The Rise of Saifullah: Islamic State’s New Point Man for Southeast Asia?

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The Rise of Saifullah: Islamic State’s New Point Man for Southeast Asia?

Despite the killing or apprehension of many of its senior leaders, the Islamic State remains a clear and present danger in Southeast Asia.

The Rise of Saifullah: Islamic State’s New Point Man for Southeast Asia?

Members of a police bomb squad inspect the wreckage of a motorbike used to carry out Sunday’s suicide bomb attack at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Monday, March 29, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Masyudi S. Firmansyah

The Islamic State (IS) group has had an association with Southeast Asia ever since its conception in 2014. Many would have expected that the end of the Marawi Siege in October 2017, the death of key IS Southeast Asian leaders such as Bahrumsyah, Bahrun Naim, and Abu Jandal, and the physical defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq in March 2019 would have led to the end of the IS threat in the region.

Unfortunately, the group remains more present and dangerous than ever. Since its collapse, IS-affiliated groups have carried out several deadly attacks including suicide bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia. The COVID-19 pandemic may have hampered operations and fighter movements to a certain extent, but the group remains active in propaganda dissemination and recruitment in the online domain.

However, the more pertinent fact in this regard is that there remain key IS-affiliated leaders who are able to lead and conduct military operations in Southeast Asia. A key IS leader in Southeast Asia who remains at large is the Indonesian national Saifullah, who has been linked to a number of attacks in the region.

Who Is Saifullah?

Saifullah (a.k.a Danial or Chaniago) is believed to have originated from Padang, West Sumatra. Following the arrest of his close associate M. Fachry in March 2015, Saifullah moved to an Islamic boarding school called Pesantren Ibnu Masud in Bogor, on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta, where he was employed as a librarian. The school, which was closed in 2017, was known for preaching radical Islam, and has been closely associated with Aman Abdurrahman, the founder and leader of the Indonesian IS-affiliate Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). The school was reportedly also an important source of recruitment of jihadi fighters for the Syrian conflict between 2014 and 2017.

From Bogor, Saifullah tried to undertake hijrah (migration) to Syria via Turkey in late 2015. In March 2016, he was detained at an IS safehouse in Istanbul together with a fellow Indonesian called Aulia, and was deported to Indonesia. Upon his return, he went back to Pesantren Ibnu Masud and got in touch with Munawar Kholil, a former teacher at the pesantren who had joined IS in Syria. Munawar was a key member of the Katibah Nusantara (Battalion of the Malay Archipelago) under Bahrumsyah and had been tasked to recruit fighters for IS in Iraq and Syria.

From his base in Bogor, Saifullah became a key contact point through which Munawar undertook financial transactions and sought to move recruited Indonesian fighters to Syria through Turkey. Saifullah and Munawar were reported to have facilitated the movement of 57 Indonesians into Syria. Even more important, as part of the wider IS network in Southeast Asia, Munawar was linked to Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, the pro-IS Malaysian who played a key role in finding and funding recruits for IS in the Philippines.

In March 2016, Munawar, in association with Saifullah, was believed to have transferred funds to Dr. Mahmud for IS fighters on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, including some who eventually took part in the Marawi Siege. Between March 2016 and September 2017, Saifullah received funds from Munawar for onward transfers to Mindanao. These funds, believed to have been channeled to Dr. Mahmud, had come from as far afield as Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Germany, the Maldives, and Malaysia, with more than $28,000 being transferred for the Marawi operation.

In July 2017, Saifullah travelled to Afghanistan via Bangkok. There he joined forces with IS-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan. IS-Khorasan is believed to include insurgents from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and possibly Central Asia. Saifullah’s “migration” to Afghanistan raises the important question of whether there is a “Southeast Asian wing” of IS in Afghanistan, the very place where the pro-al-Qaida Jemaah Islamiyah was incubated and later became a key terrorist organization in Southeast Asia from 1999 to 2009, and which remains active to date. IS-Khorasan, as an IS wilayat (an administrative division), is supposed to cover South and Central Asia. Yet, Saifullah’s presence in IS-Khorasan brings to light the possibility that this wilayat has “out-of-wilayat” responsibilities linked to Southeast Asia, especially following the death in October 2017 of the Filipino Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State’s emir for Southeast Asia.

