Fighting the Islamic State in the Fifth Domain: Transnational Terrorism in the Indo-Pacific

By Zachary J. Adams

The presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continues to have a turbulent effect on Middle Eastern stability and security.  As a result of this conflict, Southeast Asia is experiencing a return of extremists from the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq.  Due to the group’s formidable endurance, ISIS has exploited the opportunity to expand its mission into a sympathetic region.  In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia are the primary target states due to their large-scale Muslim populations.  Additionally, ISIS has focused on the southern Philippines and Singapore.  The implication of the Islamic State’s emergence in Southeast Asia has had an immediate and tumultuous effect on regional security especially with the transition from the battlefield to the battlespace. 

Support for ISIS has spread to Southeast Asia. 

Support for ISIS has spread to Southeast Asia. 

Extremist groups have begun harnessing the influence of technological capabilities by engaging and exploiting vulnerabilities in any capacity to achieve intended objectives.  The former portion of this essay will provide analysis on three areas: it will explain how a political divide developed between al-Qaeda and ISIS, how the so-called “state” has exploited al-Qaeda’s decline, and how the Islamic State’s expansion into Southeast Asia is becoming a greater threat to regional security.  By identifying the Islamic State’s primary communication methods and tactics used to establish a growing Indo-Pacific presence, the latter portion will provide a fundamental framework as to how regional actors can expectantly mitigate and reduce the threat to security and stability through the fifth domain.

The Rise of the Islamic State

The present structure of the Islamic State emerged from the former Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) which lasted from October 2006 to April 2013.  ISI was essentially a byproduct of al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI] and the Mujahedeen Shura Council (MSC) which existed in January of 2006.  With the death of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the MSC initially became part of al-Qaeda but soon evolved into ISI.  According to a 2008 report published by the RAND Corporation,

ISI’s creation had several putative motivations.  It was an attempt to trigger splintering and encourage other Sunni insurgent groups to pledge alliance to ISI, and…by claiming to be a state, ISI apparently sought to gain legitimacy.  It was seen as attempting to take the military and political initiative from the other Sunni terrorist groups. (Jones & Libicki, p. 89)

As a supplemental measure, ISI instituted brutal and inhumane tactics, such as public executions and suicide bombings, to gain greater attention particularly as a means to further condense the group’s international image.  ISI formally transformed into ISIS and gained regional traction in the Middle East after ISI’s greater mission expanded into Syria under the leadership of newly appointed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, contrary to al-Qaeda demands.  Days before the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11, (Mills, 2015) the leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri accused al-Baghdadi of sedition (para. 4) for not addressing the concerns of all Muslims and declared war on ISIS for the group’s continued attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria (para. 7).  Over time, the differences between the organizations have become irreconcilable, and ISIS has taken this indifference as an opportunity to evolve and continue expansion outside the Middle East.

Exploiting al-Qaeda’s Decline

Demonstrating the evolution and longevity of transnational terrorist organizations, Professor Audrey K. Cronin (2006) asserts that “…splinter groups are often more violent than the “mother” organization, and…can be seen as engaging in a new “layer” of terrorism…” (p. 515).  By using religion as a principle motivator (Bunzel, 2015), “the Islamic State, like al-Qaeda, identifies with a movement in Islamic political thought known as Jihadi-Salafism, or jihadism for short” (p. 7).  But the significant difference between the two groups has been through interpretation which ISIS has taken to an unprecedented level.  Simply speaking, (Bunzel, 2015), “if jihadism were to be placed on a political spectrum, al-Qaeda would be its left and the Islamic State its right” (p. 9).  Henceforth, ideology has become the primary mechanism driving Islamic-oriented groups to proliferate and radicalize.  Through this ideological approach, ISIS has begun instituting a channel of communicative influence in Southeast Asia.  Although the slow decline of al-Qaeda has hindered the group’s long-term strategy, ISIS is attempting to overhaul al-Qaeda with their expansive ambitions and formidable presence. 

