A MAJOR factor for the continued presence of extremist groups in Southeast Asia and the world is the ability to quickly regenerate their leadership following the killing of their leaders in counter-terrorism operations.
This is largely true of al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), and others in the region, such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf.
In a way, leadership regeneration has become an important part of the organisational model of these groups, which largely explains the difficulties in totally eradicating them.
The Marawi siege, from May to October last year, was particularly important as it was an attempt to replicate and transplant Mosul (a major city in northern Iraq) or Raqa (a city in Syria and de facto capital of IS since 2014) to the Philippines, symbolising Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi’s reach in Southeast Asia as a whole.
This failed, but its implications are particularly significant as far as extremist leadership in the region is concerned.
While the siege started with the Philippine government’s attempt to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the emir of IS, it went awry, with the Philippine authorities losing control of Marawi to the terrorist group and its supporters.
This was the first time a terrorist group had captured a territory in the region, what more in an urban setting, and held it for five months. It was akin to a “small Mosul” or “small Raqa” in the Philippines.
The five months taken to wrest back Marawi was partly due to the difficulties involved in urban warfare, which advantaged the terrorists holed up in houses and buildings, and holding civilians hostage, including women and children.
More than 1,000 people were killed, including security personnel, civilians and terrorists. Marawi was severely damaged, becoming the site of the heaviest fighting in the Philippines since World War 2.
The most significant consequence was the deaths of key IS leaders Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute. This was a severe blow to the extremist leadership in the Philippines, especially for the pro-IS groups, and which ended the siege.
However, as conceded by counter-terrorism officials in Malaysia and Indonesia, “the battle may be over but there is still a long way to go as far as the war is concerned”.
This is primarily due to the extremists’ ability to regenerate themselves. In fact, many key leaders are believed to be alive in the Philippines and beyond.
While Osamaism and Omarism have continued in the post-Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar eras in al-Qaeda and Taliban, respectively, similarly, the Southeast Asian terrorist landscape continues to be determined by the presence of leading extremists in the region.
While JI has been decapitated with the loss of key leaders, such as Imam Samudra, Noordin M. Top, Azahari Husin and Dulmatin, it continues to be relevant due to its ability to replace its leaders.
In the same manner, the deaths of Hapilon and Omarkhayam have not fundamentally reduced or removed the extremist threat in the region. Four key leaders continue to be a source of inspiration and leadership. They are Amin Baco, Bahrumsyah, Abu Turaifie and Bahrun Naim.
Amin Baco is of Bugis descent from Sulawesi, a Malaysian born in Sabah who built his credentials fighting in Jolo and Basilan in Mindanao.
He is also the son-in-law of two key Abu Sayyaf commanders, including Hapilon. He is a leading bomb-maker, charismatic and respected among the extremists in Mindanao, even though he does not hail from any of the tribes or clans there. Amin is the designated leader of IS in Southeast Asia and successor of Hapilon.
Bahrumsyah is probably Indonesia’s leading terrorist, being the emir of Katibah Nusantara, a Southeast Asian subgroup within IS. He was among the first few Indonesians to support al-Baghdadi and IS, and is believed to be in Syria today.
Abu Turaifie, a former member of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, is the leader of Muhaajireen Wal Ansar. His group is part of IS in the Philippines. Turaifie is based in the Maguindanao Province.
Bahrun Naim is believed to be operating in Iraq and Syria.
While he has been trained as a suicide bomber in Syria, his talent is more in cyberspace, putting up IS propaganda and motivational videos.
Some believe that these online videos have played a part in the recruitment of IS supporters in Indonesia, either as fighters in Syria or to undertake violent actions locally.
Southeast Asian extremists are akin to the many-headed hydra, reviving and surfacing quickly following a successful counter-terrorism operation by the authorities. In the post-Marawi era, Amin Baco is believed to be hiding in Basilan or Jolo, and is probably planning a counter-attack in the near future.
There is every reason to be vigilant as Amin Baco, Bahrumsyah and Bahrun Naim could continue to pose a threat post-Marawi.
Even though they may be recovering from defeat in the Middle East and Marawi, they may want to launch new violent attacks to demonstrate that IS is ever present.
Bilveer Singha is an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and an associate professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore