The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), although currently limited to fighting in north Iraq and east Syria, has managed to gain the support of Muslim extremists from across the world–igniting a trend that threatens to expand their jihad outside the confines of the war-torn Middle East.
The notorious ISIS group has committed a string of bloody atrocities since its dramatic rise in Iraq and Syria in June 2014–beheading, stoning, massacring and enslaving its victims–which has triggered worldwide outrage and prompted a U.S.-led airstrike campaign. With U.S. support, the land offensive of ISIS militants has been frustrated by Kurdish militias and Iraqi security forces in recent months. For example, ISIS has failed to seize Kobane, a border town in north Syria neighboring Turkey, from the hands of local Kurds.
Despite a relative retreat in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the ISIS group continues to launch terror attacks and open new frontlines in other countries. As retaliation against the coalition airstrikes, some ISIS militants from Western Europe and Australia have returned to their home countries and conducted terrorist attacks.
Not limited to the West, ISIS extremists have also shown activity in Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia, reminding all governments in these regions to stay alert to the spreading ISIS threat.
Since last September, ISIS has sustained heavy losses in battles with the U.S.-led coalition. Although ISIS still controls some strategic areas in north Iraq and east Syria, it faces difficulties in launching a new round of large-scale offensives. Moreover, the group cannot afford the high cost of a protracted war. Thus, it has instead sought to relieve its besieged situation by opening other battle frontlines in countries outside the Middle East.
Islamic extremism has long held deep roots in the soil of many regions of Central and South Asia. The Taliban and Al Qaeda remain active in remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the United States and NATO completed the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, security defense has been weakened at this critical intersection of South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. They may sense an opportunity to develop its influence in regional countries.
Russian media reported in late January that ISIS plans to spend as much as $70 million to open a second frontline in Central Asia.
It is estimated that more than 1,000 Central Asian militants are fighting with the ISIS group in Syria and Iraq. In a sign that ISIS has successfully penetrated into these countries, the flag and slogans of the group have appeared in places such as Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. The specter of extremism could have a lasting impact on the security situation of Central Asia.