Almost a decade ago Cronin proposed in 2006 that al-Qaeda had “…transitioned beyond its original structure and now represented a multigenerational threat with staying power comparable to the ethno-nationalist groups of the twentieth century” (p. 524).  While this postulation is credible, it could not be more appropriately fitting than by describing ISIS’s current condition.  ISIS renders its influence through distinct and drastic political and ideological means, whereas (Cronin, 2006) “al-Qaeda is closer to a social movement than a terrorist group” (p. 520).  Moreover, ISIS has taken al-Qaeda’s communications strategy and amplified its platform to include all sources of media.  For example, the Islamic State’s English magazine, Dabiq, is a glossy anti-Western print with very graphic and Hollywood-esque depictions that glorify the battleground.  The Islamic State’s public relations strategy has also drawn many al-Qaeda defectors with its revamped oration and objective.  According to Cronin (2006), in general, “the impulse to join the movement arises from a desire to belong to a group in a context where the operative is excluded from, repulsed by, or incapable of successful integration into a Western community” (p. 521), or much less any community for that matter.  As intra-state conflicts in Syria and other areas continue to affect regional stability, these vulnerable environments continue to attract recruits and sympathizers.

The Islamic State, or arguably al-Qaeda 2.0, aspires to replace the outdated jihadist militant group through both enhanced tactics and overall social and political stratagem.  Al-Qaeda may still exist, but the organization lacks the condition and capacity it once possessed.  This is primarily due to the group’s inconsistent acquisition of greater attraction through political and ideological means, recruitment methods, technological know-how, and cyber capabilities.  For instance, ISIS has taken full advantage of recruitment via the internet and has launched an online platform.  The Soufan Group (2015) states that “…when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate, the extremist community began recruiting in earnest, transforming support for local jihadi struggles into support for Islamic State…” (p. 19), and implementing an information and communication technology (ICT) approach has accounted for a large segment of their successful campaign thus far.

Concerning the longevity of transnational terrorist organizations, (Cronin, 2006) “failure to pass the legacy to a new generation is a common historical explanation for a terrorist group’s decline or end” (p. 514).  Extremist movements in the twenty-first century have been exceptionally more about social rather than purely terrorist motives.  According to US Department of the Air Force (Emery et al., 2005), “Terrorists act in the physical environment not to make tactical gains in the physical environment, but to wage strategic battle in the information environment” (p. 10).  By adapting to the transformative landscape of conflict and transitioning from the battlefield to the battlespace, which is a direct result of the information age, the Islamic State has been able to gain regional traction across the globe with its ICT campaign.  A report by the Soufan Group (2015) expects that:

As the Islamic State changes its focus from consolidating control of territory to attacking its foreign enemies in their own homelands, or their interests elsewhere, the profile of its foreign recruits will also change.  The Islamic State has seen success beyond the dreams of other terrorist groups that now appear conventional and even old-fashioned, such as al-Qaeda. (p. 20-1)

Terrorist-aligned undertones, such as the full use of irregular warfare tactics, may continue to be wielded unanimously as a means to gain acknowledgment and international precedence because transitioning from conventional to irregular forms of warfare is the Islamic State and other affiliates’ greatest advantage.  In particular, the Islamic State is willing to employ drastic measures to achieve objectives in unison with its propaganda efforts.  Beyond violent extremism is the necessity of drawing attention and attraction to their cause as it is the primary instrument for preservation; this particular tactic aligns with ISIS’s current agenda.

The Reemergence of Transnational Terrorism in Southeast Asia

Greater Southeast Asia has experienced the return of many fighters from the regions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Levant which is becoming a cause for great concern.  According to the US Army Foreign Military Studies Office in 2015 (FMSO), “at least 300-500 Indonesians have been in Syria training for battle, and there has been at least one case of a mall bombing in Jakarta that has ISIS trademarks associated with it” (p. 32).  This demonstrates that there is a considerable following in Southeast Asia and that the Islamic State’s presence in Indonesia is likely to grow if not timely and adequately addressed.

Uncertainty has risen over why such a formidable presence of extremism has reemerged in the Indo-Pacific, but an explanation can be found in prior Middle Eastern wars.  According to the Strategic Studies Institute (Abuza, 2015), “between 120 and 150 Malaysians, Indonesians, southern Philippine Muslims, and Southern Thai Pattani went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the mujahideen in the 1990s” (para. 17), and several of the extremist groups in the Indo-Pacific known today were established by these fighters.  The influence of these mujahideen veterans cannot be overemphasized as some returned to their homelands in Southeast Asia to establish madrassahs, Islamic religious schools, and begin indoctrinating the next generation of Salafi jihadists.

