Hudson Institute

The History and Evolution of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia

Seven sympathizers of the Daesh terror organization undergo trial in the District Court of West Jakarta, January 21, 2016. (Azqa Harun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Seven sympathizers of the Daesh terror organization undergo trial in the District Court of West Jakarta, January 21, 2016. (Azqa Harun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Considered defunct until recently, the Islamic State’s East Asia Province (ISEAP) is just one iteration of a longstanding tradition of movements that continue to pose a threat to Southeast Asia. Forming in a manner that differed greatly from its Middle Eastern forebearers, ISEAP became a loosely knit network that developed through a process based on factionalism, amalgamation, and opportunism. This decentralized structure made the threat posed by the ISEAP different than that posed by other Islamic State movements, but it was ultimately susceptible to concerted threat reduction efforts by governments in the region following the spectacular 2017 siege of Marawi city in Mindanao in the Philippines by the group. The fluid nature of such Southeast Asian organizations, including those that compose the core of ISEAP, as well as a continued series of local political challenges that continue to drive support for such groups, means that Southeast Asia remains under threat of violent extremism despite ISEAP’s relative inactivity. 

Origins of Contemporary Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Islamic insurgent groups have existed in Southeast Asia for centuries and have become increasingly active since the end of the colonial era. The region’s first major jihadist incident occurred when an Indonesian group known as Komando Jihad hijacked a Garuda Indonesia flight in 1981. The hijackers demanded money, the release of imprisoned hardliners, and the expulsion of Israelis from Indonesia. This was consistent with the tactics and demands of other terror groups at the time. 1 According to the CIA, 108 hijackings occurred between 1968 and 1982. 2

The Komando Jihad incident was itself likely inspired by the hijacking of a Pakistani airline flight by extremists in 1981.3 This is demonstrative of a tendency among Southeast Asian groups to be influenced by global trends. Moreover, Komando Jihad was formed out of Darul Islam, which had waged an insurgency to install an Islamic state in Indonesia after independence, demonstrating a regional tendency for dangerous splinter groups to form from larger ones.4 A similar trend was later observed in the Philippines when Moro rebels in the country’s south formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), itself a splinter, from which evolved the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other groups.5 MNLF also conducted a 1976 aircraft hijacking that resulted in the deaths of 10 passengers.6 Resistance among the Moro people—a group of 13 Muslim-majority ethnic groups found in Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan—dates back to the Spanish and American colonial eras. The conflict has long had ethnic and religious overtones as the Moros (and their erstwhile Sultanates) fought against foreign control.7 The ethnoreligious aspect came to the fore in the 20th century when the U.S. colonial administration, and subsequently the Filipino government, resettled large numbers of Christian Filipinos in the region.8

Although MILF has maintained a peace agreement with Manila since 2014, disaffected former members of the group were involved in ISEAP’s Marawi siege of 2017, further highlighting the fluidity of Southeast Asian militant organizations.9 Such groups tend to collaborate logistically and operationally, with various individuals moving from one group to another in support of the most active group or in order to take refuge. Finally, these groups tend to be defined by family and social ties, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia where clan, social relations, and family dynamics tend to drive membership into insurgent and terror groups.10 In this way, combatting terror movements in the region is especially challenging, given how closely these ideologies and individuals are embedded into the social fabric of their respective regions. 

The 1990s and 2000s: The al-Qaeda Era

The al-Qaeda movement and other remnants of the Afghan mujahidin left a substantial legacy in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, during which time the groups commonly recognized as Southeast Asia’s major terrorist organizations began to form. During this time, some extremists from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia that had participated in the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan made contact with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.11 Al-Qaeda helped to facilitate the creation of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the deadliest transnational terror group in Southeast Asia in the 2000s. This group had links to groups in the Philippines, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which itself was formed by extremist members of MNLF and supported by al-Qaeda, and MILF.12 JI was also closely linked to the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) in Malaysia.13 In this way, global trends in jihadism had a major impact on regional jihadist networks during this period. 

