South-east Asian IS fighters: Where (in Syria) are they now?

South-east Asian IS fighters: Where (in Syria) are they now?
Analysis: Since the fall of IS' self-proclaimed caliphate, some fighters from south-east Asia have returned home, but many remain in the region, writes Zam Yusa.
6 min read
10 August, 2018
Syrian regime soldiers patrol a building formerly used by Islamic State [AFP]
Following the fall of their strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa, 
South-east Asian Islamic State (IS) fighters are believed to be holed up in the eastern Syrian province of Deir az-Zour.

The south-east Asians - dubbed the "Katibah Nusantara", the IS unit consisting of fighters from the Malay archipelago in the region - are believed to be operating out of Deir az-Zour with Arab fighters and also those from other regions, according to security expert, Munira Mustaffa.

News reports have confirmed fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore have gone to Iraq and Syria to join the terror group whose highly wanted leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi is still at large.

The Kurdish-led alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and United States-led coalition forces have been battling IS in Deir az-Zour since September 2017.

Malaysian terrorism and security researcher, Munira Mustaffa told The New Arab it is likely that South-east Asian fighters may decide to stay on in Deir az-Zour, if there is even a remote chance that the cause is worth fighting for them.

"Many of them do not have much choice but to remain in Deir az-Zour," she said.

"Also, they want to avoid arrest as South-east Asian authorities are already on the alert to watch the borders for their attempts to return."

"The Euphrates route near the border with Syria is densely populated, not to mention the presence of the US-led coalition and Kurdish-led alliance on the eastern side and regime forces and their alliance on the western bank.

"Military operations are ongoing to clear IS and their remnants. Checkpoints are monitored heavily, so passage to Turkey is difficult.

IS fighters will have to choose between dying on the battlefield or rotting in Iraqi/Syrian government prisons

"IS fighters will have to choose between dying on the battlefield or rotting in Iraqi/Syrian government prisons. It's not difficult to identify which is the more attractive option."

Ms Mustaffa, a former terrorism analyst with the Malaysian foreign ministry's South-east Asia Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism, said it is difficult for the south-east Asian fighters to flee the area due to their physical appearance.

"Obviously, the South-east Asians will have more difficulties in moving about, especially going through checkpoints and penetrating borders due to their obviously foreign appearance," she said.

"Even if they're able to speak Arabic, their accent might betray them especially in areas where the locals speak with thick accents. Local tribes might be able to smuggle their relatives across, but not the Malay fighters."

She notes that it's important for IS to maintain their image, or rather illusion of camaraderie and brotherhood, so there is no real separation among the foreign fighters.

"Apparently, (separation of fighters) is not allowed anyway and they're encouraged, or maybe forced to mingle," she said.

Read more: IS' defeat in Deir az-Zour will not spell the end of extremism

"The foreign fighters are forced to mingle with each other because they need to keep an eye on each other, not so much because they're concerned about each other's safety, but in a high-pressure situation like that, the worry about betrayal and treachery is real."

Deir az-Zour came under siege in 2014 by IS militants, and fell to regime forces in November 2017. In Spring of 2018 it was reported that IS were attempting to return to the town, and in May and June the militant group intensified its attacks on the Syrian government forces and their allies on the southern bank of the province.

IS lost ground after the violent clashes, but friction among foreign powers in IS in Syria and Iraq encumbered concerted efforts to finish them off.

For instance, Russia's ambiguous behaviour in Deir az-Zour and reliance on mercenary groups was seen to be jeopardising the US decision-making.

The military rivalry, competing strategic interests and increasing tension between Russia and the US have had an impact on the situation.

"Speculation is rife that IS in Deir az-Zour is regrouping and adopting a new strategy of attrition via guerilla-style fighting," said the Malaysian expert.

"Despite being defeated militarily, IS shows no signs of abating. Reports from displacement camps suggest that they are trying to hide and blend in among refugees and the returning population. Some claimed there are attempts for recruitment in the refugee camps.

"Punitive policies stoked by right-wing politics are closing off migration routes, thus cutting off trapped refugees who are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment by extremist factions."

These conditions are helping IS lay the groundwork for renewed attacks.

"Fighters that ran away from urban strongholds have returned. They turning the desert into their base of operations. This is troubling, and their re-emergence could be even more potent as they feed on their 'remaining and expanding' myths that they're impregnable because they are meant to be invincible."

Europol earlier this year, said European IS fighters have not flooded back home in large numbers since losing their  strongholds in Syria and Iraq last year, but instead have inspired a growing number of homegrown attacks.

Dr Ahmad el-Muhammady, a terrorism expert from the International Islamic University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, told The New Arab the same trend applies to militants from Southeast Asia.

"They've inspired attacks like the foiled plot we saw in May in Puchong (a district some 15km from the national capital)," he said.

"Technology such as smartphones and social media applications are exploited to the maximum to influence the locals back home.

"It is easier to recruit young people, who are technologically adept and already living in the targeted locality, rather than sending people from the outside."

The South-east Asians will have more difficulties in moving about due to their obviously foreign appearance

Professor Rommel Banlaoi, Chairman of the Board of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, reports that some fighters from the region may prefer to relocate to the southern Philippines, which is more appealing than going back to their home countries.

"Some South-east Asian IS fighters who find it difficult to return home are encouraged to proceed to southern Philippines as their alternative home base, considering the situation there as a new land of jihad after Syria and Iraq," he told The New Arab.

Banlaoi agreed the same trend described by Europol applies to fighters from the Malay archipelago.

"The same pattern can apply in South-east Asia because fighters from the region also take the lead and advice from their European counterparts."

According to a report by the Soufan Center issued in October last year, over 40,000 foreigners from 110 countries flocked to join IS before or after the declaration of the group's so-called caliphate in June 2014.

More than 1,000 of them are from Southeast Asia, the report said.

Scores of the south-east Asian fighters have returned home and been detained by the authorities, but many more still remain in the Middle East after the fall of IS' self-proclaimed capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa last October.

Zam Yusa is a Malaysian journalist reporting on Southeast Asian security, terrorism, defence and conflict.

Follow him on Twitter @SecurityJourno