ALAMEDA, CALIFORNIA – The Taliban victory in Afghanistan could inspire radical Muslim groups in Southeast Asia to take up arms once more against their own governments, analysts say, and officials are on alert for potential violence.
Scholars say Muslim rebel fronts, such as the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf, a violent rebel organization known for kidnapping tourists, and the Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, a suspected plotter of the deadly Bali bombings of 2002, will feel empowered by the August 15 ascent of the Taliban to carry out localized attacks such as bombings.
“Taliban or no Taliban, we have always considered local extremism as a big concern,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the Philippine News Agency on August 27. He noted agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia to share information and protect their sea borders.
Media outlets quote Indonesian officials as saying they, too, are on guard, and a counterterrorism police detachment is monitoring social media for any clues. Indonesia and Malaysia are predominantly Muslim countries. Many in the southern part of the Philippines are Muslim as well.
Extremist groups advocate Muslim independent states in Southeast Asia, a region of 660 million people that includes several key U.S. allies. Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, among others, have been backed by al-Qaida, a terrorist organization that the Taliban once allowed to shelter in Afghanistan, according to Southeast Asia scholars.
“In terms of kinship and solidarity for these groups, there is a degree of support,” said Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia specialist with the Taiwan Strategy Research Association, referring to the Taliban.
“Although the Taliban doesn’t have a direct influence in the region, of course they exert a certain amount of indirect influence, which can be capitalized by the groups that are actually present in the region like al-Qaida or Abu Sayyaf,” Cau told VOA. Al-Qaida has helped rebels before in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Who Leads the Taliban?
Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada is Taliban’s supreme leader, a position he took following the death of his predecessor, Akhtar Mansour, in a 2016 US drone strike
Fighters with the Taliban, an armed religious-political movement, quickly captured almost all of Afghanistan on their way to taking the capital, Kabul, 20 years after U.S.-led forces ousted the group from power.
“This was superb for morale across Southeast Asia,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington. “They’ve watched the Taliban driven from power, driven into Pakistan by the Great Satan — this feared nation the United States — and they watched the Taliban persevere, go up against a superpower and just with their discipline, their focus, their religious fervor, drive America out of the country.”
The Taliban, Abu Sayyaf, al-Qaida and Indonesia-based Laskar Jihad follow Wahhabism, a strain of Islam that is “responsible for creating” extremists and terrorists, University of Hawaii-Manoa faculty member Federico Magdalena wrote in a 2003 analysis.
Laskar Jihad’s Indonesian founder trained in Pakistan and fought with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union in the 1980s. Terrorist leaders Abdujarak Abubakar and Khadaffy Janjalani trained in Afghanistan before forming Abu Sayyaf in 1991, the Philippine defense secretary said.
Shift to Mideast
The training of Southeast Asian militants shifted to Iraq and Syria after U.S. forces routed the Taliban in 2002. Eventually governments in Southeast Asia arrested hundreds of rebels, Abuza said, and weakened their power.
The Taliban influence “is more tangential now,” he said. “Very simply, since the Taliban was driven from power in 2002 and war on terror really began in Southeast Asia with arrest of hundreds of militants, it’s hard to make a case that those ties remain to this day.”
Those militants could get new support now from Afghanistan, but it would likely be squelched quickly this time, experts say. Government leaders are prepared, while most of their populations prefer a liberal, moderate type of Islam that discourages armed struggle.
“Srategically speaking and ideologically speaking, they’re different,” Cau said.
Mainstream Muslims in Malaysia worry about how the Taliban will treat Afghan women, said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with the polling group Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur. Women throughout Muslim Southeast Asia are able to work and attend school.
Radical Muslims in Malaysia have “applauded” the Taliban’s victory, though, and the government of the largely Muslim country will pay close attention to any cross-border influence of Afghanistan’s new leadership, Suffian said.
“I’m sure they’re monitoring what’s happening,” he said. “I think there is a long-term concern that this will inspire more radicalized conservative types … to study religion in Pakistan and parts of India, so I think that has a long-term effect on the Muslim community here.”
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines still have more control over local extremists than did the Afghan government that was deposed last month, Cau said. The Philippines would even allow entry to Afghans fleeing from fear of persecution, a presidential office spokesman in Manila said.
About 20 Muslim rebel groups still operate in the southern Philippines, a region known for five decades of periodic violence and 120,000 deaths, though the formation of a Muslim autonomous region in 2018 has eased some of that tension.