The 2002 Bali Bombings were Southeast Asia’s highest-profile terror attacks of this time. Perpetrated by JI, these attacks killed 202 people and injured at least as many others.14 According to Umar Patek, one of the convicted perpetrators, the attacks were motivated by Israel’s actions against Palestinians in Jenin earlier that year; however, Ali Imron, another convicted perpetrator, said that they were motivated by the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.15 This inconsistency is further indicative of the high sensitivity groups in the region have to global trends, which they often use as pretext for their actions. It also points to prominent individuals in groups holding different viewpoints, which has resulted in leadership splits and breakoffs. JI conducted several additional bombings between 2002 and 2008, mostly targeting Western interests, religious minorities, and security forces in Indonesia. They operated with ASG in the Philippines and aspired to attack Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.16 ASG also gained notoriety during this time, engaging in kidnapping for ransom, bombings, gunfights, assassinations, and beheadings. In 2004, the group also bombed a ferry in Manila Bay, killing 116 people—the Philippines’ deadliest terror attack prior to 2017.17 JI member Umar Patek trained ASG on making IEDs, demonstrating the high level of intra-regional fluidity of these organizations.18

In addition to the fluidity of these organizations owing to the familial and social ties that underpin them, foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) began to arrive in Southeast Asia during the 2000s. FTFs were especially present in the Philippines, with several FTFs from other Southeast Asian countries, the Middle East, and elsewhere—including at least one from Australia19—arriving in this time. Although JI was significantly weakened by the late 2000s due to counter-terrorism efforts and in-fighting, the group survived.20 The southern Philippines remained intensely violent despite a lack of operational or other support from al-Qaeda, which had suffered significant losses by this time in the Global War on Terror.21 Long-standing historical grievances and continued ethnoreligious tensions motivated local support for these groups, who funded themselves through donations, income from businesses, and criminality. 

The 2010s: New Groups Form from Old, the Islamic State Enters the Picture 

The rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East inspired the rise of another such movement among Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Several new terror groups formed in Indonesia and the Philippines in the early and mid-2010s and, as in the past, these were primarily formed by the more extreme members of existing groups. In the Philippines, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) formed around 2010 after a MILF leader disagreed with the group’s decision to negotiate for autonomy with Manila.22 In 2014, MILF and Manila signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro, a landmark achievement coming after decades of negotiations between the Philippines and Moro Groups. This paved the way for the eventual creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Although the deal is in place, implementation has been slow and fraught with concerns.23 Moreover, the agreement sparked further dissent within MILF as Maute Group, Ansar Khilafah Philippines (AKP), and others eventually splintered off. These groups would go on to develop links to other groups and individual jihadists in Malaysia and Indonesia,24 and they became the flagbearers of jihadism in the region after MILF was legitimized and JI was broken. 

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, splinters within JI contributed to the formation of at least 18 new jihadist groups in the country by the mid-2010s.25 Among these was Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization comprised of pro-Islamic State groups led by the prolific Islamist scholar Aman Abdurahman. Aman Abdurahman was one of several hardline preachers who began to adapt the ideological teachings of the Islamic State to the Southeast Asian context when the group rose to prominence in the mid-2010s. These efforts, among other factors such as the declaration of a caliphate by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, helped motivate some 1,000 fighters from the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand to travel to the Middle East to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front.26

While in the Middle East, these fighters formed Katibah Nusantara (KN), an all-Southeast Asian contingent of ISIS.27 Katibah Nusantara was involved in training other Southeast Asian recruits, supporting ISIS operations, and fighting against Kurdish forces. One Indonesian citizen also reportedly served as an ISIS executioner.28 Although there were reportedly some tensions among the Indonesian fighters regarding ideology, these did not result in inter-factional violence as it did among the Middle Eastern and other fighters at the time.29 This perhaps highlights cultural differences between Southeast Asian and other fighters. 

