The Rise of the Islamic State-Aligned East Asia Knights Outlet
The Islamic State East Asia Province (ISEAP) has come under immense pressure and has suffered setbacks in recent years. Pro-Islamic State (IS) elements have taken measures to help support the cause using propaganda in Southeast Asia. One group in particular that has made a lot of noise in recent months has been the East Asia Knights (EAK). EAK is a relatively new Islamic State-aligned media outlet. It has seemingly only been active for a few months but has issued several claims or propaganda in this time, claiming attacks in the Philippines and Thailand. They have been active on TamTam, Telegram, and Hoop.
Official IS claims
There have been several Islamic State (IS) claims in Southeast Asia over the last couple of years, but they are lower in frequency than they were in the years prior. For instance, in 2019, IS issued at least 32 claims of attacks just in the Philippines (this was aside from other propaganda). IS’s general messaging in Southeast Asia has always had a focus on the Philippines. This is because the number of IS-affiliated groups in the country is higher than they are in other places in ISEAP. It’s also because ISEAP-affiliated groups were also more generally capable (especially in terms of the frequency of attacks) in the Philippines. And of course, there’s the 2017 siege of Marawi in the Philippines, the only place IS-held ground in its caliphate aspirations (for 5 months) in Southeast Asia.
Overall, IS is officially claiming less in the region than it did before. The main reason is the current on-ground reality of the situation: IS-affiliated groups in Southeast Asia have been hit hard by security forces. IS lost Marawi. Major attacks, or even attacks in some places, are rare or exceptions now. Security apparatuses have used a mainly force-based approach, but there are also soft approaches, to counterterrorism. Regional information-sharing and cooperation are increasing. Terrorist groups have not been able to carry out attacks as they could. This in itself is a remarkable feat, given the complexities of maintaining security in Southeast Asia. Nearly every prominent IS-affiliated group in the region has faced significant operational losses, including the following:
- The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), in the Philippines
- The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in the Philippines
- The Maute remnants, in the Philippines
- Other IS-linked groups under the Dawlah Islamiyah (Islamic State) banner in the Philippines
- The Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, in Indonesia
- The Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, in Indonesia
Enter East Asia Knights
There has been a decrease in IS claims in Southeast Asia, and this is where the EAK comes in. EAK is not officially affiliated with IS or ISEAP (al-Naba and official IS still publishes claims for ISEAP by the way). EAK may have some direct communication with some militants in the Philippines; it had apparently published a video from a Filipino militant camp, for instance. It could be (in fact quite likely) that EAK is made up of IS supporters in the region. It seems that EAK is attempting to build the perception that ISEAP is strong and operationally capable, and not on the backfoot. EAK is projecting that there is strong support for the IS narrative in Southeast Asia. By doing so, it is trying to reach out to radicalized extremists in the region, to garner more support for the cause and help IS recruitment. It has claimed attacks in Thailand, which were conducted by separatists involved in a long-running local conflict. This is an attempt to portray a false narrative: that IS has an established, operational presence in Thailand. EAK is trying to say that they are under the umbrella of IS, even though the Malay-Muslim insurgency in Thailand is not part of the global jihad narrative. The reason why it is attempting to claim attacks in Thailand is that insurgent groups in Thailand are capable of conducting attacks. In true IS style, EAK is trying to take credit in places, where none can be attributed to it.
It is also interesting to note that EAK has not published much (if anything), on Indonesia; Indonesia is arguably one of the most important places for IS-linked groups to target with propaganda. This is given the degree of radicalized or extremist elements in the country, and the importance of Indonesia to jihadist narratives in Southeast Asia. The Jemaah Islamiyah, once the deadliest terrorist group in Southeast Asia, predominately operated in Indonesia. Despite its past Al Qaeda affiliation, it influenced IS-linked militants in Indonesia over the last decade. IS propaganda towards Indonesia used to be notably high. Aside from Marawi, some of the most notable or largest IS-linked attacks in Southeast Asia were in Indonesia. Indonesian fighters made up the majority of Katibah Nusantara, a Southeast Asian unit under IS in the Middle East. They were also amongst the most influential Southeast Asian jihadists.
The following are some of the claims and propaganda EAK has published:
- Narathiwat, Thailand, May 25: EAK claimed a rather interesting attack in Thailand’s Deep South. Militants had toppled power poles across roads (to block security force reinforcements), and then attacked a marine police station and nearby infrastructure in Tak Bai. The claim said “kuffal”, which is likely to be a typo for kuffar (which EAK has correctly spelled in other claims), a disbeliever, or denier. The attack was later claimed by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which is much more credible as BRN did conduct the attack. There are no established IS groups in Thailand.
