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Shi'ite fighters, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
Reuters//Alaa Al-Marjani
Members of the Iraqi army prepare to fight against militants of the Islamic State.

There is increasing evidence that the Islamic State is expanding into Asia Pacific

By Lily Kuo

Australian security forces raided hundreds of homes in Sydney and Brisbane today on intelligence that militants were planning a public beheading in the name of the Islamic State. It’s the latest sign that the extremist group also known as ISIL, which has taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, may be extending its reach into the Asia Pacific too.

Parts of East and Southeast Asia are attractive targets for ISIL recruiters. Over half of Malaysians and Indonesians are Muslim; Indonesia, with over 200 million followers of Islam, is the world’s most populous Muslim country. Extremist groups like Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), responsible for a bombing that killed over 200 in Bali in 2002 ,and its splinter group Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, have already been active in the region for years.

Worryingly, Abu Bakar Bashir, the imprisoned head of JI, pledged allegiance to ISIL last month.

Recruitment appears to be ramping up. Indonesian law enforcement officials told Foreign Policy that ISIL has been recruiting aggressively across the country, holding events in over 50 cities over the past several months, in hopes of raising funds and finding new fighters. At least one ISIL recruiter, an Australian man, has been arrested in the Philippines. As we’ve pointed out, China—home to an increasingly frustrated Uighur Muslim population—has become a potential ISIL breeding ground as well, with four Uighurs detained in Indonesia this week.

Here are the latest numbers:

  • Malaysia estimates that about 20 of its nationals have gone to Syria to fight for ISIL, and Malaysian authorities have arrested at least 19 people for suspected links to the group.
  • Jakarta has said that around 60 Indonesian nationals may be supporting ISIL.
  • Australia estimates that up to 160 Australians may be fighting for ISIL in the Middle East.
  • China believes that there may be around 100 Chinese nationals supporting the group.

The number of ISIL sympathizers in the region aren’t huge, but they still pose a danger. “The longer term threat will come from the linkages that these fighters establish with disparate groups,” Rodger Shanahan, a Middle East expert at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera. ”In the future, we may see the existence of another global jihadist network of people who made connections in Syria and Iraq.”