Southeast Asian terror groups and their leaders began to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014. These included Isnilon Hapilon of ASG, Santoso of the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), Aman Abdurahman of JAD, Esmail Abubakar of BIFF, and the Maute brothers of the Maute Group, among others.30 However, the Islamic State only officially recognized the pledge from Abu Sayyaf and some groups in early 2016, appointing Isnilon Hapilon of the Philippines as emir that year.31 The Islamic State would later recognize Wilayat Sharq Asiyya (East Asia Province) as the official Southeast Asian province of the Islamic State in mid-2018, thus resulting in the formation of ISEAP.32

By 2015, the groups operating under the ISEAP umbrella became more active and scaled up their attacks. Bahrun Naim, a key Indonesian leader in the Katibah Nusantara contingent, directed attacks in Indonesia that included the 2016 Jakarta bombings, wherein eight people were killed—including four of the attackers—in multiple explosions and a gunfight.33 Then, on May 13, 2018, JAD perpetrated Indonesia’s largest attack since the 2002 Bali bombings when cells carried out suicide attacks against multiple churches in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, killing 28 and injuring 57 people.34 In October 2019, a member of JAD stabbed then-Indonesian defense minister Wiranto in an opportunistic attack, although Wiranto survived his injuries.35

JAD cells conducted a series of attacks across Indonesia from 2015 to 2022, mainly targeting security forces and religious minorities. These were partly facilitated by bomb-making manuals that were disseminated by one operative named Bahrum Naim, a tech-savvy member of the group who also played an important role in recruiting Indonesians to fight in Iraq and Syria.36 JAD cells would experiment with poison and chemicals, including the volatile triacetone triperoxide, for which materials could be bought easily.37 One JAD cell in Bekasi in the Greater Jakarta metropolitan area allegedly developed a method to bypass police signal jammers.38

The Philippines also saw a rise in ISEAP-related activity from Maute, BIFF, and ASG, the latter of which continued its campaign of kidnapping for ransom against both locals and foreigners across the Sulu Archipelago.39 Kuala Lumpur created a special security zone in eastern Sabah in 2013 because of continuous kidnapping and smuggling threats from Philippines-based actors and extremists. All of these groups engaged in bombings, ambushes, assassinations, and firefights with security forces during this time.

In contrast to the situations in Indonesia and the Philippines, ISEAP-aligned factions were largely unsuccessful in Malaysia, carrying out just one attack in 2016 that involved the throwing of a grenade into a bar in Movida, Puchong, which injured eight people. Munira Mustaffa, a Southeast Asian security expert and head of the Chasseur Group described it as an attack “[indicative of} a lack of preparation and planning. The entire incident should have been interpreted as a sign of the local group’s weakness, inexperience, and immaturity, similar to what was observed amongst the perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid Bombings.”40 Similarly, pro-ISEAP groups made multiple attempts to bring southern Thailand into the narrative of global jihad by falsely claiming loyalty pledges and responsibility for attacks, framing local conflicts in relation to ISEAP goals. However, these efforts were largely unsuccessful.41

How ISEAP and Constituent Groups Functioned

ISEAP was more of an idea than a cohesive organization, never functioning as a homogenous and united entity, but rather serving as an umbrella for myriad groups. Although these groups subscribed to the same global ideology, each had their own localized aspirations, grievances, and distinctions. There was also disunity within some of these constituent groups: for example, JAD cells acted largely independent of one another and nominal ISEAP emirs in the Philippines had no direct control over these fighters. Localized JAD cells had their own regional emirs within Indonesia who were not officially recognized by the Islamic State yet were more influential to cadres than Islamic State-appointed emirs such as Isnilon Hapilon. Moreover, it is unknown whether former Mindanao-based ISEAP Emir Abu Zacharia exerted any influence over jihadist groups in the southern Philippines at all. A former Filipino emir, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, was an ASG leader who did not have meaningful control over BIFF or the Maute Group. Broadly speaking, ISEAP functioned more as a loose agglomeration of discrete groups bound by a common overarching ideology rather than as a cohesive unit. Furthermore, the group’s titular leaders were killed—Sawadjaan in 2020 and Zacharia in June 2023.42