With Saifullah travelling to Afghanistan in the midst of the Marawi Siege and in close collaboration with both the leaders and fighters of IS’s Southeast Asian wilayat based in the Philippines and with Munawar, then based in Syria, questions have been raised as to whether Saifullah was being positioned as the possible IS point man for coordination between Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. Saifullah was also believed to be in close contact with pro-IS groups in Indonesia, especially JAD, which has received operational funding from IS through Saifullah and Munawar.

In May 2018, a few days before the pro-IS bombings in Surabaya, Saifullah facilitated and funded the travel of the Indonesian national Bagiyo Saleh, who had earlier been deported from Turkey in October 2015. Bagiyo left Indonesia on the pretext of undertaking an umrah (minor haj to Mecca) but ended up working for IS-Khorasan in Afghanistan with Saifullah. Munawar was the one who instructed Saifullah that IS-Khorasan was open for migration, resulting in a number of Indonesian families “migrating” to Afghanistan. Saifullah’s role became even more important following Munawar’s arrest by Kurdish forces in December 2018. Munawar is  currently believed to be imprisoned in the al-Malikiyah prison in Kurdish-controlled Syria.

Though based in Afghanistan, Saifullah’s name emerged in association with the Jolo Cathedral bombings in Mindanao in January 2019. The Indonesian Andi Baso, a key recruiter and facilitator of the bombings, was said to be in direct contact with Saifullah. One of the perpetrators of the 2016 Movida attack in Kuala Lumpur had also been found to have transferred money to him.

Saifullah had formed a link with the extremist group Mujahidin Timur Indonesia (MIT) by instructing an individual called Novendri to channel funds to them. He had also been linked to another called Yoga, who was believed to have taken the place of Andi Baso (who died at the hands of Filipino government forces in August 2020) as a bridge between IS affiliates in Indonesia and the Philippines.

From Afghanistan, Saifullah promised to send money to purchase weapons in the Philippines for attacks in Malaysia and Indonesia. In June 2019, 11 Indonesians en route to Afghanistan were stopped at Bangkok airport, with the group leader being Aulia, Saifullah’s old contact. Thus, there seems to be an Indonesian jihadi community emerging in Afghanistan, including many who are believed to have “migrated” from Syria to Afghanistan since March 2019. In light of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saifullah’s presence there, Afghanistan has the potential of re-establishing itself as a training base for Southeast Asian terrorists.

Implications and the Future of IS in Southeast Asia

Although it was reported that Saifullah had been killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in 2019, the fact that his name has resurfaced as the alleged mastermind of recent terror attacks in Makassar, Indonesia as late as March 2021 points to the fact that he may still be alive and active. Under these circumstances, the question is whether Saifullah has emerged as IS’s point man and key leader in Southeast Asia even though he is currently based in Afghanistan.

Is Saifullah’s IS pivot in Southeast Asia? Clearly, the central IS leadership has no better representative than Saifullah in Southeast Asia. Based in Afghanistan, he is safe from operations by the security apparatuses of the region and remains under the protection of IS-Khorasan, which has been growing in strength in Afghanistan, and will likely continue to do so, with the U.S. and NATO forces withdrawn and the Taliban having seized control of the country.

Saifullah is also an Indonesian, a representative from the world’s largest Muslim country, where he is believed to have close ties with various pro-IS groups such as JAD. He is also experienced in undertaking covert financial transactions, facilitating travel to combat zones, and employing secure communications, as well as having ties with IS groups outside Indonesia, such as in Malaysia and the Philippines.

What is vital to note today is that the collaboration among the terrorist groups, almost akin to a united front structure in Mindanao, which was evident during the Marawi Siege, no longer exists. The increasingly decentralized IS structure in the southern Philippines will be challenging to eradicate in a COVID-19 setting, given the shifting priorities from counterterrorism to pandemic management and with no clear primus inter pares leader emerging (partly out of tactical necessity) in the region.

Still, in a setting where there are no other prominent IS leaders in the region, all of whom have been killed or detained, Saifullah remains the “last man standing.” With his experience and links with IS in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia, he is clearly an individual of importance with whom security officials in Southeast Asia should be closely concerned.