Defense leaders augmenting counterterrorism capabilities

Defense leaders augmenting counterterrorism capabilities

Tom Abke

Defense officials from across the Indo-Pacific region are trying to diversify their arsenals to counter persistent and evolving terror threats.

Defense leaders and subject matter experts discussed everything from social media campaigns to the rehabilitation of radicalized fighters at the 2018 Southeast Asia Counter-Terrorism Symposium: A Collective Approach, which was held October 4-5, 2018, in Singapore and hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

“The global terrorism threat remains high and continues to evolve,” said Dr. Mohamad Maliki bin Osman, Singapore’s senior minister of state for defense and foreign affairs. “In our region, the most serious threat emanates from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria], which has shaped the regional security landscape in recent years. Hundreds of Southeast Asian fighters have joined ISIS’ ranks in Iraq and Syria, while others have mounted attacks in the region in support of ISIS and its goal of establishing a caliphate in our region.”

Speeches by Maliki and Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, pictured, were accompanied by keynote addresses from senior defense officials from Malaysia, the Philippines and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Panel discussions featured defense and law enforcement officials from around the region, along with academics and international experts.

Terrorists use technology and social media to exploit divisions along religious, political and socio-economic lines, Maliki added, alluding to a pair of the panel discussions. The first addressed causes of radicalization, ways to rehabilitate and reintegrate radicals, and methods for building trust and engagement among disparate groups.

Another discussion examined counterterrorism measures using social media and online data, including the deployment of data analytics and algorithmic technologies to thwart terrorist attacks. A third panel examined military counterterrorism operations, including ways to counter chemical, biological and radiological weapons.

Ryacudu described the threat posed by resurgent elements of the Islamic State. ISIS has operated from a stronghold in the southern Philippines to contribute to terrorist acts elsewhere in the region, he said, adding that the group persists in its efforts to merge affiliates in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia into an alliance called Daulah Islamiyah Katibah Nusantara.

“The siege of Marawi demonstrated that our region was unprepared for the current and emerging wave of terrorism,” said Ryacudu, referring to the five-month conflict in 2017 between Philippine security forces and ISIS-affiliated militants in the city of Marawi. “It also demonstrated the need for a new security architecture for the ASEAN region.”

Ryacudu was a central figure in the January 2018 launch of the Our Eyes Initiative to facilitate intelligence sharing among Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Philippine Undersecretary of National Defense Cardozo Luna called for renewed security cooperation, adding that a better exchange of intelligence could have prevented the Marawi siege.

Improving communication and detection of extremist activity begins at home, Singapore’s Maliki indicated, remarking how an alert citizenry can help prevent acts of terror by reporting suspicious people and activities to authorities.

The challenge is significant. According to RSIS, 63 extremist groups in Southeast Asia had pledged allegiance to ISIS as of March 2018. Maliki emphasized ASEAN’s role as a platform for cooperative counterterrorism efforts.

“It is important for ASEAN member states to continue to step up practical cooperation,” he said, “through joint exercises and training, information sharing, and increased dialogue and sharing of best practices, to strengthen our region’s collective resilience and readiness.”

Tom Abke is aFORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.