The Demographics of Southeast Asian Jihadism
Shortly after sunrise on July 31, soldiers at a military checkpoint outside Lamitan City in the Philippines’ Basilan province were hailed over to inspect a white 10-seat van suspected of bearing an improvised explosive device. Moments later, the bomb in the vehicle detonated, killing at least 10 people. Among the dead were four civilians, including women and a child.
The brief interactions between the van’s driver and soldiers prior to the blast suggested that the driver was a foreigner, incapable of responding to the soldiers’ questions in the local dialect. The Islamic State soon claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq News Agency, stating that a Moroccan national had carried out the “martyrdom operation.” As Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted, the attack represented the first time that the Islamic State had “claimed a foreign fighter was involved in an attack in the Philippines in official statements.” Among other things, the attack spotlights the question of what kind of person might be responsible for terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia.
There is little research to date elucidating the demographics of typical members of Southeast Asian jihadist groups who may carry out or support attacks like the Lamitan City bombing. This article is designed to advance the state of knowledge about Southeast Asian jihadism by drawing on original research into the demographic characteristics of 242 Southeast Asia-based jihadists. While there are limitations to the representativeness of demographic information derived from open sources, which will be discussed subsequently, having a larger amount of data on the phenomenon can aid in better assessing the plausibility of existing hypotheses about jihadism in the region. This article first describes the methodology that we employed in gathering data about Southeast Asian jihadists, then turns to our major findings about the militants’ sex and age, nationality and place of activity, kinship ties, propensity for prison radicalization, and place of origin.
For more than two years, we — along with other team members at Valens Global — have compiled extensive data mapping the demographics of jihadists throughout the globe. For this article, we supplemented our pre-existing research with additional open-source materials to identify Southeast Asian jihadists whose profiles have come to light since our first compilation of data. In conducting this research, we emphasized information that could be found in regional media sources. Our data set includes 242 individuals involved in jihadist activity in Southeast Asia. Our goal in compiling this data is to be as comprehensive as possible. A significant amount of our research time was devoted to the 2017–18 period, for which we assess that we have been able to compile information on over 80 percent of active Southeast Asian jihadists with sufficient information in the open-source literature describing their demographic profile. The percentage of jihadists included in our data declines in the preceding periods, but we do not consider that problematic for the purposes of this article, which is primarily designed to provide a current demographic snapshot of Southeast Asian jihadists.
It should be acknowledged that there are limits to how representative any sample of jihadist demographics obtained through open-source analysis can be. After all, militant groups are by nature clandestine, so the very fact that an individual is known well enough in open sources to form a demographic profile of him or her makes that person in some ways exceptional in the world of jihadism. Despite this challenge, a competent data-driven analysis can nonetheless help to illuminate the demographics of regional jihadism by painting a fuller picture than existed previously, so long as researchers do not over-interpret their results, and are aware of this representativeness problem.
For all individuals in the data set, we endeavored to collect data on their nationality, country of primary activity, age, sex, kinship ties, education, military history, place of origin, and history of prison radicalization. Though efforts were made to gather all such data for each individual, it was often impossible to find all this information in open-source materials. It is likely that a number of jihadists in this data set also exhibit additional demographic characteristics that could not be ascertained in our research; some of the trends outlined may be even more pronounced than is reflected in our conclusions.
If an individual was noted as participating in jihadist activity in that person’s country of origin, but no other demographic information was available, that person was not included in our data. Individuals were included only if available research indicated at least one demographic characteristic other than nationality and place of primary activity, assuming the place of primary activity was the same as the individual’s country of origin. We created an exception to this rule for women, as female participation in Southeast Asian jihadist activity has historically been rare, and thus warrants inclusion even without other demographic information. Our research was carefully tailored to minimize the risk of double-counting.
Average ages in this study were based on the jihadists’ age at the time of their most recently publicized activity (attack, arrest, death, etc.). When a jihadist’s age was not identified, but another characteristic associated with age was noted (such as the year of graduation from a school), the age was estimated. Though there is some imprecision to such estimates, they were included because otherwise the presence of younger militants might remain invisible to readers, and we assess it as an important trend. Regarding kinship ties, individuals were assessed as related to other jihadists by marriage if the two individuals themselves were married, or if they had a legal familial relationship through a spouse (e.g., brother-in-law, father-in-law).
Sex and Age
Likely the most consequential demographic development in regional jihadism has been the growing role played by women. This development is evident even in the absence of statistical data, as a casual analysis of recent plots and jihadist groups’ shifting strategies reveals the greater female role.