Current estimates project that there are up to 900 Southeast Asian foreign fighters abroad, but the Soufan Group claims that “it may be more accurate to say that there are at least 600 Southeast Asians fighting in Syria…and the vast majority of fighters are from Indonesia, with Malaysians a distant second with many more stopped before they could leave the country” (p. 18).  Though the number of fighters from these locations may be lower than from other hotbed ISIS recruitment nations, the Soufan Group (2015) asserts that “…there are now enough Indonesian and Malay-speaking foreign fighters with the Islamic State to form a unit by themselves—the Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit)” (p. 18).  This militant group not only includes individuals from Indonesia and Malaysia but also the Philippines and Singapore.  A January 2016 publication by Management Systems International [MSI] discovered that …Katibah Nusantara was established in September 2014…and its aim is to acclimatize and train Southeast Asian recruits to conditions in the Middle East” (Fealy & Funston, p. 7).  Trainees are supplied with Arabic-language tuition as well as undergo combat training and ideological indoctrination all in preparation to enter military service with the Islamic State.

Although the origins of Southeast Asia’s Salafi-jihadism was established decades ago (Hanson, 2016), “communications technology and low cost travel have created the potential for wider and deeper regional connections than those formed by militants fighting in Afghanistan in the 80s” (p. 1).  For example, Jemmaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian affiliate of ISIS seeking to establish a regional Indo-Pacific caliphate, and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a Philippine affiliate of ISIS, forged a long-lasting link while fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.  JI and ASG coexist and operate as the Islamic State’s greatest Indo-Pacific network and will continue to leverage the region through the dissemination of their ideology and agenda.

Furthermore, with an extremist foundation established, terrorism has reemerged in Southeast Asia through the revitalization of Salafi-jihadism.  The Islamic State has discovered Southeast Asia’s greatest weakness: its population.  Through the use of ICT capabilities, the Islamic State continues to exploit Southeast Asian Muslims for recruitment purposes and to further divide the populace between moderate and extremist ideology.  Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population at more than 205 million, may draw less international scrutiny than other nations producing extremist group sympathizers, so Southeast Asia can now be represented as a “blind spot” breeding ground for future ISIS recruitment.

Transnational Terrorism and Fourth Generation Warfare

Transnational terrorism poses a dire and direct threat to the future of regional security and stability, yet many methods exist to deliberately mitigate unintended consequences.  The greatest powers inherent of counterterrorist technique are through detection and diagnosis in the fifth domain.  Not only is mitigating and diminishing extremist group-ideology and threats pivotal for stability, but identifying and exploiting the rationale behind the emergence of such groups is of even greater concern.  A perfect scenario would entail subduing a volatile situation before it becomes an actualized threat.  If the sources of extremism can be diagnosed before becoming refractory, the degree of the security threat will decrease and become more preventable as cyber-counterterrorism competency increases.

The current transformative landscape of global affairs and conflict is depicted by fourth generation warfare (4GW) where nation-states engage with non-state actors across the entire spectrum of the operational environment.  As witnessed in Syria, extremist groups employ decisive tactics with the ability to refine or redefine state-military doctrines across the globe.  Assisting these groups is their inherent ability to adapt, evolve and outlast countermeasures exerted by nation-states.  The natural tendency with which extremist groups can adjust to the changing conditions of global affairs makes their existence and associated danger much more difficult to mitigate and even contain.  Although al-Qaeda is still present today, the Islamic State has taken the center stage as a much greater force and will continue to demonstrate all the variants of irregular warfare as a means to retain its international presence and organizational condition.  Furthermore, 4GW tactics demonstrate that the sophisticated use of technology such as social media and mass ICT efforts are of incremental importance to modern extremist groups.  Vulnerable and affected states should take heed of these methods and utilize their potential to diametrically counter future extremist activity.

Finding Balance between Uses of “Force”

Although state militaries can easily engage extremist groups through sheer use of force, determining the degree of what military force can actually achieve is quite uncertain.  Concerning the current international counterterrorist consensus, a report by the Institute for National Strategic Studies (Marks et al., 2010) argues that:

Despite efforts to push forward in our “full spectrum” capabilities, we remain hampered by legacy attitudes of compartmentalization and linear thinking.  Even more problematic and disturbing is our willingness to engage in operations and deploy forces without fully grappling with the implications of the shift to population-centric warfare. (p. 79-80)

The problem with this approach is that militarily-capable nations typically overuse force, and in the process make the situation worse.  Although military force alone can easily reduce posed or perceived threats, force alone cannot exterminate the threat entirely.  Military intervention and repression is what ISIS and other extremist groups desire and even encourage.  Continuing and intensifying conflict is necessary for many extremist groups to retain relevancy and to gain attraction on a regional and international scale.  Unless military force can exterminate each and every member without breeding more sympathizers, the use of force seems to ultimately embolden the will to fight, or keep fighting for that matter.

