MANILA/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Southeast Asian countries fighting Islamic State’s influence in the region lauded the killing of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi but said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the jihadist group’s ideology.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organized Islamist militants, said on Monday they were braced for retaliation by Islamic State loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by locals radicalized by the group’s powerful online propaganda.
Baghdadi killed himself in a tunnel in northwest Syria by detonating a suicide vest as U.S. forces closed in, according to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Though his death will unsettle Islamic State, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defense secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold among unschooled Muslim youth in its troubled Mindanao region.
“This is a blow to the organization considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organization worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”
Southeast Asia has long been an important focus for Islamic State, which has inspired Islamist militants in West Africa, across the Middle East and Asia and through to Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are concerned Islamic State supporters from the region and those fleeing Iraq and Syria could exploit the porous borders, lawlessness and abundant arms found in Mindanao to take refuge in its far-flung villages.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings since July last year in the Philippines, which fought its toughest battle since World War Two in 2017 when extremists seeking to establish an Islamic State laid siege to Marawi City and occupied it through five months of air and ground assaults.
Fighters from at least seven countries took part, including Malaysia, which remains on high alert and has arrested 400 people suspected of links to militant groups.
Malaysian police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said the real concern was not Islamic State’s leadership but the effect of its teachings.
“It’s good news, but his death will have little impact here as the main problem remains the spread of the Islamic State ideology,” he told Reuters.
“What we are most worried about now are ‘lone wolf’ attacks and those who are self-radicalized through the internet. We are still seeing the spread of IS teachings online. IS publications and magazines from years ago are being reproduced and re-shared,” he said.
Chatrooms in messaging applications used by Islamists such as Telegram showed defiant messages about Baghdadi’s death, according to a researcher who monitors activity by Islamic State sympathizers.
“God Willing, whatever happens, Islamic jihad will not rely on any one individual, but will always stand tall on the orders of God and His Prophet,” read one posting under the handle Ansurul Ummah.
Another participant, Abu Abdullah Asy Syami, posted: “Jihad will never stop, even if our own caliph dies.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a similar observation, and said Baghdadi’s death was by no means the end.
“This is a many-headed monster ... As you cut one off, another one inevitably arises,” he told reporters.
Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, is grappling with a resurgence in militancy and has detained hundreds of suspects this year under tightened anti-terrorism laws.
Authorities believe thousands of Indonesians draw inspiration from Islamic State and about 500 are thought to have joined the group in Syria.
Indonesia’s intelligence agency said it was ready for retaliation and though Baghdadi’s death would be a psychological blow, Islamic State would have a successor in place.
“It is a war. Usually, there must be a counterattack or the like. When it comes to security, we are sure that we will secure this country,” said its spokesman, Wawan Purwanto.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said Baghdadi’s demise and uncertainty about the leadership could undermine operations of Islamic State loyalists seeking to regroup and establish their own territory in Southeast Asia.
“Pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines will surely re-examine their roles in the post-Baghdadi era,” he said.
Reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, Tom Allard and Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta, John Mair in Sydney and Martin Petty and Neil Jerome Morales in Manila; Editing by David Clarke