For example, an Indonesian woman, Dian Yulia Novi, plotted in late 2016 to blow herself up in front of the Indonesian presidential palace. Having been radicalized during her time as a domestic worker in Singapore, Novi’s plot represented the first time a woman spearheaded an intended attack in Indonesia. The increase in the number of jihadist women in Indonesia is likely attributable to the 2009 decision of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) to begin training women due to insufficient numbers of male fighters in the group’s ranks. Though MIT’s decision was rendered almost a decade ago, the first attacks in the country actually planned and carried out by women did not occur until Novi’s aforementioned 2016 plot.
Indonesian women have since been increasingly active in violent activities, while Filipino and Malaysian women in our data set tended to act in supporting roles, such as providing financial support. Our data suggests that greater female involvement in jihadism is most clearly evident in Indonesia of the three countries of focus. 58 percent of women in our data set were of Indonesian nationality, while 50 percent of included women were active in Indonesia. Of the 242 individuals in the data, 85 percent were male and 15 percent female.
The average age of Southeast Asian jihadists in our data set was around 31 years, calculated from the ages of the 111 individuals with information available. 20 percent of those individuals were under the age of 20, while two jihadists were over 60. The average age held true even when very young and old outliers were excluded. The average age of radicalized women was between 27 and 28. The average age of the overall population in both Indonesia and Malaysia hovers around 28, while in the Philippines the median age is only 24.
Nationality and Place of Activity
Scholars studying Southeast Asia generally see the Philippines as critical to regional jihadist efforts. After all, there have been longstanding jihadist campaigns in that country, culminating in the five-month-long Marawi siege in 2017. In that siege, militants took over the city for an extended period before it was liberated by Philippine forces. Further, the Islamic State has called for Southeast Asians who were unable to travel to Syria to instead fight in the Philippines. A number of Islamic State-affiliated groups in the Philippines have been able to draw fighters to the country from abroad. Indonesian jihadists also have a history of traveling to the Philippine region of Mindanao, which has served as a training ground, transit point, and sanctuary for jihadists.
Our data tends to support the notion of the country’s centrality to regional militancy. Of the 242 individuals in our data, 51 percent were recently active in jihadist ventures in the Philippines, with 25 percent active in Indonesia and 15 percent active in Malaysia. In comparison, Indonesia’s overall population dwarfs that of the other two countries, with nearly 264 million individuals in 2017, while the Philippines and Malaysia have populations of around 105 million and 32 million, respectively.
Studies examining Southeast Asian jihadist groups find that these organizations have long relied on kinship ties, and our data tends to reinforce this conclusion. A study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that examined the pull of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front — a group that was previously jihadist in orientation but now largely acts as a political party — in the Mindanao region showed that the influence of family members was one of the top two factors affecting one’s membership. Of the 242 individuals in our data, 74 had documented familial connections with other members of jihadist groups.
Among the most common kinship ties in jihadist organizations are connections through marriage. Groups like Jemaah Islamiyah have long been strengthened by marriages, which can be a tool for forging strategic ties with other militant organizations. The power of kinship ties is reflected in the background of one person touted late last year as the likely new emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, the Malaysian Amin Baco. (Since then, there have been conflicting reports about whether Baco is deceased.) Baco rose to prominence in part because he was the son-in-law of Isnilon Hapilon, the group’s emir in the Philippines until his death in October 2017. Baco likely married Hapilon’s daughter after he joined the Abu Sayyaf Group. Of the kinship ties in our study’s data, 51 percent were via marriage, whether directly as a spouse or indirectly through in-laws.
39 percent of individuals with familial connections had a parent-child relationship. Another 23 percent of individuals with familial connections had siblings in jihadist groups (a figure that excludes young siblings in parent-directed plots). Familial connections are easily seen in organizations like Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, where the leadership includes many members of the same extended family. These groups recognize the benefits of kinship ties, such as loyalty.
While familial connections within and between jihadist organizations have long been important in Southeast Asia, terrorist attacks carried out by nuclear family units are a more recent concern. The May 2018 Surabaya bombings in Indonesia came as a shock to many not only due to their brutality, but also because three families perpetrated the attacks, involving children as young as seven in suicide bombings. The acts of violence were entirely planned and carried out within small family units. While no similar family plots were recorded in this study, there were multiple instances of very young children being brought into jihadist groups by older siblings, while parents were at times offered money and a monthly salary for their children’s membership in jihadist groups.