The issue with terrorism in the twenty-first century is that it is resilient, constant to some degree, and able to overcome adversity.  Terrorist-group division, as observed between al-Qaeda and ISIS, has assisted in escalating both tensions and radical behavior especially by the Islamic State.  These scenarios remain prevalent stimulators for future tensions because splintering becomes a basis to persevere.

The most effective method to restrain or interdict the growth of extremist groups is a simultaneous process: to control the dissemination of their communication platforms, and to identify insurgencies that lead to greater accumulation of sympathizers.  The ideologies driving terrorism today are essentially components of a larger-scale social movement that has entered the fifth domain of cyberspace.  As sects become institutionalized they then become cults or cult-like and, after gaining attraction and acceptance, become integrated ideologies.  Through these movements, reinterpretations of scripture, history, law and principles can intensify the mechanisms driving the cause of extremism.  Concerning modern extremist movements, Marks et al. (2010) assert that the ““propagandistic effect” is the single greatest weapon available to “the revolutionaries” in their position of asymmetry” (p. 86).  To inhibit this from occurring, governments must identify and confront the antagonisms that are instigating such behavior before they become unmanageable. 

In the case of the Islamic State, engaging cyber combatants in the fifth domain continues to display an effective opportunity to deter and contain the group’s expansion.  To directly address this issue, the fifth domain is a primary starting point for mitigating extremist inclinations.  An ICT umbrella approach has vital influence on the direction of future tensions as such efforts can detect and diminish online propagandist movements and “hacktivist” activity.  Nation-states affected by terrorism must learn to think like the enemy to defeat the enemy.  A more balanced approach between use of force and alternative or unorthodox counterterrorism methods will become necessary and a more influential aspect of many nation-state security postures as the fifth domain continues to be exploited by extremist groups.

Detecting and Diminishing ISIS with Regional Cyber Security Countermeasures

Addressing conflict and transnational terrorism in the fifth domain is entirely dependent upon a strategically-based cyber warfare framework and the advancement of both offensive and defensive cyber capabilities.  The ambiguity and vastness of the cyberspace domain attracts many states and aggressors, cyber soldiers and “hacktivists,” to engage the fifth domain.  In the case of vulnerable regions, a coordinated regional response is necessary to counter further extremist group recruitment and expansion.

The Indo-Pacific region is experiencing a great degree of online communication and propagandist efforts from the Islamic State.  In the Indo-Pacific (Hanson, 2015) “Facebook is being used in a range of recruitment initiatives and social networking tools are being used by [ISIS] militants to communicate their activities in Iraq and Syria and to issue calls to action” (p. 3).  Additionally, the Islamic State has already established a network spanning across the region making counter-efforts significantly harder to achieve. 

A national terror network can be difficult enough to combat, but a regionally organized grouping presents even greater challenges…yet the appeal of ISIS across the region coupled with new technology to connect extremists is laying the groundwork for this very network. (Hanson, 2015, p. 3).

The communication connection the Islamic State has developed between Indonesia, Malaysia, the South Philippines and parts of Singapore with their affiliate groups such as JI and ASG is undoubtedly a real and proliferating threat because the group has already begun efforts to adapt to the transformative landscape by establishing hacktivist and cyber networks.  According to the 2015 Global Threat Report,

the organization’s published online content indicates that it likely possesses an adequate level of technical ability to successfully carry out offensive [cyber] operations against targeted individuals…and “Most prominent among the newly formed groups is the Islamic State Hacking Division and the currently active Caliphate Cyber Army [CCA]. (Crowdstrike, p. 61-2) 

The Islamic State’s cyber functions include breaching government privacy firewalls, defaming anti-ISIS political movements, and launching online black markets.

