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ISIS-Linked Militants Fight On Despite Leader Baghdadi's Death


Three would-be suicide bombers were recently killed by Philippines government forces in the south of that country. Two of them were Egyptian. One was Filipino. In the Philippines, militants linked to ISIS are still fighting even after the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Michael Sullivan has the story.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: When ISIS was on a roll just a few years ago, many Southeast Asia terror groups formerly linked to al-Qaida jumped ship and pledged allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi. They got busier, too.

ZACHARY ABUZA: From 2002 to 2011, you had some nine suicide bombers in Southeast Asia. Since the rise of ISIS in 2014, we've almost doubled that number.

SULLIVAN: That's Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who tracks Southeast Asia terror groups. In addition to those suicide bombings, ISIS-linked militants also staged a spectacular attack on the Philippine city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao in May 2017, holding it for five months before being defeated. Despite their recent setbacks in Syria and Iraq and last month's death of al-Baghdadi, few analysts expect ISIS in Southeast Asia to fade away.

SIDNEY JONES: It's the idea of the caliphate that's more important than the individual leader.

SULLIVAN: Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta.

JONES: They will lose some to just the idea that ISIS isn't on a victory roll the way it was when they first signed up. But the hardcore is the hardcore, and they will remain committed.

SULLIVAN: In fact, the number of committed may even be growing, some analysts say, as more young people self-radicalize via social media.

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: The threat is real and pressing, dangerous. It is not hypothetical. It is happening now.

SULLIVAN: Noor Huda Ismail is a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

HUDA: The recruitment in the past has been using traditional tool, which is through groups, and then become terrorists. But now you don't have to be part of the group physically. But if you connect through existing social media, you can be part of it.

SULLIVAN: Huda uses the example of the husband-and-wife team who recently tried to kill the Indonesian security minister, Wiranto, with a knife. They were self-radicalized, Huda says, with no clear links to any particular group. But the couple, he says, clearly saw Wiranto as a state actor and therefore an enemy of the caliphate believers hope to establish in Southeast Asia.

HUDA: We are seeing the democratization of jihad run by individual who want to be part of this, you know, imagined caliphate. You know, this is the scary thing.

SULLIVAN: Low-level attacks like this one may become the new norm. But analyst Zachary Abuza believes ISIS in Southeast Asia will continue to focus its attention on the Southern Philippines island of Mindanao, especially now that going to Syria or Iraq is no longer an option.

ABUZA: And that's much easier logistically, financially for Southeast Asians to get to. We know how porous the borders are and, you know, how limited the maritime capabilities of Malaysia, Indonesia and especially the Philippines are.

SULLIVAN: Another concern is the possible return home of hundreds of battle-tested Indonesians and Malaysians who went to fight with ISIS in Syria, fighters who may now be free after the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held territory where they were being jailed.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUGGI'S "SHAP BABA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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