In Indonesia, JAD chapters and regional leaders emerged across the country. These chapters operated in a clandestine manner, with the leadership of these groups largely unknown to the public and cells operating independently of one another despite some inter-regional links. Although Islamic State ideologies did spread online, JAD cells were largely comprised of familial networks and social contacts: these were the primary means by which members were indoctrinated. Indonesia primarily saw the radicalization of its citizens in four distinct ways: through radical study groups, local conflicts, kinship connections (including marriage), and pesantren (boarding schools, some of which were run or sponsored by terror groups or other hardline elements).43 Alif Satria, one of Indonesia’s foremost terrorism experts, notes that 73% of all pro-IS supporters arrested in 2018 were personally linked to people who facilitated their radicalization and that just 13% of Indonesian terrorists were radicalized purely by online propaganda in 2021.44

JAD and other Indonesian groups funded operations and payments to the families of deceased or captured members through a variety of mechanisms, including charities, donations, and direct support from the Islamic State.45 JAD also gained international notoriety as one of the first terror groups to utilize the nuclear family in terrorist attacks. For example, the attacks that occurred in the East Javan city of Surabaya in 2018 included a series of suicide bombings perpetrated by men, women, and children as young nine. A family of JAD members was also involved in suicide attacks in the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines. JAD also used marriage to link its constituent cells, a similar practice observed in the Philippines wherein widows remarried within jihadist groups.46 Although JAD possessed bomb-making capabilities, these skills were not spread equally across all cells. Thus, different areas of Indonesia experienced different kinds of attacks, ranging from suicide bombings, to gunfights, stabbings, and attempted prison breakouts.47

In the Philippines, Islamic State-affiliated groups also leveraged traditional means of funding, recruitment, and modi operandi. Clan and family ties were paramount to recruitment. ASG even had a faction called “ajang-ajang,” which roughly translates to fighters whose relatives were killed by security forces.48 ASG was also dependent on funds from smuggling, the drug trade, kidnapping for ransom, and other crimes.49 The Maute group is unique in this regard, relying mostly on the wealth of brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, who derived funds and support from their mother’s real estate conglomerate, political connections, and private army.50 Indeed, there has always has been a nexus between crime and terrorism in the southern Philippines and across Southeast Asia with groups involved in bank robberies, cybercrime, kidnapping for ransom, trafficking, and extortion amid widespread corruption within the government and security forces.51

The Siege of Marawi and ISEAP’s Decline

For six months in 2017, ISEAP appeared to be one of the most ascendant jihadist groups in the world—and yet its rapid ascent marked the beginning of its eventual decline. On May 23, 2017, ISEAP attempted to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia when over 1,000 local, regional, and foreign militants occupied the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines. Led by the Maute brothers in their hometown, the operation was pre-meditated and partly funded by the Islamic State, who also urged foreign fighters to travel to the Philippines if they could not reach the Middle East amid a substantial downturn in ISIS’s fortunes in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State may have also assisted the ISEAP groups operationally, as indicated by the deployment of snipers to high-rises, rigging buildings with IEDs, and the use of human shields—all tactics used in urban warfare settings in the Middle East, specifically Mosul at that time, and uncommon in Southeast Asia.52

The siege lasted five months, with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) making slow progress against the insurgent forces. Islamic State and supporter channels celebrated the perceived success of the five month-long operation against the AFP, which had limited experience conducting urban warfare at such a scale. The AFP’s ultimate success in retaking the city on October 23, 2017 resulted in the deaths of some 1,000 individuals (mostly terrorists) and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more, according to conservative estimates.53 Marawi remains largely in ruins to this day and the lack of progress resettling refugees from the area is a major contributor to tensions in Mindanao.54After ISEAP failed in Marawi, Filipino terror groups largely returned to their traditional areas of operation in rural Mindanao. These groups remain fluid with members frequently leaving one group to join another. And although there was some collaboration between organizations such as JAD and ASG, they are not centrally directed.55

