South-East Asia: The next front line against ISIL?

Since ISIL's first video featuring South-East Asian children in military camps was released in March last year, the group has produced a flurry of propaganda that have either been delivered in Bahasa Indonesia, or with subtitles in the language.

South-East Asian children in an ISIL propaganda video entitiled 'The Generation Of Epic Fighters'. Terrorism analysts warn that as ISIL loses ground in the Middle East, the next frontier in the war against the extremists may already be shifting to South-East Asia. YouTube Screen Grab
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SINGAPORE // A group of South-East Asian children, dressed in oversized military fatigues, stand in a semicircle in the woods holding up their passports.
At the prompting of a Malaysian ISIL operative, the boys - more than 20 of them, no older than 12 - defiantly toss their green and red passports into a heap before one of them sets the pile on fire.
As ISIL loses ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya, experts warn that the next front line in the war against the extremists may already be shifting to South-East Asia, where the group has in the past two years stepped up its propaganda campaign and bragged about its child soldiers from the Malay Archipelago.
The 16-minute video released by ISIL and featuring the group of children was not the first to show Indonesians and Malaysians training in the group's so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. But it was the first ISIL video that "targets South-East Asia explicitly", Singapore's defence minister Ng Eng Hen said days after its release on May 16.
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"Many of [the children] should be in school getting a proper education to ensure a bright future. Instead they spend their days in training camps, indoctrinated to hate their fellow countrymen in Malaysia and Indonesia, burn their passports as a sign of their allegiance to terror groups like ISIS, and drilled to kill innocent lives," he wrote on Facebook.
Titled Generasi Petempur (The Generation Of Epic Fighters), the video which was interspersed with Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic, criticised the political and spiritual leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, accusing them of being allied to the "infidel" West.
"From some of what we can observe on ISIS' social media, South-East Asia does appear to be a new frontier for the group," said Mia Bloom, a terrorism analyst and professor of communication at Georgia State University.
"Even before officially joining, elements of the existing Al Qaeda-linked groups [offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah] have started to move towards making their affiliation more official, to pledge bayat [allegiance] and we see them mimicking the propaganda in content, in style - to line up to what ISIS does."
Singapore-based terrorism researcher Remy Mahzam has also noticed a significant increase in the amount of multimedia targeting South-East Asia, "reflecting an aggressive all-out media campaign".
"From military training videos to educational mobile applications designed to teach kids jihadist ideology, the indoctrination of young minds with radical tendencies marks a troubling shift in how children have been co-opted into ISIS propaganda strategy," Mr Mahzam, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, wrote in a July report.
Since March last year when ISIL released its first video featuring South-East Asian children in military camps training with assault rifles, the group has produced a flurry of propaganda that have either been delivered in Bahasa Indonesia, or with subtitles in the language.
"Bahasa is a language shared and spoken in the Nusantara [Malay Archipelago] region which includes Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore ... the penetration rate is higher compared to other languages," Mr Mahzam told The National.
He said Muslim children in South-East Asia are a natural target for ISIL as the region is home to 240 million followers of Islam.
But having a large pool of Muslims is not the only reason why South-East Asia is attractive to ISIL, said the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank.
Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines have porous borders and weak customs controls, making them easy hideouts for terrorists.
"South-East Asia also [has] existing insurgencies and militant networks that ISIS may be hoping to tap into," the CFR said in a report in October.
Additionally, widespread unemployment in Indonesia means there are large numbers of idle young men who are easy targets for extremist groups.
The use of child soldiers is not new. Throughout history, children have been recruited into armed conflicts, from the Hitler Youth in the 1930s and Saddam Hussein's Lion Cubs after the first Iraq war in the 1990s, to child conscription in El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Myanmar during the last decade.
Even now, "every single group in Syria is exploiting children and youth - some at rates significantly higher than ISIS", said Dr Bloom, who is writing a book with a colleague entitled Small Arms: Children and Terror that will hit the shelves next year.
ISIL uses children for a variety of purposes.
"One, it shows that the group is multi-generational. Two, it makes the point that 'even the children' are involved and perhaps in this capacity shames the adults who are not participating. The implication in an honour-bound society is that the children are doing the job of the adults," said Dr Bloom.
Mr Mahzam said another reason for using children could be regeneration - to "continue propagating the caliphate's existence, hence securing its long-term survival".
Indoctrinating children would assure the extremists sufficient manpower to administer its "caliphate" and for an army to carry out future assaults, he said.
Intelligence sources estimate that since 2014, between 600 and 1,200 fighters from the region have joined Katibah Nusantara - the South-East Asian combat unit of ISIL headquartered at Al Shaddadi in the Syrian province of Hassakeh.
Some of those fighters have been killed in the wars in Syria and Iraq, but Bahrumsyah - a key Indonesian leader of the unit - is believed to still be alive, said Mr Mahzam.
If ISIL lost its territory, he said, "Bahrumsyah and his followers might be moving to [a] safe haven, either returning back to Indonesia or southern Philippines".
"If the above happens, South-East Asia might be the next target, and thus giving serious security implications."