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ASEAN lacks plan to halt violent extremism

A bullet hole is pictured as military personnel inspect the site of multiple bomb and gun attacks by insurgents at Cho-airong district in the troubled southern Thai province of Narathiwat on 14 March 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Last year was one of rising terrorist activity for Southeast Asia. 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 Daesh — the Arabic acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or IS — in June. And the Philippines suffered from an increase in bombings and hostage­takings conducted by Daesh­affiliated groups, including 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 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.

Daesh has shown great interest in this region. In June last year, a propaganda video instructed their 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, their 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 capitalising on racial and religious intolerance, Daesh could gain power and momentum in the region.

Daesh has frequently utilised the suffering of the Rohingya minority in Burma as justification for their cause and recruitment. Now, the recent sectarian violence in Arakan State has led to increasing attempted attacks on Burmese interests and protests in Muslim-majority ASEAN countries Malaysia and Indonesia. This could lead to an environment in which Daesh’s claim of legitimacy is strengthened.

Long­running conflicts in both the Philippines and Thailand also provide fertile breeding grounds for violent extremism. Protracted insurgencies in both countries provide Daesh with the opportunity to exploit deep­rooted grievances to garner support, 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 that 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 recognise and prevent the movements of foreign terrorist fighters. Dismantling smuggling networks and preventing corruption at border checkpoints will further assist.

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 terrorism­related legislation. Notably, travelling for the purpose of conducting or facilitating terrorist activities has only been criminalised by one ASEAN nation, Malaysia. 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. More 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. In much of the region, local grievances and the root causes of terrorism are left unaddressed and Daesh’s propaganda goes unchallenged, leaving communities vulnerable to radicalisation.

It is important that ASEAN develops a regional prevention of violent extremism plan that 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.

This article by Jeremy Douglas and Joseph Gyte was originally published by the Bangkok Post here. Douglas is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific and the former UNODC representative for Pakistan. Gyte is a UNODC counter-terrorism consultant for Southeast Asia.