A threat by Philippine militants to kill a German hostage in a demonstration of solidarity with the Islamic State (IS) is the latest sign that the brand of radicalism advocated by the group — formerly known as the Isamic State of Iraq and the Levant — is winning recruits in Asia and posing a growing security risk in the region.
More than 100 people from Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries of Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines are believed by security officials and analysts to have gone to join the Islamic State’s fight in Iraq and Syria. Malaysian and Indonesian militants have discussed forming a 100-strong Malay-speaking unit within the Islamic State in Syria, according to a report released this week by a well-known security group.
The US Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear said on Thursday that about 1,000 recruits from India to the Pacific might have joined the Islamic State to fight in Syria or Iraq. He did not specify the countries or give a time frame.
“That number could get larger as we go forward,” Locklear told reporters at the Pentagon.
In addition to India, the Hawaii-based Pacific Command’s area of responsibility covers 36 countries, including Australia, China and other Pacific Ocean states. The command does not cover Pakistan.
In the region, thousands have sworn oaths of loyalty to the Islamic State as local militant groups capitalize on a brand that has been fueled by violent online videos and calls to jihad through social media, security analysts say.
Security officials say this has disturbing implications for the region, especially when battle-hardened fighters return home from the Middle East.
The Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf group, which has earlier claimed links with al-Qaeda and is led by a one-armed septuagenarian, has threatened to kill one of the two Germans it holds hostage by Oct. 10, according to messages distributed on Twitter. As well as US$5.6 million in ransom, the group demanded that Germany halt its support for the US-led bombing campaign launched against the Islamic State this week.
A German Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman told a regular press briefing in Berlin that “threats are no appropriate way of influencing German foreign policy,” and that the ministry’s crisis group was working on the case.
Abu Sayyaf, which beheaded a US man it had taken hostage in 2001, has suffered from dwindling support and military setbacks over the past decade, and is now believed to have only about 300 followers based on remote islands off the southern Philippines.
Security officials doubt it has any links with the Islamic State beyond pledging allegiance to the Middle East-based group, and see it as a move by Abu Sayyaf to revive its fortunes and gain publicity. A senior leader of the group and several other members made an oath of loyalty to the Islamic State in a video uploaded on YouTube in July, Philippine police and monitoring services have said.
“We believe that there is no direct link, that they are possibly sympathizers joining in the bandwagon to gain popular support,” Philippine military spokesman Ramon Zagala said. “We see this as a way to be known, because right now the Abu Sayyaf is in a decline. To directly say that IS is here — there are no indications of that.”
The German man and woman, who were reportedly seized from a yacht in the South China Sea in April, are thought to be held on Jolo Island by Abu Sayyaf fighters loyal to one-armed Radullan Sahiron. His group is also believed to be holding a Dutch and a Swiss hostage seized in May 2012, and a Japanese man.
The three governments have declined to comment on the abductions.
Another Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnilon Hapilon, swore allegiance to the Islamic State in the YouTube video, police officials and the monitoring services said. Speaking in Arabic, he and several other men read a statement swearing “loyalty and obedience in adversity and comfort” to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before a prayer and shouts of Allahu Akbar, they said.
Abu Sayyaf says it is fighting for an independent Islamic state, but it has mainly been a kidnap-for-ransom gang operating in the lawless interiors of southern Philippines islands.
The region is the site of a long drawn-out rebellion by local Muslims against Manila’s rule, but Abu Sayyaf burst into prominence in 2000 after kidnapping 21 tourists and workers from a dive resort in nearby Malaysia.
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