Indonesia is at risk due to the country’s well-versed veterans and general Salafi-Jihadist following.  “Indonesians arriving from fighting for ISIS abroad present a significant problem for domestic terrorism.  Similar to foreigners fighting in Afghanistan, they have received requisite training to conduct domestic terrorist activities when they return home” (FMSO, 2015, p. 32).  If this actualized threat is not adequately confronted, large-scale attacks may be attempted or may already have entered the development phase.  As a countermeasure, the strategic solution to cyber warfare is facilitated by two components: extending state policy and capabilities into the realm of the fifth domain, and devising a framework that emphasizes the capacity of cyber countermeasures. 

The future of subduing extremist movements relies heavily on exploiting communications.  Concerning the Islamic State’s ultimate goal of establishing a Caliphate, this goal is essentially a pipe dream, yet the inclination to achieve such an end will unlikely dissipate in the near future.  Furthermore, undermining total support may be unlikely to change as Salafi-jihadism is the trending brand of Islamic extremism in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere.  Nevertheless, capable nations can cooperate to monitor communications, online traffic, and regional presence, ensuring that threats do not proliferate from perceived threats to actualized attacks.

The greatest undertaking facing Indo-Pacific governments is the identification and detection process.  The vastness and ambiguity of the fifth domain allows aggressors, at least in the short-term, to remain anonymous.  To complicate the scenario further, the predictability and criticality of employing cyber capabilities are usually immeasurable for both the aggressor and the victim.  “In cyber warfare the boundaries are blurred between the military and the civilian, the physical and the virtual, and power can be exerted by states or non-state actors, or by proxy” (Cornish et al., 2010, p. 10).  The implications of cyber capabilities are inconsequential as (Dombrowski & Demchak, 2014) “cybered conflict can occur along a spectrum across all phases of war, and long before any kinetic exchange, adversaries can use precision cyber tools to tilt the conflict in their favor” (p. 86). 

As the Islamic State continues to promote its agenda throughout the international arena, vulnerable regions must confront these extremists in the battlespace through the fifth domain to control and interdict their mobile media campaigns.  Moreover, governments must invest in the future of cyber countermeasures both politically and tactically because “…it is precisely the absence of a constraining political framework around cyber warfare that makes cyberspace so attractive as a place in which to achieve cultural, religious, strategic, economic, social and even – paradoxically – political goals” (Cornish et al., 2010, p. 32). 

The Islamic State strives to disperse its ideological message in an ICT fashion with ambitions to attract a larger following that leads to a greater regional and international presence.  Countermeasures must be taken to subdue or at least contain the expansion of such extremist propaganda through revamped cyber capabilities since the Islamic State’s current communications stratagem will likely remain constant.  Forging a balanced and coordinated approach is pivotal to mitigate the future of extremist-aligned threats.


The multifaceted ability to maneuver the battlespace through a cyber approach makes available a new and unexploited realm of warfare and will likely compel vulnerable regions such as the Indo-Pacific to enhance their cyber capabilities to confront future threats.  Both the threat of conflict and extremism in the twenty-first century depict that vulnerable nations must cooperate and coordinate to ensure that regional security and stability remains unaffected.  The Islamic State has demonstrated the capability and capacity to adapt and evolve to the transformative landscape of global affairs which has yielded a greater international presence. 

A regional counter-response will have a significant effect against extremism, especially one that inhibits further expansion and presence.  Controlling and interdicting communications is imperative because of the role which indoctrination, fear, and propaganda factor into the modus operandi of extremist groups.  The only way to dissolve these movements is to combat them with a proportionate and sensible force on every engaged domain of battle.  Modern warfare has entered the fifth domain where governments must adapt and evolve or remain susceptible to extremist-aligned antagonisms.  Future battlespace demonstrates that nation-states must attain adequate technological capacity across the vast spectrum of capabilities to deter, mitigate, or contain threats in the operational environment.  By harnessing the potential of a joint effort and implementing a regional strategy, vulnerable nations with the means of combating extremism, especially in the developing fifth domain, may indeed increase their countermeasure abilities and ensure overall security from this point forward.


Zachary J. Adams is a graduate student at Norwich University earning his Masters in Diplomacy. 


4GW               Fourth Generation Warfare

AQI                 al-Qaeda in Iraq

ASG                Abu Sayyaf Group

FMSO             US Army Foreign Military Studies Office

ICT                 Information and Communications Technology

ISI                   Islamic State in Iraq

ISIS                 Islamic State and al-Sham

JI                     Jemaah Islamiyah

MSC               Mujahedeen Shura Council



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