Christina Lin

As ISIS pivots to Asia, quo vadis NATO?

On August 15th an Asia Times article was entitled “ISIS tentacles reach toward China.”

Earlier that week South China Morning Post published an article “Islamic State ‘now planning terror attacks on Asian soil’.”

Throughout the months of July and August a string of articles warned of ISIS contagion in Asia: Al Jazeera’s “Islamic State’s support spread to Asia’; Time Magazine’s “The ISIS Extremists Causing Havoc in Iraq Are Getting Funds and Recruits From Southeast Asia”, Financial Times’s “Indonesia prepare for Isis backlash from returning jihadis.”

In an age of globalization, terrorism is a virulent contagion that is spreading quickly and disregarding borders.

And, ISIS is pivoting to Asia along with the U.S.

As Paddy Ashdown astutely observed in The Guardian, the actual war being fought in Syria and Iraq “is a regional one, with potential to spread across worldwide. It is not an accident that many Isis fighters are foreigners—many of them not even Arabs.”

Of the 10,000 estimated ISIS fighters, about 3,000 hold European passports, with additional fighters from the U.S., Russia, China, Central and Southeast Asia. Hurriyet Daily reports there are also more than 1,000 Turkish fighters in ISIS.

With the preoccupation of Hamas-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, there has been scant western press coverage of terrorism in Asia.

However, the jihadist threat is real in Asia. Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country with nearly 250 million people. With over 87 % of the population being Muslims, Jakarta is a prime target for ISIS with many terrorist cells breeding domestically. Its most prominent terrorist attack was the 2002 Bali bombing by Jemmah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda affiliate, that plagued Indonesia with various terrorist attacks from 2002-2005.

The main danger for Indonesia, Southeast Asia, U.S., Europe and other regions is the return of “jihadi alumni’ to plan attacks in their homelands. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said “this has been a troubling moment as ISIS, which went up into Syria to fight jihad there, are returning to Iraq to their roots with many foreign fighters in tow—including those who may be there from East Asia or other places in the world, including the United States.”

Indeed, key jihadists from the 2002 Bali bombings are Afghan veterans in the 1980s and 1990s, receiving direct training with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. Philippines also harbors another al-Qaeda affiliate, the Abu Sayyaf Group domiciled in the island of Mindanao where most of the country’s 10.3 million Muslim population live. Abu Sayyaf has been involved in bloody attacks and kidnappings in the Philippines and Malaysia, and members were radicalized through studying in madrasas in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Thus the ISIS threat is pivoting to Southeast Asia in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia and especially in Indonesia, where thousands of extremists are openly pledging allegiance to ISIS, flying its flags, selling T-shirts, and openly recruiting jihadists in mosques. Indonesian jihadists paraphernalia has even ended up in Istanbul, where there is an ISIS gift shop of western T-shirts, hoodies, and baseball caps to market ISIS as a global ‘terror brand”. Indonesia-based retailer Zirah Moslem is especially promoting “Islamic style” clothing including pro-Hamas, Taliban and al-Nusra Front products, with slogans ranging from “Mujahideen For Life” to “I love Jihad.”

Prior to August, it was legal in Indonesia to join or raise money for a foreign jihadist group, although terrorist attacks are punishable by death. However, in light of rapid radicalization of the population, the Jakarta government in August officially banned ISIS and the proselytizing of its teachings.

Nonetheless, terrorism is also pivoting to northeast Asia in China’s Xinjiang, Japan and South Korea.

In a July 4 speech in Mosul, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi urged Muslims around the world to pledge their allegiance to him especially where ‘Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Palestine” and more than a dozen other countries and regions. The fact that China was mentioned first on Baghdadi’s list is not lost on the Chinese.

Along with Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo also face terrorist threats. In 2003, when South Korea and Japan stood in solidarity with its U.S. ally and joined the war effort in Iraq, al-Qaeda threatened to attack U.S. military assets in those countries—Japan hosts 50,000 U.S. troops while South Korea hosts 28,500 troops.   And despite the killing of two Japanese diplomats in November in northern Iraq as a warning, Prime Minister Koizumi was undaunted that “We will not give in to terrorism…whether Self Defense Forces or civilians, we will do what we have to do.”

In December 2003, Japan deployed 1,000 troops from Japan’s Self Defense Force (JSDF) and joined South Korea’s 2,800 troops in Iraq—the third largest contingent behind the U.S. and Great Britain.

As NATO is winding down its Afghan operation this year and searching for a new strategic narrative in the upcoming September Wales summit, there have been debates on how to preserve the valuable interoperability and partnerships of the NATO ISAF coalition—with warriors from 50 nations fighting for a common cause.

Back in May, NATO Defense College even convened a conference in Vancouver to discuss whether NATO should jointly pivot with the U.S. to Asia and upgrade cooperative security with Asian partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

A month later in June, a jihadist state was born in Syria/Iraq and handed NATO a new narrative for both its members and partners.

In one of the great epics of Western literature, the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, the hero— overwhelmed by numerous and powerful enemies—temporarily succumbed to self-pity and lamented, “I wish none of this has happened.” The hero’s wise adviser responds, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

NATO is now at a crossroad facing defense budget austerity, internal division, confrontation with Russia and an expansionist genocidal jihadist state on its southern flank. It will have to decide what to do with the time that is given to the alliance.

This week, as EU ministers met to debate whether to arm the Kurds or just stick to humanitarian aid, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was ready to boost German action, despite national restrictions limiting arms exports to raging conflicts.

He exhorted that “Europeans must not limit themselves to praising the courageous fight of the Kurdish security forces. We also need to do something first of all to meet basic needs.” Despite Germany’s allergies to involvement in armed conflicts, in face of ISIS’s monstrosities even Berlin cannot stand idly by.

Indeed Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Why NATO has celebrated 65 years when Warsaw Pact disintegrated is because it is not just an interest-based alliance, but an alliance based on values—of human rights, individual liberty, rule of law.

As U.S. Ambassador to Norway Benson Whitney said in 2009, without the will to defend basic values upon which the alliance was founded, it cannot assume leadership. If the alliance believes in a world defined by freedom and democratic values, then it must speak out for those values without apology and actively defend them, even when it might be easier to do nothing.

In the upcoming September NATO summit, in face of rising Islamic jihadism whether in the Middle East, East Asia, U.S. or Europe, the transatlantic alliance and its allies in the free world, more than ever, will need to decide whether to stand up and defend those values upon which the alliance was founded.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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