ISEAP’s lack of internal cohesion made it particularly vulnerable to coordinated suppression efforts by governments in the region and the Marawi siege provided the impetus for broad regional cooperation in this regard. On January 25, 2018—just three months after the conclusion of the Marawi Siege—government representatives from Indonesia met in Jakarta with their counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines to form the “Our Eyes” intelligence sharing pact to counter terrorist threats in the region.56 The pact was later expanded to include all ten ASEAN member states at its second working meeting on January 23, 2019. In the first year of its formation, Our Eyes included extensive cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines regarding not just intelligence gathering, but also maritime and air patrols between the three countries.57

In addition to enhanced intelligence sharing, both Indonesia and the Philippines revised their anti-terrorism laws in 2018 and 2020, respectively. These extended preventative detention provisions and allowed for the arrest and detainment of individuals deemed to have indirect links to terror attacks. Indonesian authorities arrested 396 suspected terrorists in 2018, a 117% rise compared to the year prior.58 Moreover, the loss of Marawi, coupled with the Islamic State’s losses in the Middle East, resulted in disillusionment and fracturing among the ISEAP membership. Furthermore, authorities have used “softer” approaches toward deradicalization and addressing grievances, albeit with varying degrees of success.59 In Indonesia, authorities have used rehabilitated terrorists to promote deradicalization narratives.60 

However, major attacks continued to occur in Indonesia and the Philippines in the following years.61 For example, ASG conducted a double-tap attack (involving one IED and a female suicide bomber) that killed around 15 people and injured over 50 people in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, in the Philippines in August 2020.62 In Indonesia, two JAD suicide bombers wounded over 20 people in an attack targeting a church in Makassar on the Palm Sunday Christian holiday in 2021.63

The killings of key terrorist leaders such as the Maute brothers, Hatib Sawadjaan, and Isnilon Hapilon in the Philippines and Bahrumsyah and Bahrum Naim in Indonesia has demonstrated the efficacy of leadership decapitation as a counter-terrorism strategy. The loss of IS-affiliated leaders among the Southeast Asian jihadists has resulted in factionalism and division among ISEAP’s constituent groups. Other important killings include the 2016 death of Abu Wardah (alias Santos) at the hands of the Indonesian army. The former leader of East Indonesia Mujahedeen (MIT) and one of Indonesia’s most high-profile jihadists in the ISEAP bloc, his funeral was attended by thousands in Poso, a town and key MIT support base in Central Sulawesi. MIT would later be led by Ali Kalora until his own death at the hands of the Indonesian military in 2021.64

As veteran investigative journalist Aisyah Llewellyn remarked to the authors regarding leadership decapitation:

One of the main issues for terrorist groups is ongoing differences of opinion and ideological splits, which make these groups unstable and ultimately weaker. Terror groups, like any organizations, always struggle with the logistics of getting everyone on the same page and keeping them there. That’s why we see so many splinter groups forming as people fail to agree.65

In this way, by eliminating key ideologues and thought leaders, leadership decapitation has facilitated the fractional breakdown on terror organizations in the Southeast Asian context. 

The creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the Philippines, which came after years of negotiations between Manila and MILF, also helped delegitimize IS perspectives. It marked a major moment of reconciliation between the Moro population and Manila after decades of insurgency. This showed that some degree of independence or autonomy could be achieved through negotiations instead of armed conflict. For this reason, the Philippines has seen a sustained pattern of surrenders among individual terrorists, allowing them to rejoin mainstream society. Between 2018 and 2023, over 1,600 former terrorists have surrendered. Ex-combatants have to go through deradicalization programs, social conditioning, and community engagement, while being given financial assistance.66 However, the effectiveness of these programs has been limited.67 What have arguably played a more substantial role in the present threat reduction are the robust crackdowns by security forces, which now have more experience in combating IS-affiliated groups.68

