Huda believes Malaysians and Indonesians are drawn to IS by online messages celebrating the deaths of suicide bombers as so-called “martyrs”.

“They volunteer as suicide bombers to prove their masculinity, to show they can do something for the Muslim struggle,” Huda explained.

The fact that so many Malaysians and Indonesians volunteer to be suicide bombers also reflects the “oxygen” of intolerance against Shias, Christians and minorities, Huda said.

According to Huda, suicide bombing was never part of the tactics used by armed groups in Southeast Asia until the first Bali bombing in 2002, which killed 202 people. Since then, the rise of IS has engendered a greater willingness among would-be martyrs to kill themselves in the service of their cause.

“This is a very scary prospect, that people can so easily and readily want to be a suicide bomber,” Huda said. “We don’t have to wait for IS members to return from Syria to carry out bombings. They are already here.”

Additional reporting

by Associated Press