One concern expressed by Southeast Asian counter-terrorism officials is the possibility of radicalization of previously non-jihadist prison inmates. In both Indonesian and Philippine prisons, convicted terrorists and radicalized individuals are frequently housed alongside low-level criminals. Influential jihadists like Abu Bakar Bashir and Aman Abdurrahman have been able to radicalize other inmates, and even plan and direct attacks from prison.
While we would like to gather more data on the regional prison radicalization phenomenon, our data provides some support for the idea that there is reason for concern. At least seven individuals (2.9 percent) in this study were recruited or radicalized in prisons, with three instances in Indonesia and another four in Malaysia. In the three countries of focus in the study, the average incarceration rate is 0.08 percent, and Malaysia has the highest rate at 0.16 percent. A number of individuals in this study who were recruited or radicalized in prison were initially imprisoned for offenses they committed as low-level drug dealers.
The regional phenomenon related to education that analysts have most frequently remarked upon is the potential for certain primary or secondary schools to serve as hot spots for extremist ideology, as studies have concluded that attendance of Southeast Asian schools with extremist ideologies increases the likelihood of involvement in jihadist activity. Our data tends to reinforce this concern. Nine individuals in our study (3.7 percent) attended primary or secondary schools known to espouse extremist viewpoints. A number attended schools connected to or founded by prominent Indonesian jihadist Abu Bakar Bashir.
The first Indonesian jihadist known to have died fighting in Syria, Riza Fardi, graduated in 2006 from the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in Ngruki founded by Bashir, then taught at the school for a year before beginning his higher education. He was likely influenced by the jihadist teachings known to be prominent at Al-Mukmin.
There were no clearly discernible trends with respect to higher education. 9.5 percent of individuals in this study were known to have completed at least some higher education at the university level, or the religious equivalent. The average participation rate in higher education in the three countries of study is around 31 percent, according to the most recent UNESCO figures. Malaysia has the highest participation rate in tertiary education at 44 percent, while Indonesia has the lowest at 28 percent. In our data set, participation in higher education was more common among more senior members of militant groups. This fact, in turn, gives rise to the possibility that the seeming under-representation of individuals with university-level education may be a statistical illusion, as the educational background of less prominent jihadists may not be readily discernible in open sources.
Place of Origin
The place of origin of most individuals in this study could not be discerned. Of the 17 Indonesians with known places of origin (either a birthplace or where a good deal of their childhood was spent), 16 were from the region of Java, where over half of the greater Indonesian population lives.
A region of the Philippines that is frequently mentioned in scholarly study of Southeast Asian jihadism is the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Of the eight Filipinos with known places of origin, 100 percent were from Mindanao, with five individuals originating in the ARMM. A significant number of other Filipino jihadists also attended university in this region or had long been active in it, but we could not verify if they actually grew up there. Mindanao has long been plagued by conflict and discontent, dating back to the period of Spanish colonization. The region has a high proportion of Muslims in an otherwise overwhelmingly Catholic country. Mindanao and the ARMM in particular are some of the poorest regions in the Philippines. The World Bank reports that while the national poverty rate is around 16.5 percent, the poverty rate in ARMM is drastically higher at 48.2 percent. 14.4 percent of youth are out of school in ARMM, compared to 10.6 percent nationally.
Foreign fighters in Southeast Asia have been the subject of growing focus, and raised particular concern in the 2017 siege of Marawi, where significant numbers of Indonesians and Malaysians were reported to have fought alongside Filipino militants. There were also reports of participation by Arabs, Chechens, Indians, and other non-Southeast Asian foreign nationals. Claims regarding the presence of these fighters have proven difficult to verify. Even when verification of a certain nationality’s presence is possible, information regarding these fighters’ individual identities has proven hard to obtain and confirm via open sources. Because an individual’s inclusion in this data set was contingent on identity characteristics other than nationality, it is probable that foreign fighters are underrepresented in our sample.
As noted, the data we have gathered represents a biased sample — an unfortunate consequence of any attempt to understand clandestine organizations exclusively through open sources. But, in combination with other sources, our data does provide some insight into the membership of Southeast Asian jihadist groups. Militant groups tend to be learning organizations, and one of the adaptations that they make involves who is involved in their activities, as can be seen in growing female involvement in the region. In addition, globalizing trends — both within and also apart from the jihadist movement — hold out the prospect of a diversifying base of militants, with greater involvement from jihadists outside their countries of origin. It is worth continuing to pay close attention to the evolving demographics of Southeast Asian jihadism.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global. Vivian Hagerty is the deputy research manager at Valens Global. Madeline Dement, a research intern at Valens Global, is currently finishing an academic degree at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Image: Wikimedia Commons