Jakarta. The challenge to combat terrorism has re-emerged with a new level of urgency in Southeast Asia following a recent string of attacks that exposed the influence of the radical Islamic State movement in the region amid a struggle by governments to address the threat of extremism.
Countries in the region have stepped up efforts to increase bilateral and multilateral cooperation on counterterrorism, as the need to combine strengths is heightened at a time when global security and stability are at risk.
Combined Naval Patrols
In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines launched combined naval patrols aimed at facing “the security challenges associated with each country’s border waters,” according to a statement by the governments of the three countries.
The start of patrols coincided with the launch of a military command center in Tarakan, North Kalimantan, which serves as a center for intelligence exchange between the three countries. Similar centers will be established in Tawau, Malaysia, and Bongao, Philippines.
The three countries face a rising threat by local terrorist groups, which are believed to have been moving weapons, cash and fighters across the Sulu Sea. But the need to improve security coordination in the area became more prominent when violence erupted on Mindanao Island in the southern Philippines and a double suicide bomb attack in Jakarta in May.
“The attack in Marawi is a wake-up call for all of us – it requires a swift, timely response. We must unite to build cooperation and strengthen our synergy to combat terrorism,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said, during the Asean 50th celebration on Aug. 11.
Philippine troops have been battling Islamic militants, who have held parts of Marawi City for almost three months now. Close to 700 people have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced since the fighting began.
“Setbacks in Syria and Iraq have heightened the importance of other theaters for ISIS [Islamic State], and in Southeast Asia, the focus is the Philippines,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), as quoted by the New York Times.
Jones wrote in a report last month that the takeover of Marawi will have “ramifications for the region long after the Philippine military retakes the city,” and suggested that the reconstruction of the city will pose a challenge for the region, as governments will need to ensure that extremist teachings do not find fertile ground.
It is also important to note that the Islamic State-affiliated militants fighting in Marawi are believed to be aided by foreign fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East.
Along with the existence of Katibah Nusantara – a special unit of Islamic State that caters specifically to fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia – and the possibility of fighters returning with the skills to organize new terrorist operations in their home countries, both Indonesia and Malaysia will need to consider these potential threats as they continue to strengthen regional and national security.
Indonesia-Australia Cooperation in Counterterrorism
Indonesia and Australia increased cooperation on counterterrorism following the October 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people – including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians – and injured 208 others.
The relationship between the two countries has been dynamic and complex, but proves crucial in countering a common terrorist threat. The two sides have had active discussions during the annual “2+2” dialogue between their foreign and defense ministers – considered the primary forum to discuss defense and strategic issues within the bilateral relationship.
In November 2015, they launched the Asia-Pacific Counterterrorism Financing Summit, which brought together financial regulators, banks and counterterrorism officials to identify the challenges of terrorism financing and develop pragmatic steps to curb the flow of resources to terrorists.
Military, police and intelligence agencies from the neighboring countries have also been conducting various training and exchanges throughout the years.
Last month, Indonesia and Australia co-hosted a counterterrorism meeting with Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Brunei, where participating countries agreed to increase cooperation and engage with the new Global Internet Forum to counter terrorism.
The forum, spearheaded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Youtube, aims to provide technological solutions, commissioning research and conducting knowledge-sharing, and seeks to increase efficacy and responsiveness to terrorist and extremist tactics, many of whom utilizes these platforms to spread ideas and organize their networks and activities.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its dialog partner, Russia, agreed during a meeting in Manila on Aug. 6 to boost counterterrorism cooperation, with particular focus on travel restrictions to the Middle East and efforts to curb the flow of money from international terrorist groups.
The cooperation is one example of the many engagements the region has witnessed recently as part of a collective effort to eradicate terrorism. Various platforms, whether between governments or with the aid of civil society, have been used to tackle terrorism not only on the frontline, but also at its roots.
Jokowi has said on multiple occasions that international cooperation and a soft-power approach are crucial to combating both radicalism and terrorism.
Partnerships forged among countries in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world have taken a multi-pronged approach, with the mission to address the threat of extreme ideologies through education, community involvement and collaboration with technology companies.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed in June to a plan of action that seeks to address the root causes of terrorism, such as poverty, illegal drugs, crime and social injustice.
Ahmed Fahour, Australia’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), said during a recent visit to Jakarta that the family unit plays a vital role in countering radicalism and that family and society play strategic roles in preventing people from becoming radicalized.
“The best way to prevent terrorism and extremism is to make all members of society feel included. To [make them] feel like that they have something in life worth living for,” Fahour said at the time.
Last month, government officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Brunei also agreed to increase cooperation and engage with the new Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism.
The forum, spearheaded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, aims to provide technological solutions, commission research, conduct knowledge-sharing, and increase efficacy and responsiveness to terrorist and extremists, many of whom use these platforms to spread ideas and organize their networks and activities.
During a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July, Jokowi and United States President Donald Trump emphasized their resolve to defeat terrorist networks. They also touched on the importance of isolating terrorists from financial and ideological support.
Bilateral cooperation on many aspects between Indonesia and the United States, such as educational exchange, play a key role in enhancing relations between the youth of the two countries.
“I think this kind of mutual understanding is really one of the most important things to discourage radicalism and to really encourage tolerance and respect for other beliefs as well,” said Joseph Donovan, US ambassador to Indonesia.
As this report has previewed, approaching the issue of terrorism will require a collaborative effort that addresses a string of interconnected issues infringing on different facets of society.
Across the globe, governments have stated their commitments to unity and partnerships, revealing perhaps a humble beginning to an increasingly urgent matter facing the international community.
Whether those commitments will prove effective in combating the threat of terrorism, extremism and radicalism, it will have to withstand the tests of time.