Current Threat Assessment and Conclusion

Although ISEAP is essentially defunct on a regional level, some of the groups that fell under its umbrella remain active, albeit in a severely weakened state.69 For this reason, the history of cooperation between these groups could result in the emergence of a new, broad regional movement in the future. Moreover, the fluid nature of these organizations and the individuals who compose them ensures that a terrorist threat of some sort remains in the region, especially following the period of intra-regional cooperation between these groups that has just occurred. Pro-ISEAP factions also remain active in the Philippines with most activity concentrated in parts of the south where the Bangsamoro Independence Freedom Fighters, Maute Group remnants (also referred to as Dawlah Islamiyah, or Islamic State), and Abu Sayyaf-affiliated cells continue to operate.

However, the level of activity in these regions is significantly lower than it was in the past. The most notable recent attack occurred on December 3, 2023, when the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bomb attack targeting a Catholic mass at a university in Marawi, killing four and injuring at least 50 others.70 Given the recent trendlines of violence, this attack should be viewed as an aberration, if also a possible cause for concern given its scale and the symbolic location of Marawi. 

Georgi Engelbrecht, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group and former member of the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao (a joint oversight team launched by Brunei, Libya, and Malaysia in 2004), recently reviewed the state of the post-ISEAP threat. He stated:

In the Sulu Archipelago, the Abu Sayyaf is largely a specter on the past—almost certainly in Sulu, perhaps less so in Basilan. In Lanao, the remnants of the Maute Group contemplate survival as quiet observers or goons for hire rather than jihadists. BIFF and its Dawlah Islamiyah (Islamic State)-influenced splinter cells are arguably located in the most conducive area for militancy (Maguindanao), but their lack of leadership skills on the ground level constrains their activity. Still, under the right conditions, these groups could once again regain momentum.71

The local elections that were held in the Philippines in 2023 were reportedly the most violent since 2010. Of the 96 violent election-related incidents recorded, 55 were in the Moro-inhabited BARMM area where most Philippine terrorist groups operate.72 These incidents were variously motivated by local political and clan rivalries, rising tensions over the delayed Bangsamoro peace process, and clashes between the Philippine armed forces and factions within MILF.73 In the past, such factors contributed to the initial popular support for groups such as Maute, BIFF, and Abu Sayyaf. 

The upcoming parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao are scheduled for 2025 and will likely be a primary indicator of the sustainability of the ongoing Bangsamoro Peace Process, with frustrations likely to rise in the absence of progress toward an agreement, especially among the younger and increasingly disenfranchised MILF fighters. Out of an estimated 40,000 MILF fighters, 65% have apparently disarmed and decommissioned; authorities hope the disarmament, which has been delayed, will be completed by 2025.74 For this reason, the development of the peace process is key. Should more conflict occur between now and the 2025 elections, and if MILF’s political front is defeated in these elections, existing militant groups in the region may provide a means by which frustrated locals can lash out against the state. In the absence of a genuine implementation of the peace process, militancy will likely continue in the Bangsamoro for the foreseeable future.75

Looking at other groups, ASG is now considered to be at its weakest point with no kidnappings or other reported incidents since January 2020. However, the criminal activity that the group used to facilitate its previous operations remains a persistent threat.76 And although JAD has been severely weakened and appears to no longer have direct ties to the Islamic State, Indonesian authorities recently foiled JAD plots to stage attacks during the Christmas season and the 2024 Indonesian elections, demonstrating that the group continues to aspire to conduct attacks.77 (While no attacks materialized during the February 14, 2024 Indonesian presidential elections, terror groups and supporters were active in trying to undermine the process by releasing disinformation surrounding the elections.78)

Radical groups across Southeast Asia are likely to continue to exploit social, economic, and political disenfranchisement in their societies to appeal to new potential recruits. They will also likely continue to focus their rhetoric and actions on the “near enemy,” i.e., their local and national governments, while exploiting anger toward the actions of “far enemies” such as the West in order to recruit and spread their ideology.79 These groups are also likely to continue to exploit the intense family and social bonds that exist within their communities, especially among ethnically and/or religiously marginalized communities such as those in the southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia such as Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. 

