Ongoing fighting in the Philippine city of Marawi has increased fears of more terrorism in South-East Asia. As Islamic State (IS) lost ground in the Middle East, Marawi became a potential regional stronghold for the terror group. The ramifications of an increased IS presence in the region could include increased numbers of terrorist cells and an uptick in violence from experienced fighters returning from conflict zones.
On 29 July, Australia and Indonesia co-hosted the Sub-Regional Meeting on Foreign Terrorist Fighter and Cross-Border Terrorism in Manado, Indonesia. Also in attendance were representatives from the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and New Zealand. The meeting follows one held last year and sought to develop and co-ordinate a response to threats posed by foreign terrorist fighters operating in, and returning to, the region. Participating governments examined how they could increase co-operation among themselves and with private and civil sectors. Possible methods include increased co-operation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, better management of terrorist offenders in prison and post-release, countering violent extremist programmes to address the root causes of terrorism, an increased understanding and strengthening of the legal frameworks within the sub-region, and an increase in co-operation between border control agencies to deter and prevent cross-border terrorist movements. The meeting also saw the establishment of a Foreign Terrorist Strategic Forum, aimed at synchronising the priorities of participating governments, and increasing information-sharing through the establishment of databases on the movements of foreign terrorist fighters. A sub-regional “best practice round table” was also established.
The escalation of violence in Marawi is, in part, due to the failure of intelligence and security forces. To avoid further insurgencies in the region, it is important to increase the capabilities of intelligence agencies. Technologies and social media have allowed fighters to communicate, recruit and travel more easily than ever before and the situation is likely to worsen as returning fighters bring an increase in violence and radicalisation. Co-operation is therefore essential to respond to the ever-evolving challenges. The initiatives coming out of this meeting should enhance the overall security of the region but truly successful outcomes will largely depend on continued and closer inter-governmental co-operation.
Although it is in the best interests of all involved, there remain some challenges to achieving that success. The continued support and co-operation of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, which are the major stakeholders is essential, however, deep political mistrust between Malaysia and the Philippines has impeded information-sharing in the past and remains a potential concern. Despite that, the trilateral security meeting between the three major stakeholders on 22 June produced positive results, with the three countries agreeing to work together to more effectively address terrorism and extremism. That work includes the launching of trilateral maritime patrols in the Sulu and Celebes Seas to maintain stability in the region and present a unified front against terrorism. There is also an institutional disjuncture which may cause complications. Counter-terrorism in Malaysia and Indonesia is a police matter, while the military takes the lead in the Philippines. Efforts to synchronise the priorities of law enforcement and intelligence agencies within the region and the enhanced sharing of information may play a part in addressing those issues. Given the efforts to further embed the idea closer of co-operation into the institutional frameworks of the region, and the necessity of addressing the threat of terrorism, ongoing support for such initiatives seems likely. A working group of senior officials tasked with following up and reviewing the outcomes of the meeting suggests a positive approach, and the parties have agreed to convene again in 2018, making it an annual event.