South-east Asian countries fighting the influence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the region have lauded the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the militant group’s ideology.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organised Islamist militants, said on Monday that they were prepared for retaliation by ISIS loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by locals radicalised by the group’s powerful online propaganda.
Baghdadi killed himself in a tunnel in north-west Syria by detonating a suicide vest as United States forces closed in, according to US President Donald Trump.
Though his death will unsettle ISIS, it remains capable and dangerous, said Mr Delfin Lorenzana, Defence Secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold among unschooled Muslim youth in its troubled Mindanao region.
“This is a blow to the organisation, considering Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback, considering the depth and reach of the organisation worldwide,” he said. “Somebody will take his place.”
South-east Asia has long been an important focus for ISIS, which has inspired Islamist militants in West Africa, across the Middle East and Asia, and through to Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned that ISIS supporters from the region and those fleeing Iraq and Syria could exploit the porous borders, lawlessness and abundant arms found in Mindanao to take refuge in its far-flung villages.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings since July last year in the Philippines, which fought its toughest battle since World War II in 2017 when extremists seeking to establish an ISIS stronghold laid siege to Marawi City and occupied it through five months of air and ground assaults.
Fighters from at least seven countries took part, including Malaysia, which remains on high alert and has arrested 400 people suspected of links to militant groups.
Malaysian police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said the real concern was not ISIS’ leadership but the effect of its teachings.
“It’s good news, but his (Baghdadi’s) death will have little impact here as the main problem remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology,” he told Reuters. “What we are most worried about now are ‘lone wolf’ attacks and those who are self-radicalised through the Internet. We are still seeing the spread of ISIS teachings online. ISIS publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and reshared.”
Chatrooms in messaging applications used by Islamists, such as Telegram, showed defiant messages about Baghdadi’s death, according to a researcher who monitors activity by ISIS sympathisers.
One user, Abu Abdullah Asy Syami, posted: “Jihad will never stop, even if our own caliph dies.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a similar observation, and said Baghdadi’s death was by no means the end. “This is a many-headed monster… As you cut one off, another one inevitably arises,” he told reporters.
Indonesia’s intelligence agency said it was ready for retaliation and though Baghdadi’s death would be a psychological blow, ISIS would have a successor in place.
“It is a war. Usually, there must be a counter-attack or the like. When it comes to security, we are sure that we will secure this country,” said agency spokesman Wawan Purwanto.
IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENT IN TERROR FIGHT: MFA
The death of fugitive ISIS militant group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a raid by United States special forces in Syria on Sunday, is an important development in the global fight against terrorism, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The ministry said terrorism remains a serious threat across the world, including in Singapore.
“As a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Singapore remains committed to fighting global terrorism, including by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” the ministry said ina statement.
“We stand in solidarity with the global efforts and support international cooperation to tackle terrorism and the perpetuation of extremist ideologies,” it added.
Singapore joined the coalition against ISIS in November 2014.
Baghdadi’s death was announced by US President Donald Trump in a televised address on Sunday.
DNA test results of Baghdadi’s remains confirmed his identity, the President said.
The 48-year-old Baghdadi was the most senior terrorist leader killed or captured since Osama bin Laden’s death in a similar raid in Pakistan in 2011.
Baghdadi seized the world’s attention in July 2014 after declaring a caliphate over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group committed atrocities against religious minorities in the area.
The group and its affiliates have been responsible for many terrorist attacks around the world and inspired supporters to carry out plots in cities including Paris, Manchester, Berlin, Sydney and Colombo.