While Southeast Asian militant groups have not typically held territory for any substantial amount of time, the insurgencies they wage come at a substantial cost to the security of the states and communities in which they operate. In this way, although the governments of Southeast Asia have arguably won their “war on terror,” it is far from a definitive end to terrorist activity in the region.80 Terror groups across Southeast Asia have proven highly capable of adapting to challenges as well. This has recently been exemplified by JI’s apparent morphing into a quasi-political entity by attempting to infiltrate state institutions, create political parties, and spread its ideology among the general populace.81 Once Southeast Asia’s deadliest terror group, JI no longer appears to have overt aspirations to conduct terrorist attacks in service of its goals. JI is even financing its activities using profits from legitimate palm oil plantations, proving itself resilient 30 years after its initial inception.82 JI members have similarly attempted to create political parties and infiltrate state institutions, security forces, and mass organizations.83 Although this strategic shift demonstrates the possibility that other such groups may also work to pursue their ideological goals within the institutional frameworks of their respective countries, it does not discount the possibility of further violence. This is because violent splinter groups have often formed from larger ones throughout the region and this could occur once again, especially should these organizations that are now going a “political” route struggle to conform to political realities and to state-sanctioned interpretations of Islam, for instance.84 Localized objectives notwithstanding, the idea of a grander “Islamic State” as an alternative to democracy and the economic, political, and social disenfranchisement it has arguably engendered in parts of Southeast Asia still resonates with many in the region.

Southeast Asia’s jihadist groups have risen, fallen, and reconstituted over time with ebbs and flows in both their strengths and capabilities. In this way, although these groups and their members are apparently disillusioned with the Islamic State movement at present, it is possible that a new trend in regional or global terrorism could once again take hold in Southeast Asia. Especially amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and increasing tensions in the broader Middle East, the narrative of a global religious war could again gain traction and lead to a rise in new terrorist groups or terror attacks.85As noted previously in this study, in addition to being highly fluid and adaptable, Southeast Asian terror groups have proven to be highly receptive to global trends. 

The ideology of a global jihad will likely continue to be worked into narratives of extremist ethno-nationalist groups in the region as well.86 Although governments are now attempting softer approaches toward counterterrorism, the underlying factors that fuel terrorist activity and the growing interconnectedness of these individuals and groups to their global counterparts could spawn additional violence. However, should another major wave of terrorist activity occur in Southeast Asia, it remains highly unlikely that ISEAP will manage to operate as it did previously. ISEAP’s brazen attempt to seize territorial control in Marawi was an objective failure, and it is unlikely that the group will repeat such a feat successfully given the counterterrorism capabilities of regional governments.

However, ISEAP remains a threat, especially in the Philippines: Notably, the December 3, 2023 attack on a Catholic church in Marawi was claimed by the Islamic State. Moreover, the attack preceded a new global campaign by the Islamic State in which it has claimed at least 30 attacks in the first week of January 2024, allegedly as revenge for Israel’s war in Gaza.87 The Gaza campaign comes amid a major uptick in ISEAP official propaganda since August 2023, according to Pawel Wójcik, a specialist in Islamic State messaging, propaganda, and internet networks.88 While claims and propaganda do not necessarily indicate a potential resurgence of ISEAP, they do demonstrate the degree of concentrated effort to reenergize supporters amid a tumultuous period in the greater Middle East region.

The past three decades have seen ebbs and flows in terms of the capabilities of Southeast Asian terror groups, many of which have persevered and proved resilient in the face of improved counterterrorism efforts. In this way, there remains a threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia, even as the threat is comparatively latent at present. Looking ahead, a lack of progress in addressing local grievances, the potential emergence of charismatic terror leaders, and increased global polarization, among a host of other factors, could fuel a resurgence of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia.