MS Risk Blog

Southeast Asian States Vow to Work Together to Combat “Growing” Militant Threat

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Southeast Asian countries have announced that they will cooperate more closely with intelligence and law enforcement authorities from the Middle East amidst “grave concerns” about an elevated threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group in the region.

Late last month, representatives from four Southeast Asian nations, along with Australia and New Zealand met in the Indonesian city of Manado to develop a response to the increased danger posed by IS, which has been highlighted in recent months by the occupation of parts of the southern Philippines city of Marawi by militants who have pledged allegiance to the terror group. The battle has sparked fears that as IS continues to suffer setbacks in Iraq and Syria, it is seeking to create a new stronghold in the region, buttressed by Southeast Asian fighters who are returning from the Middle East and by other militants who have been inspired by the group and by the Marawi conflict.

A joint statement released by the participants described the regional threat from Islamist militants as growing and rapidly evolving, with the countries calling for enhanced information sharing, as well as cooperation on border control, deradicalisation, law reform and countering Islamists’ prolific use of social media to plan attacks and lure recruits.

The meeting was co-hosted by Indonesia and Australia, with the other participants being Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and New Zealand. The main initiative was a law enforcement dialogue to be co-hosted by the Indonesian and Australian police forces in August brining together key stakeholders affected by IS. Two senior law enforcement sources at the Manado meeting have disclosed that countries from the Middle East, including Turkey, would attend the summit in order to kick off cooperation across the two regions.

IS has a dedicated military unit that is made up of hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters in Syria and Iraq and led by Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah. According to Indonesian police, there are 510 Indonesian supporters of IS in Iraq and Syria, including 113 women. About twenty Islamist fighters from Indonesia are believed by counterterrorism authorities to be fighting in Marawi, which is a predominately Muslim city on the Philippines Island of Mindanao that has been a hotbed of Islamist unrest for decades and a magnet for militants from around the region. One of the leaders of the militants in Marawi is a Malaysian Islamic studies lecturer, Ahmad Mahmud, who arranged financing and the recruitment of foreign fighters.

While the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is the multilateral regional forum made up of ten nations, has long had a framework for cooperation on combating violent extremism, analysts and officials have stated that coordination has been poor. A report released late last month from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict identified “formidable obstacles” to greater cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines – all of which are the front-line states that are facing the Islamist threat in Southeast Asia. According to the report, “these include the deep-seated political distrust between the Philippines and Malaysia that impedes information sharing; concern from Indonesia and Malaysia police about mixed loyalties of local counterparts in Mindanao, especially given clan and family links; and institutional disjuncture’s that give the lead in counter-terrorism to the police in Indonesia and Malaysia but to the military in the Philippines.”

After more than two months of intense fighting, IS-aligned militants continue to control part of Marawi. Over 600 people have been killed in the fighting, including 45 civilians and 114 members of the security forces, with the government reporting that the remaining figure is composed of the militants.