After Baghdadi death, Southeast Asia expects long fight against Islamic State's influence

After Baghdadi death, Southeast Asia expects long fight against Islamic State's influence

FILE PHOTO: Marawi's ruins a reminder of Islamic State's devastating reach
FILE PHOTO: Dilapidated structures are seen at the most affected war-torn area of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur province, Philippines, May 11, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo

MANILA/KUALA LUMPUR: Southeast Asian countries fighting Islamic State's influence in the region lauded the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the group's ideology.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia's most organised militants, said on Monday (Oct 28) they were braced for retaliation by Islamic State loyalists, including "lone wolf" attacks by locals radicalised by the group's powerful online propaganda.

Baghdadi killed himself in a tunnel in northwest Syria by detonating a suicide vest as US forces closed in, according to US President Donald Trump.

Though his death will unsettle Islamic State, it remains capable and dangerous, said 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.

READ: Killing of Islamic State leader Baghdadi an 'important development' in fight against terror: MFA

"This is a blow to the organisation considering al-Baghdadi's stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organisation worldwide," Lorenzana said. "Somebody will take his place."

FILE PHOTO: The war-torn Grand Mosque is pictured in Marawi City
FILE PHOTO: The war-torn Grand Mosque is pictured in Marawi City, Lanao province, Philippines, May 11, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo

Southeast Asia has long been an important focus for Islamic State, which has inspired militants in West Africa, across the Middle East and Asia and through to Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned Islamic State 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.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings since July last year in the Philippines, which fought its toughest battle since World War Two in 2017 when extremists seeking to establish an Islamic State laid siege to Marawi City and occupied it through five months of air and ground assaults.

READ: One year after deadly siege, Philippine forces remain on red alert in Marawi

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 Islamic State's leadership but the effect of its teachings.

"It's good news, but his 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 Islamic State teachings online. Islamic State publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and re-shared," he said.

"JIHAD WILL NEVER STOP"

Chatrooms in messaging applications used by militants, such as Telegram, showed defiant messages about Baghdadi's death, according to a researcher who monitors activity by Islamic State sympathisers.

"God Willing, whatever happens, Islamic jihad will not rely on any one individual, but will always stand tall on the orders of God and His Prophet," read one posting under the handle Ansurul Ummah.

Another participant, Abu Abdullah Asy Syami, posted: "Jihad will never stop, even if our own caliph dies."

READ: Baghdadi 'The Ghost': Islamic State chief who oversaw its rise and fall

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.

FILE PHOTO: Marawi's ruins a reminder of Islamic State's devastating reach
FILE PHOTO: A class schedule is seen on a wall spray-painted with "ISIS" at a school in the most affected war-torn area of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur province, Philippines, May 11, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez/File Photo

Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority country, is grappling with a resurgence in militancy and has detained hundreds of suspects this year under tightened anti-terrorism laws.

Authorities believe thousands of Indonesians draw inspiration from Islamic State and about 500 are thought to have joined the group in Syria.

READ: ‘My father was abducted by ISIS’: Marawi children dealing with siege trauma

Indonesia's intelligence agency said it was ready for retaliation and though Baghdadi's death would be a psychological blow, Islamic State would have a successor in place.

"It is a war. Usually, there must be a counterattack or the like. When it comes to security, we are sure that we will secure this country," said its spokesman, Wawan Purwanto.

Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said Baghdadi's demise and uncertainty about the leadership could undermine operations of Islamic State loyalists seeking to regroup and establish their own territory in Southeast Asia.

"Pro-Islamic State groups in the Philippines will surely re-examine their roles in the post-Baghdadi era," he said.

Source: Reuters/aa

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