ISIS targets Southeast Asia, possibly Philippines, as caliphate site as it loses its grip on Mideast, experts warn

Abu Sayyaf militants walk along a jungle trail on Mindanao island, Philippines.Reuters

As the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to suffer losses in manpower and territory in the Middle East as a result of the U.S.-led coalition's battlefield successes, counter-terrorism analysts predict that the militant group will eventually be forced to vacate the region, prompting it to look for another sanctuary somewhere else.

The experts now believe that ISIS is considering Southeast Asia as a fertile ground for the establishment of its caliphate.

Patrick Skinner from New York-based security consultancy The Soufan Group (TSG) said the ISIS could transfer its base of operation to one of these four Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, The Straits Times reports.

Skinner noted that these countries already host such terror networks as the Jemaah Islamiah, Jemaah Anshar Khilafah and the Abu Sayyaf, making it easier for ISIS to come in.

"These are existing sanctuaries that the Islamic State would love to plug in," he said.

"There is no such thing as a clandestine caliphate. They need sanctuary; they need a place for these people to go to, where they can say: This is where our flag is," said Skinner, who is a former case officer with the Central Intelligence Agency.

Skinner made these statements on Wednesday when he testified before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security about the terrorism threat in Southeast Asia.

On the same day, the TSG released a report written by Skinner, saying that while the ISIS has yet to establish a Southeast Asian state, "it is likely that it will do so this year, as its grip on Syria and Iraq weakens."

In the recent past, Libya was the country where ISIS was expected to extend its reach. However, Skinner said the jihadist group is finding Libya "a difficult place to remain (in) and expand."

"It is very possible that places like southern Philippines will be its next priority," he warned.

"Long-held assumptions about Southeast Asia not being fertile ground for violent extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State tend to downplay the previous several decades of terrorism in the region," Skinner said. "Now, concern is building among... the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore that the Islamic State has the region in its cross hairs."

Skinner's analysis matches those from other counter-terrorism experts. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) confirmed that ISIS has already started a campaign to establish an Islamic caliphate across Asia.

The RSIS report said ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi seeks to fulfil his vision of a caliphate through affiliated militant groups in Southeast Asia, "turning them into a unified force."