- EAK-Al-Nbiras merger, May: EAK announced a merger with Al-Nbiras, a pro-IS publication covering Thailand. EAK stated that it would now cover Thailand. It is interesting how EAK published a video of the May 25 Narathiwat attack in Thailand. This may have come through Al-Nbiras. It must be noted here that Al-Nbiras is not a credible IS source or publication. In January, it released images of fin-stabilized homemade rockets, apparently in the hands of militants in Thailand.
The use of rockets in Thailand’s Deep South is rare in the decades-long insurgency. In 2016, the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) created very similar rockets, essentially pipe bombs with fins, some of which had radios attached to them. So that begs the question, if there are IS-linked groups active in the Deep South, why have these rockets not been used in recent attacks? Are they even operational? Are these images or videos even from Thailand? How dated are these videos or images? To further obfuscate matters, unofficial ISEAP media in Thailand released a video in January (likely the same one which showed the rockets), sending a message to the Thai Prime Minister. According to Cathal Ó Gabhann, the Prime Minister they were referring to is not the one in power (the current Prime Minister has held office since 2014), and the accents of the militants did not seem from Thailand’s Deep South. So, the authenticity of the video is heavily in question. Furthermore, the merger said, “Brothers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Southern Thailand, including Myanmar…(are) ready to take Allah’s orders!” IS groups do not have a presence in Myanmar. There have been some allegations that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army may have ties with transnational groups, however, this is very speculative and cannot be taken for word. Malaysia was also not mentioned in the merger, which brings into question EAK’s actual reach. Malaysia has traditionally been under ISEAP.
- Pattani, Thailand, April 15: EAK claimed a bombing in Sai Buri, Pattani, which killed one civilian and three security force personnel. It turns out that the attack was carried out by PULO because it was left out of peace talks between the BRN and the Thai government.
- Mindanao, Philippines, May 10: EAK claimed that “In Mindanao, Philippines, Allah’s soldiers wreak havoc on kuffar elections and cause one kuffar security guard and many more casualties! Praise Allah!” Interesting claim, also very vague.
There was an attack against security forces on May 9, the day the Philippines elections were held. Three members of the Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (local peacekeeping forces) were shot dead in Buluan, Maguindanao. BIFF has had a presence in the area. The victims were apparently supporters of a local mayoral candidate. So, it is not clear whether the incident was linked to political violence or IS-linked violence. Election-related violence is common in the Philippines, and at least seven people were killed and more than 20 people were injured across Mindanao on May 9. Authorities had deployed police and army personnel to Buluan ahead of the vote, due to the potential for security incidents. The vagueness of the EAK claim indicates that it itself did not know details of what occurred, and maybe points to how it (in true IS form) tried to claim an incident for the sake of it. This is especially as some EAK claims for the Philippines have specified a location within Mindanao. Moreover, IS-linked groups did not ‘wreak havoc’ on the elections. Some violence was expected; however, overall, the elections transpired relatively calmly. The ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (a result of a peace agreement between the government and disenfranchised, prominent Muslim insurgents like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, from which BIFF splintered and formed) in 2018 has contributed to the decrease of militancy in the Philippines to a degree.
- Lanao del Sur, Philippines, April 27: On April 29, EAK claimed that on April 27, IS terrorists clashed with “Philippine Crusaders”. It said that over 20 “Crusader” casualties occurred. A clash between the military and Dawlah Islamiyah terrorists did occur in Butig in Lanao del Sur on April 27. And like the EAK claim mentioned, security forces did use helicopters to support troops. However, local media reported that at least five terrorists and one soldier were killed. This is far more credible. An IS-linked attack killing or injuring 20 security forces would stand out given the decreasing capabilities of IS groups in the Philippines. So again, in true IS form, EAK seems to exaggerate its claims.
Propaganda and Operational Reality
The fact remains that ISEAP is one of IS’s weaker wings. EAK’s claims and activity should not paint a picture that ISEAP is operationally strong. ISEAP is on the defensive in Southeast Asia. Also, EAK has not discussed the current emir of ISEAP, Abu Zacharia. Though, it did release a statement pledging ba’yah to the new IS leader, Abu Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi. This is another telling sign of how EAK is unofficial media. Zacharia is only the emir in name. He does not control groups like the ASG or BIFF or others in the Philippines, where he is based, nor does he have a say over Indonesian IS-linked groups for instance. Meanwhile, security forces in the Philippines recently killed the alleged ISEAP spokesperson in Maguindanao. He was also apparently in charge of funds between IS in the Middle East and the Philippines. There should be no doubt that ISEAP has been weakened. Nevertheless, EAK is likely to continue publishing claims, to portray a different picture from reality, to bolster IS support in Southeast Asia.