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Plenty of holes to be plugged in Southeast Asia's fight against terrorism

Plenty of holes to be plugged in Southeast Asia's fight against terrorism
Published 17 Aug 2016 

Earlier this month a terror cell in Batam island, some 15 kilometres south of Singapore, was discovered before it had a chance to act. While it's debatable whether it was capable of launching a planned 'rocket attack' on the island nation, the incident is another reminder of ever-present threat of terrorism in Southeast Asia and has highlighted the need to strengthen cooperation across borders to tackle regional threats. 

The multifaceted nature of that threat was closely examined last week when 23 countries attended a high-level counter-terrorism forum in Bali. Attendees committed to closer co-operation between nations in various areas, including cyber-technology and trans-boundary financing.

Yet the four-day summit also highlighted a lack of progress. Cross-border cooperation is far from optimal between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, countries that are either at high risk of terror attacks or that have identified active cells. Despite their proximity, these nation are still ironing out issues raised more than a decade ago.

There are various reasons for this lethargy including: sovereignty issues, porous borders, and a lack of agreement on what needs to be done. [fold]

Sovereignty can often get in the way when it comes to policy implementation.  For example, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have all agreed via a maritime pact to allow their various  coast guards to enter  territorial waters in the Celebes and Sulu Seas to pursue terrorists and pirates.

But earlier this month the pact did not translate into action when an Indonesian crewman was taken hostage by terrorist group Abu Sayyaf. Military personnel from Malaysia and Indonesia could not enter the waters of the Philippines, which borders East Malaysia and Indonesia’s Kalimantan, because Filipino officials had not secured constitutional approval for a joint patrol.

Such lags between policy and implementation allows groups like the Abu Sayyaf, which has roots in southern Philippines insurgency and has pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to take advantage of the situation.

Porous borders and weak border controls are an issue particularly in Indonesia, which has one of the longest coastlines in the world. The underfunded navy lacks the ships to patrol its waters, and Indonesia's sprawling archipelago and rugged terrain provide plenty of cover for terrorists and their training grounds. Terrorists hiding out in the mountains of Poso (in Central Sulawesi) are known to have smuggled firearms through contacts in the southern Philippines. In another case, some radical Uighurs (ethnic Chinese-from its northwest  Xinjiang region)  found their way into Indonesia, some from Thailand using fake passports, suggesting that  cross-border checks need to be tightened.

Officials at last week’s summit are considering sharing biometric details of known militants and convicted terrorists. While this would help track those who are on the radar of security authorities, it would not be much help in detecting unknown terrorists, like the Uighurs who made their way to Indonesia.

Finally, a lack of co-operation reflects the fact that these various nations don't have the same starting point. Some have taken a more systematic approach to countering terrorism, while others do not have coordinated programmes in place. This leads to varying levels of vulnerability across countries in the region, with less well prepared countries increasing the risks faced by their neighbours. Singapore, for instance, sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia has repeatedly urged citizens to be vigilant, warning that an attack on its soil is 'a matter of when, not if'. The wealthy island nation and its assets have long been a target and the Singaporean government has responded by beefing up security measures like CCTV and its special forces unit.

But such efforts have not been matched by other countries in the region which may be consumed by political turmoil, have larger and more unwieldy bureaucracies, or have much larger populations to secure.

None of these challenges are easy to overcome but it's clear the time has come for the region to do more to improve co-operation. An estimated 1000  fighters from across the region have joined ISIS to fight in  Syria and Iraq. They are reaching out to those back home to radicalise them through videos and newsletters, and have called for supporters to resurrect a caliphate in the region.

This growing threat needs to be countered by more than words.

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