ISIS in Japan: The new frontier

ISIS fighters in Iraq

ISIS has spread fear and chaos in the corridors of regional and global powers, writes terrorism expert Dr Mohammed Ilyas.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war the group has taken large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory. Earlier this year the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared that an Islamic state has been established and urged Muslims from across the world to undertake hijra (migrate).

ISIS has attracted fighters from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds that are not only motivated to fight against the Assad regime but also to establish an Islamic state.

The recruits also include women, some as young as 15 or old as old as 40. Although their motivations are not entirely clear Jihad experts have suggested that they have been recruited as “wives for jihadis”. This assertion is not entirely convincing as many women join political and violent groups because of political convictions rather than to fulfill stereotypical gender roles.

The ISIS Islamic state has also attracted entire families, including children to make hijra, not only from the Muslim world but also Europe.

ISIS in Japan

This week Tokyo police arrested a 26-year-old male student and his friends from Hokkaido University on suspicion that they were preparing to join ISIS. Previous to this Japan was not considered as a potential recruitment ground by many experts.

Investigators believe that the student responded to a poster at a used-book store in downtown Tokyo offering positions for work in Syria. An employee at the bookstore was quoted as saying: “I introduced several people to a former university professor of Islamic law.”

Muslims in Japan
Muslims in Japan

The academic denied advising anyone to join the jihadis. Investigators have been quoted as saying that the student admitted he had planned to join ISIS in Syria.

The arrest is surprising because most Japanese people from my experience are neither aware nor interested in international politics.

One Japanese person told me that: “If it’s a national security matter, it’s strange that the story was taken up by the mass media in the first place. If it is evidenced that there are ISIS cells operating in Japan then this demonstrates the group’s reach and success of its multi-faceted recruiting strategy. The arrest will force Japan to become part of the war against ISIS and develop polices specifically around Muslim terrorism.

“The policies are likely to have a negative impact on Muslims traveling to the country for leisure, education and work, as well as on the small but growing Japanese Muslim community. The community may start to experience Islamophobia.”

Al Qaeda

ISIS is an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was formally led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi who was killed in 2006. According to experts the reason why ISIS split with Al Qaeda was over strategy rather than any major ideological dispute.

ISIS has proven itself to be an efficient, effective, organized and a well-resourced outfit and more successful than its parent group. This in the main is because it is less of a jihadi group but more of a conventional army and a state-in-waiting, which is driven by military strategy and a desire to establish a functional state rather than jihadism.

Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS has concentrated on the “near rather than the far Jihad.” In a short period of time the group has achieved what its predecessors could only dream of.

ISIS’s military success is matched if not bettered by its media campaigns and recruitment drive. However, it is worth noting that without the military success ISIS would not have the appeal that it currently has among some Muslims. ISIS does not only recruit fighters but people with other skills that are necessary to run a successful state.

To fully understand ISIS we need to think about it as a conventional army and a state in waiting, rather than a jihadi outfit.

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