Muslim leaders yesterday dismissed claims that Cambodians are fighting alongside the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after fighters affiliated with the group bragged about support from the Kingdom.
The claims were aired in an unverified 13-minute-long jihadist recruitment video that shows a group of English-speaking fighters sitting in a wooded area in front of the trademark black flag of ISIS.
In the video, "There Is No Life Without Jihad", a man identified as “Brother Muthanna al Yemeni from Britain” says the force includes fighters from Cambodia.
“We have brothers from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia, Australia, UK,” he says.
The fighters call on Muslims to join them in their jihad, or holy struggle, which they say will take them to Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. But Cambodians are unlikely to come along for the jihadist journey, according to Muslim leaders and experts.
“There is no relationship between Cambodian Muslims and those in the Middle East,” said Sos Kamry, the grand mufti of Cambodia. “In Cambodia, we don’t have extremists.”
Sem Kallyan, director of the Islamic Local Development Organisation in Battambang province, agreed.
“We are living under the law, we are here as Khmer people and Khmer Muslims, so we cannot join another country’s fight,” she said.
Ang Chanrith, director of the Minority Rights Organization, said that while a lot of Cham – an indigenous group that mostly practise Islam – do send their children to study in the Middle East, they do so to help them “learn the right practice of religion”, not to “learn about suicide bombs”.
In 2004, a Cambodian court convicted Jemaah Islamiyah operative Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, and three others with planning to bomb the US and British embassies in Phnom Penh. Before his arrest, Hambali, the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings, was known to have travelled freely in Cambodia.
But Ahmad Yahya, president of the Cambodian Muslim Community Development Organisation, said there was no evidence of Chams being involved in extremist movements and said ISIS’s claims “may
“This is strange information for me. In the past, our people were never involved with any fighting,” he said. “We know ourselves; we don’t do that,” he said.
Dr Kok-Thay Eng, deputy director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, agreed that Chams had “not shown any interest in engaging with radicalism”.
But he said that if there was engagement with ISIS, it was more likely to have come from Cambodians in southern Thailand.
“Maybe some students were recruited from there, but there is no evidence at the moment,” he said, adding that extremist groups had “learned to be more secretive” in recent years.
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011 showed that the US government had long been concerned with the potential for Muslim extremism in Cambodia.
One cable, dated January 5, 2010, called the Kingdom’s Cham “vulnerable”.
A “culture of corruption and limited ability to maintain law and order make [Cambodia] susceptible to external influences that are using NGOs and massive donations as the vessel to disseminate their message to the Cham,” the cable says.
In 2010, the Post reported that National Assembly President Heng Samrin had met with representatives of the Kuwait-Cambodia Islamic Cultural Training Centre, a Kuwait-based Islamic charity that appeared on a US government watch list for providing “financial and material support” to terrorist groups.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that the government’s “principle is not to interfere with anyone”.
“It’s against our constitution to interfere with someone else’s business … [and] how do we take action when we don’t know who they are?”
Siphan said that while there is no known extremist movement among Cambodia’s Muslims, if some had joined ISIS, it would merely represent the “private activities of some individuals”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA