ISIS Targeting Female Domestic Workers in Southeast Asia

The Islamic State is targeting Southeast Asia as a new destination for its large recruitment pool of female domestic workers, prompting a strong defensive response from authorities in the region. Following the collapse of The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East, the terrorist group has shifted its attention to Southeast Asia as a new breeding ground for extremism. The conflict in Syria has forced the group to look for a new destination where they could acquire the support of fellow Muslims. As a result, they have begun targeting female domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore whom are highly susceptible to radicalization because of their recent migration to the area. As the caliphate continues to establish a tighter influence in the region, government agencies are realizing Southeast Asian societies are susceptible to terrorism, and that immediate action is required.


In 2017, ISIS lost 95% of its territory in the Middle East as Syrian Democratic Forces and other allies pressured terrorist group members to seek refuge in different regions. ISIS members were eventually driven out and forced into hiding as they planned a resurgence in the area and abroad. Some were pushed out by security forces, while others escaped from prison and sought underground refuge with fellow terrorists. ISIS leaders slowly encouraged militants to travel to Southeast Asia, particularly because nearly every country in the region has deep-rooted ties to the Middle East.


Southeast Asia has played a significant role in the Islamic State’s global strategy for many years, as it provides militants an opportunity to seize ungoverned territory. Since 2018, traveling to Iraq and Syria has become increasingly difficult for foreign fighters, causing them to drift further to Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.[1] Southeast Asia is well-known among terrorists as an emerging front for global jihad, filled with violence and pro-ISIS groups. It also houses ISIS supporters, sympathizers, and devout Muslims that strive to raise awareness for the group and its ideology. Seizing on this opportunity, ISIS has begun to adopt a more decentralized approach focused on adaptability, flexibility, and the growth of new affiliates in Southeast Asia.


Many Southeast Asian provinces are vulnerable due to corruption and lack of governance, making it easier for terrorist groups to expand, govern, and seize territory. The region has been under constant pressure over the last few months after the announcement of the withdrawal of United States forces in Syria. The conflict threatens to free approximately 750 detained ISIS fighters with Southeast Asian origins, and their potentially radicalized spouses and children.[2] Approximately 100 detainees have escaped so far and could be headed for Southeast Asia. There are sporadic hotbeds of terrorism within the region, and experts fear that extremist groups will benefit from those fleeing from Syria.


The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) conducted an investigation into the radicalization of domestic workers and discovered there were at least 50 Indonesian women working overseas as maids, nannies, and elderly caretakers who were radicalized by ISIS and their affiliates. Among these, 43 were based in Hong Kong, 4 in Singapore and 3 in Taiwan.[3] Another study conducted from 2013 to 2018 revealed that roughly 800 domestic workers from Southeast Asia attempted to enter Syria or Iraq to join ISIS after being radicalized abroad.

IS Foreign Fighters Dispersing Via Loosely Aligned Networks[4]


While this is only a small fraction of the 9.1 million domestic workers in Southeast Asia, it demonstrates that recruiting efforts by the Islamic State have been effective. ISIS is preying on domestic female workers, specifically migrants, because of their low (but stable) incomes, their familiarity with the English language, and their wide range of international connections. Terrorists view female domestic workers as cash cows that can enhance income, publicity, and overall function of the group. Female domestic workers only earn an average of $1.00 to $1.50 per hour, which makes them highly susceptible to accepting promises of financial help in exchange for joining the caliphate.[5] Workers who are able to understand and speak the English language also assist in expanding the Islamic State’s network and communication channels to other demographics and regions. Utilizing their connections, migrant workers can extend the reach, influence, and the notoriety of the group. They can also help ISIS acquire resources and intelligence from areas ISIS members would not normally frequent.


The Islamic State also targets female domestic workers because of their versatility. ISIS has used female recruits for a variety of duties ranging from financers, recruiters, and coordinators. Some domestic workers have provided financial and logistical support by housing militants en route to Syria. They also take on household duties by cooking meals, looking after the children, and ensuring the group is ready for combat.


Migrant domestic workers are susceptible to manipulation because they are uneducated, living in unfamiliar environments, and are seeking to alleviate their loneliness. Domestic workers are oftentimes from impoverished areas that do not have the resources to provide an adequate education. With minimal cognitive abilities, they may not be able to recognize when they are being recruited and radicalized. Isolated domestic workers in search of acceptance are highly vulnerable to recruitment because of their lack of support and stability in a foreign environment. For example, Indonesian women in Asia are radicalized at higher rates than those in the Middle East because of geographic and religious isolation.[6] Excessive isolation is a strong catalyst that forces individuals to look to the outside world for support, which may drive them into the hands of a terrorist.


Social media and the use of deception have played a vital role in successfully recruiting and radicalizing domestic workers. ISIS strives to recruit female domestic workers primarily through financial and emotional manipulation. The radicalization process for these individuals typically begins after a traumatic event, such as divorce, financial hardship, or culture shock. The recruiter will then reach out to those that appear most vulnerable and offer them a secure, romantic, and loving relationship. Migrant workers are inclined to accept this relationship as they are searching for a sense of community in an unfamiliar environment. They are also more isolated than a typical worker because of their job duties and limited interaction with the community. Once an emotional connection is established, the terrorist will then invite the worker to undergo training via online chat rooms.


