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Asia

Emboldened by Paris attacks, Asian jihadists could pose new threats

While international efforts are focused on subduing the "Islamic State" threat in the Middle East, experts warn that a potential peril could emerge from Asian jihadist groups, who feel emboldened by IS' "success."

The "Islamic State" (IS) militant group has been trying to expand into Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh for quite some time. While they have not been very successful, they seem to have a fairly good chance now.

The reason for this is that the Middle Eastern jihadist group can now present the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed over 130 people and injured dozens on November 13, as a "success story" to extremist groups in South and Southeast Asia.

Experts believe IS is emerging as an inspiration not only to new jihadists, but also to disillusioned members of militant groups such as the Taliban and al Qaeda. IS has become an organization which has not only captured vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, but also struck terror at the heart of Europe - a jihadist cause shared by most Islamist organizations.

Despite the fact that international efforts are currently focused on subduing IS in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, analysts point out that a potent threat to world peace could come from Asia.

French police with protective shields walk in line near the Bataclan concert hall following fatal shootings in Paris, France, November 14, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

Witnesses said IS gunmen shouted "Allahu Akbar" as they stormed into the Bataclan concert hall in Paris

"The Paris attacks, like all other terrorist activities of similar magnitude, will hugely embolden Islamist groups not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in other countries," Arif Jamal, a US-based scholar on Islamic extremism, told DW.

"The attacks show that Western countries are more vulnerable to terrorism emerging from Asia than ever. Many radical groups and individuals in Afghanistan and Pakistan will respond by joining IS or creating a wider support base for the militant group," he added.

This Paris attacks, thus, should be looked at in the broader perspective of an expanding global jihadist movement, analysts underline.

'Significant support' in South Asia

Jamal fears the Paris attacks will not only strengthen IS' infrastructure in Pakistan and Afghanistan but also globally. "It will attract new allies from all over the world. Big and small groups will join its ranks. Many individuals, including those who find their national Islamist groups not strong enough to impose shariah, will move towards IS," Jamal said.

But more than in any other country, the conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are ripe for IS to become a major force. IS and the Taliban have been on hostile terms, despite the fact that both organizations are dominated by Sunni extremists. But lately, IS has been building up its presence in Afghanistan and recruiting disenchanted Taliban members.

A Taliban splinter group, headed by Mullah Mohammad Rasool, already has close ties with IS. It has been involved in a fierce battle against the main Taliban group led by Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, inflicting heavy casualties on its opponents.

"There is a significant support base for IS in South Asia. In Afghanistan, most of the Salafists and Wahhabists have already joined its ranks, particularly in the provinces of Nuristan, Kunar and Nangarhar. Many factions of the Taliban have also joined or allied themselves with IS. Most importantly, the Jamatud Dawa (former Lashkar-e-Taiba) has allied itself with the Middle Eastern terror group in Afghanistan," Jamal told DW, adding that the situation was not much different in neighboring Pakistan.

"Mosques in different Pakistani cities are openly supporting IS and its agenda. One of the most radicalized mosques in Islamabad, called the Red Mosque, has publicly declared backing the Sunni militant group," Jamal said.

Many Pakistanis and Afghans hailed on social media IS and its ability to strike Paris, which experts say is a worrying sign, but represents the general anti-Western feeling.

Bangladesh on the edge

A number of attacks in Bangladesh have been claimed by IS or its allied networks. Although local officials downplay the threat, security experts have a different take on it.

"IS exists in Bangladesh and is expanding," Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), told DW. "Bangladesh has turned into a hub for international terrorism in the past two decades. Today, we can say that the country serves as a significant recruiting ground for the global jihadist movement," he said, adding that the arrests of Bangladeshi nationals fighting for IS and Al-Nusra Front in Syria were proof of that.

While Wolf does not think the Paris attacks will drastically change the jihadist landscape in the Muslim-majority South Asian country, he admits that they will likely function as a catalyst for the further polarization and entrenchment of jihadism in the country.

China's Uighurs and Southeast Asia's militants

Analyst Wolf says IS' activities are also motivating China's Uighur militants. "The fact that Uighur Muslim extremists are increasingly choosing territories outside China to build a support network or to carry out militant activities is an indication that they are broadening their goals and strategies," Wolf said.

IS, according to Wolf, is aware of the geo-strategic significance of the areas where Uighur militants are currently operating. "For IS, Uighurs are a potential ally. Uighurs lack human, financial and logistic capacities, and the wealthy and successful IS group could boost their activities in the future. It is also likely that Uighurs could join its ranks and fight directly under its banner," Wolf warned, adding that the Paris attacks could be an additional motivation for Uighur militants.

Motorists ride past a graffiti of the Islamic State group's flag in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia (AP Photo)

'IS' seeking a foothold in Southeast Asia

The situation is worrisome in Southeast Asia as well. At present, over 500 Indonesians and several dozen Malaysians are believed to be in the ranks of the IS terrorist group. These numbers were enough for IS to form a combat unit called "Malay Archipelago." The threat posed by IS must be taken seriously, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long warned in June. "The threat is no longer over there; it is over here," the PM said at the annual Shangri La Dialogue security conference.

This perception is also shared by Felix Heiduk, Southeast Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin-based think tank. "The IS propaganda machine has been successful in luring a number of militant Islamist groups operating in Indonesia or in the south of the Philippines, and these groups now openly pledge allegiance to IS."

Siegfried Herzog, a regional director at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Bangkok, told DW that Malaysia recently sentenced a member of its navy to nine months in jail for having IS propaganda on his mobile phone. "Some radicals have traveled to Syria to fight along IS. For that reason, the security forces have redoubled their efforts to control extremists. But it is too early to tell if the Paris attacks could embolden Islamists in the region," Herzog said.