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Democratic Backsliding and the Reach of ISIS in Southeast Asia

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
September 1, 2016
Current History


In early May 2016, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines made a major announcement. The three countries, which often have trouble cooperating on transnational challenges, and have long disputed ownership of some of their adjacent waters, said they would begin coordinated patrols at sea and install a threeway hotline to discuss kidnappings and other militant activities. The announcement came after 10 Indonesian sailors were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that has operated in the lawless deep south of the Philippines for more than 15 years. In the previous months it had launched multiple high-profile kidnappings, killings, and other terrorist attacks, including the abduction and beheading of a Canadian tourist, John Ridsdel. Another Canadian hostage, Robert Hall, would be beheaded in June.

Perhaps even more worrisome for Southeast Asian governments, Abu Sayyaf, once derided by some Philippine defense officials as a ragtag group of bandits, appears to be linking up with Islamic State (ISIS), the jihadist group based in Syria and Iraq, and possibly attracting new recruits from other parts of the world. In early 2016, Abu Sayyaf used a video to publicly proclaim its allegiance to ISIS, and even before then it had begun utilizing increasingly brutal ISIS-like tactics including the beheading of captives. At least one Abu Sayyaf commander has traveled to Syria to fight with ISIS; other Abu Sayyaf militants may have joined as well.

In the spring of 2016, Philippine military forces launched a hunt for one of Abu Sayyaf’s most wanted men, Mohammad Khattab, an experienced bombmaker from Morocco. While the operation succeeded in killing him, Abu Sayyaf trapped the troops in a daylong firefight. Eighteen soldiers were killed, an embarrassment for the government and the army.

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