ISIS Pivot To Southeast And Central Asia: An Existential Threat For The Regions?

Since its creation in 2014, ISIS has been in the spotlight due to its impressive and rapid growth and its ambitious long-term political objective to instate a global caliphate. While the Middle East is the birthplace of ISIS, the global reach of their political objectives and their anti-western ideology have shown through numerous terror attacks in the West.

However, Southeast and Central Asia, far from being shielded from the terrorist group, might become its primary area of interest. These regions would allow one step forward towards the ultimate goal of the organization: allowing an extension of the Caliphate on lands of strong symbolical and historical relevance, both Central and Southeast Asia being Wilayahs (provinces) of the former Caliphate. This is all the more powerful as Asia has been undergoing, since the creation of the first Caliphate, a gradual Islamization process resulting in a very important Muslim population.

Islam is traditionally moderate in these regions but some radical branches do exist and have multiplied in recent years. Globalization has brought forward a deep identity crisis often leading to radicalism, yet the political situations in most of these countries remains a determining factor. Many nations are under the rule of repressive governments with Kyrgyzstan being the only Central Asian state which is not a dictatorship. Repression appears to be fueling extremist ideologies going against already fragile central powers. The unstable political situation along with economic and social unrest creates a fertile ground for radicalism and terrorism and is a good opportunity for ISIS to find new recruits.

The geographical proximity between Central Asia and the Middle East is also another factor increasing the interest of ISIS as recruits can navigate easier through those close and porous frontiers. The question of the return of soldiers is also another burning matter for the stability of Asian governments.

The instability of these fragile states makes them predisposed to threats of a radical nature. And, while ISIS might take advantage of the area to extend their influence, pure economical and geostrategic interests are also at stake. Central Asia has many resources which could strengthen ISIS, including 10% of the world’s natural oil reserves, 20% of uranium, 20% of gas, and it is also the world’s third-largest producer of gold. On the other hand, Southeast Asia has a booming economy making it the new area of geopolitical centrality. The US has already made a pivot to Asia and it looks like ISIS might take the same turn.

But these geostrategic interests might also be a sign of ISIS’ loss of power. After its impressive start, the group’s influence has been gradually declining. IHS analysts have estimated that it lost 60% of its land since January 2015 leading to a drastic loss of revenue, their earning have plunged by 80% over the past two years. The organization might try to reclaim credibility by focusing on booming Asia. Terror attacks might multiply because of their strategic efficiency, being both cheap and highly publicized.

Despite its great ambitions, ISIS is not in the position to reach its long-term political objective. In that sense, Central and Southeast Asia do not face an existential threat. But because of its current geopolitical attraction, the terrorist group might focus on the region to achieve short-term objectives. Asian nations are still going to confront acts of a terrorist nature which might increase and obviously affect the civilian population. In addition, the latter is likely to suffer from side effects to these attacks. Indeed, the governments might choose heavier repression as counter-terrorist answers.

But ISIS’s decline does not put an end to terrorism. Terrorism is like a mythical Hydra: the destruction of ISIS will not prevent the proliferation of new terrorist groups that will carry on disrupting the nations.

To fight the terrorist threat as a whole, political, economic and social solutions must be favoured as opposed to a sole military answer. This requires both a short-term answer by containing ISIS, and a long-term strategy focusing on preventing the rise of terrorist groups as well as the multiplication of oppressive policies in order to protect civilians lives as well as their freedom.