IPAC has encouraged Indonesian authorities to partner with agencies overseas in order to raise awareness of female terrorist recruitment. Increased collaboration among entities can aid migrants while they are transitioning to a new area, making them less susceptible to recruitment and radicalization. Recruitment awareness classes can help educate female migrant workers about the risks and vulnerabilities they may face during their transition period. Additionally, IPAC recommends administering mandatory training modules to inform migrants on the signs of exploitation. IPAC is working to provide a variety of resources for exploited victims.


To address its concerns regarding terrorism, the Singaporean government has relied upon social media monitoring strategies and inter-agency cooperation to control future terrorist recruitment and the growth of violent extremism. Singapore’s government is actively monitoring social media for terrorism content. They look for any signs of radical messages by domestic workers and will deport an individual if he or she presents a credible threat. Since 2015, Singapore has deported 16 radicalized domestic workers back to Indonesia following several investigations.[7] Singapore is also working very closely with rehabilitation groups and religious organizations to reintegrate formerly radicalized domestic workers. They are developing programs to help keep domestic workers engaged and to provide them with necessary resources.


Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower introduced a mandatory Foreign Worker Settling-in Program (FW SIP) to help minimize the risk of recruitment and radicalization among domestic workers. The FW SIP is a 1-day mandatory program that educates migrant workers on cultural and societal norms, laws, and employment rights. Relationship and stress management are core components of the program; alleviating these factors may greatly reduce the overall risk of terrorist recruitment.


Settling-In Programme (SIP) for first-time FDWs[8]

The ministry has incorporated a counterterrorism module as part of the settling-in program for foreign domestic workers. In 2016, a pilot program was conducted from June to October. Results revealed that almost all of the 1,900 foreign worker participants found the program useful and had a better understanding of how the ministry could help them through their transition period. Additionally, 99.9% of the workers felt more confident working and living in Singapore. Ensuring that these individuals are effectively educated about the culture, societal norms, and risks is critical for withstanding and combating terrorist recruitment.


Following increasing numbers of domestic worker recruitment, Indonesia has released a documentary outlining risk factors, recruitment, radicalization, incarceration, and repatriation experienced by several maids. The documentary included commentary from the former terrorists expressing fear and regret for serving the caliphate. After its release, a survey was distributed to various domestic workers to measure its impact on society. Three locations were surveyed which include the Indonesian Embassy, the Alkaff Mosque, and an unidentified mosque in Singapore.














Indonesian maids learn about radicalisation risks from documentary and dialogue[9]


Within the Indonesian Embassy, 67% of respondents indicated that when faced with a gesture to befriend a terrorist or recruiter, they would decline any involvement or affiliation. Within the Alkaff Mosque, 83% of respondents indicated they would decline an invitation to interact. In addition, the majority of respondents from the unidentified mosque located in Singapore, reported they would ignore any interaction online that invited them to fight for a terrorist organization in exchange for benefits. The release of the documentary proved to be an effective tool for educating domestic workers and for illustrating the domestic worker’s perception of terrorism.


CTG’s Behavior and Leadership, Extremism, and PACOM teams are collaborating on ways to counter domestic migrant worker radicalization. The Behavior and Leadership Team monitors the behavior, patterns, motivations, and psychological aspects of recruitment to understand potential vulnerabilities and how to mitigate them. The Extremism Team focuses on the spread of extremism around the globe and tracks influential groups, such as the Islamic State. The PACOM Team actively monitors terrorist attacks and new developments within the Pacific regions and communicates with the Behavior and Leadership Team to determine any trends and behavior patterns of terrorists and their victims. Additionally, CTG is consistently monitoring social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, and other platforms used to communicate and preach terrorist content. CTG recognizes that strengthening the intelligence sector is a critical component of countering terrorism and requires consistent communication, collaboration, and disemmination of intel across all fronts.

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[1] SE Asia braces for new wave of ISIS militants, Asia Times, October 2019,

https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/10/article/se-asia-braces-for-new-wave-of-isis-militants/

[2] SE Asia braces for new wave of ISIS militants, Asia Times, October 2019,

https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/10/article/se-asia-braces-for-new-wave-of-isis-militants/

[3] ISIS recruiters are preying on vulnerable domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, CNN, November 2019, https://amp-cnn-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/11/09/asia/indonesia-singapore-domestic-worker-isis-intl-hnk/index.html

[4] IS Foreign Fighters Dispersing Via Loosely Aligned Networks, VOA News, May 2019, https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/foreign-fighters-dispersing-loosely-aligned-networks

[5] ISIS recruiters are preying on vulnerable domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, CNN, November 2019,

https://amp-cnn-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/11/09/asia/indonesia-singapore-domestic-worker-isis-intl-hnk/index.html

[6] Islamic State: Indonesian maids in Hong Kong backing terrorists, investigation finds, ABC, August 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-04/indonesian-maids-supporting-islamic-state/8772320

[7] Ibid.

[8] Settling-In Programme (SIP) for first-time FDWs, Ministry of Manpower, 2019, https://www.mom.gov.sg/passes-and-permits/work-permit-for-foreign-domestic-worker/eligibility-and-requirements/settling-in-programme-sip

[9] Indonesian maids learn about radicalisation risks from documentary and dialogue, The Jakarta Post, September 2019, https://www.thejakartapost.com/seasia/2019/09/22/foreign-maids-learn-about-radicalisation-risks-from-documentary-and-dialogue.html

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