WITHOUT effective collaboration among ASEAN partners, terrorism in Southeast Asia will continue to thrive this year as foreign fighters now in the Middle East return to home soil to continue their campaign.
The warning by two United Nations representatives came following observations of the rise of terrorism activity in the region last year, in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
The duo – Jeremy Douglas, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southeast Asia representative, and Joseph Gyte, UNODC Counter-terrorism consultant for the region – noting in an article on Bangkok Post that Daesh, or the Islamic State (IS) terror network, has in recent months shown great interest in the region.
They cited the uptick in terrorism activity in ASEAN nations last year as an example, pointing out that in Indonesia, the arrests and deaths of terrorist suspects had more than doubled to 170, while Malaysia experienced a steady stream of travel attempts of foreign fighters to Syria or Iraq and saw its first terror attack in June.
Philippines, on the other hand, witnessed an increase in bombings and hostage-takings by IS-related groups like the Abu Sayyaf and in Thailand, attacks numbered to over 800 last year with over 300 deaths and 600 reports of injuries.
“Unfortunately, this trend is not expected to subside this year. Rather, without effective collaboration between country members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is predicted that the level of terrorist violence will increase further,” they said.
Douglas and Gyte added that as IS continues to cede territorial control in the Middle East, its fighters would have to disperse and plant their roots elsewhere.
When this happens, the more than 1,000 foreign fighters from Southeast Asia now in the Middle East are expected return from the war armed with the dream of declaring a caliphate, this time in their home countries.
Their modus operandi: Use ongoing conflicts like the violence in Burma’s Rakhine state, and capitalise on rising racial and religious intolerance and situations of political instability in countries like Indonesia or Malaysia, in order to expand their network of recruits and thus gain power and influence.
IS, Douglas and Gyte claimed in one example, has frequently utilised the Rohingya crisis as justification for their cause and recruitment.
“Now, the recent sectarian violence in Rakhine state has led to increasing attempted attacks on Myanmar interests and protests in Muslim majority countries; Malaysia and Indonesia,” they noted.
Their fears are not unfounded.
Just last month, the head of the Malaysian police’s counter-terrorism division warned that Burma was at risk of attacks by foreign supporters of IS recruited via Southeast Asian networks claiming to be in support of the Rohingya cause.
The official, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said this after local authorities detained a suspected IS follower who was planning to head to Burma to carry out attacks. The suspect was said to be Indonesian, according to a Reuters report, and Ayob Khan warned that he was not likely to be the only one.
The Rohingya Muslims are a persecuted minority in Burma. Rights groups around the world have accused Burmese forces in the predominantly-Buddhist country of carrying out summary executions and rape of the Rohingya via army operations launched as a response to the Oct 9, 2016, attack on police posts that saw nine officers killed.
The Burmese government under Aung San Suu Kyi has denied this but her leadership’s lack of action has triggered protests in neighbouring Indonesia and in Malaysia.
Apart from running conflicts like the Rohingya crisis, Southeast Asia’s exceptionally porous borders also provide easy entry to, and movement within, the region for IS fighters, Douglas and Gyte said.
It has also made it easy for extremists to channel funds into the region, according to a regional risk assessment jointly prepared by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Australia that was released last August.
The study, as quoted by Bloomberg, said: “Given only small sums are required to stage a deadly attack, even modest amounts of funding from foreign terrorist groups pose a significant risk to the region’s security. The cross-border movement of cash is the highest-risk method of moving terrorism funds across the region.”
As such, Douglas and Gyte said efforts must be made to mitigate these risks such as improving passport screening processes, dismantling smuggling networks and preventing corruption at border checkpoints.
They said the UNODC has also started assisting border officials by helping them to recognise and prevent the movements of foreign terrorist fighters.
Apart from these, the UN representatives said it is also crucial that ASEAN member nations update their terrorism-related legislation in line with UN Security Council Resolutions, Universal Legal Instruments Against Terrorism, and International Human Rights Law. Malaysia, they said, is the only ASEAN nation that has criminalised travelling for the purpose of conducting or facilitating terrorist activities.
Counter-terrorism investigators in many other ASEAN nations, however, are typically hindered by inadequate legislation.
“Without this legal backing, ASEAN remains vulnerable to the movements of terrorists. While ASEAN countries have improved on their collaboration and intelligence sharing, it still occurs in an ad hoc and inconsistent fashion,” they said.
“More regular and efficient information sharing through formal and informal channels, within and between countries of the region, needs to be seriously enhanced.”
Finally, Douglas and Gyte also noted that there is no ASEAN plan in place that directly addresses the prevention of violent extremism.
They said in much of the region, the root causes of the surge in terrorism and the reasons for the spread of IS propaganda are allowed to fester, which ultimately means local communities are left vulnerable to radicalisation.
“It is important that Asean develops a regional prevention of violent extremism plan which is subsequently tailored for each country. This is by no means an exhaustive list of recommendations.
“However, if all Asean nations implement a common approach, including what we are recommending, risks posed by terrorists in the region would be significantly reduced,” they said.