Rising terror threat needs urgent action
The year 2016 was one of rising terrorist activity for Southeast Asia. The number of arrests and deaths of terrorist suspects in Indonesia more than doubled to 170; Malaysia faced a steady stream of travel attempts of foreign terrorist fighters to Syria or Iraq and witnessed its first successful attack by the Daesh (or Islamic State) in June; and the Philippines suffered from an increase in bombings and hostage-takings conducted by Daesh-affiliated groups, including the Abu Sayyaf. Less covered in the international media, Thailand’s “Deep South” experienced a dramatic upsurge in attacks to over 800, resulting in over 300 deaths and 600 injured.
Unfortunately, this trend is not expected to subside in 2017; rather, without effective collaboration among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it is predicted that the level of terrorist violence will increase further.
Daesh has shown great interest in this region. In June 2016, a propaganda video instructed its supporters to focus on Southeast Asia, telling them to join their regional branch in the Philippines if they can’t make it to Syria or Iraq. Now, as Daesh’s territorial control in the Middle East diminishes, its need to disperse and move elsewhere is becoming a reality. As a result, it is predicted that many foreign terrorist fighters from Southeast Asia now in the Middle East—there are believed to be more than 1,000—will return home to continue their campaign and potentially declare a caliphate.
Several militant groups in the region have already pledged allegiance to Daesh and have adequate manpower and connections to be a viable threat. Southeast Asia also provides an extremely hospitable environment for Daesh to thrive. Using ongoing conflicts and pockets of instability, and capitalizing on racial and religious intolerance, Daesh could gain power and momentum in the region.
Daesh has frequently utilized the suffering of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar as justification for its cause and recruitment. Now, the recent sectarian violence in Rakhine has led to increasing attempted attacks on Myanmar interests and protests in Muslim-majority countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. This could lead to an environment in which Daesh’s claim of legitimacy is strengthened.
Long-running conflicts in both the Philippines and Thailand also provide fertile breeding grounds for violent extremism. Protracted insurgencies in the two countries provide Daesh with the opportunity to exploit deep-rooted grievan-ces to garner support and resources, and potentially start exercising control.
As well as potential local support for Daesh, Southeast Asia has exceptionally porous borders, which, combined with highly sophisticated smuggling networks, provides easy entry into, and movement within, the region for persons, weapons, and resources. Although there is clear cause for concern, there are many actions which could help mitigate these risks.
Indonesia’s immigration offices in Batam and Depok last year rejected close to 1,400 passport applications, mostly for suspected intentions of travel to become foreign terrorist fighters. Unfortunately, screening processes in many parts of the region are usually poor to nonexistent, and it remains easy for terrorists to move from one country to the next.
Building on the successful border liaison office mechanism and network to address transnational crimes, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has started assisting border officials to recognize and prevent the movements of foreign terrorist fighters. It will also assist in the dismantling of smuggling networks and the prevention of corruption at border checkpoints.
Throughout the region, counterterrorism investigators and prosecutors are hindered by inadequate legal frameworks. In line with UN Security Council resolutions, universal legal instruments against terrorism, and international human rights law, it is essential that Asean countries update their terrorism-related legislation. Notably, traveling for the purpose of conducting or facilitating terrorist activities has only been criminalized by one Asean nation, Malaysia. Without this legal backing, Asean remains vulnerable to the movements of terrorists.
While Asean countries have improved collaboration and intelligence-sharing, these still occur in an ad hoc and inconsistent fashion. Regular and efficient information-sharing through formal and informal channels, within and between countries of the region, needs to be seriously enhanced.
Lastly, there is no Asean plan for the prevention of violent extremism (or PVE). In much of the region, local grievances and root causes of terrorism are left unaddressed, and Daesh’s propaganda goes unchallenged, leaving communities vulnerable to radicalization. It is important that Asean develop a regional PVE plan which will subsequently be 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.
Jeremy Douglas is the UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific and its former representative for Pakistan.
Joseph Gyte is a UNODC counterterrorism consultant for Southeast Asia.