Intelligence sharing thwarts attacks, leads to arrests
Indo-Pacific countries are intensifying their intelligence-sharing efforts and examining counterterrorism policies following a trio of deadly attacks by extremists over the past year in Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Their cooperative efforts already resulted in scores of arrests and thwarted additional attacks.
Intelligence sharing is imperative in the fight against violent extremism, Dr. Paul Lieber, resident senior fellow at the Joint Special Operations University in Tampa, Florida, told FORUM. “There’s enormous amounts of untapped potential within intelligence data integration, also new approaches to risk prediction that can emerge from it.”
Intelligence sharing has contributed to a recent swell in the number of arrests of suspected violent extremists in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The countries are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Our Eyes Initiative, which coordinates intelligence sharing to counteract “extremism, radicalism and terrorism in the Southeast Asian region.”
Many of these arrests involved suspected members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which has terrorized all three countries through the kidnappings of Indonesian and Malaysian fishermen on the Sulu Sea and in the January 2019 cathedral bombing in Jolo, Philippines, that left 20 dead and 102 injured. In mid-March 2019, Malaysian authorities detained 11 Filipinos and one Malaysian in the Sabah province, local media reported. All were suspected of working with ASG or its affiliates. Five months earlier, police in Malaysia caught eight ASG suspects, all Filipino, including one accused of being among the group’s top commanders, and another of being a recruiter who specialized in luring children to serve as human shields in clashes with security forces.
Manila and Kuala Lumpur maintain five bilateral law enforcement agreements covering topics ranging from border cooperation to money laundering to financial crimes related to terrorism, reported the Embassy of the Philippines in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian police in February 2019 made additional arrests when they captured seven Egyptians and a Tunisian, each accused of having ties to the al-Qaida network. They were planning to launch large-scale attacks in several countries, reported Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper. Tips from intelligence agencies were credited with alerting Malaysian police to the presence of suspected foreign terrorists in the country.
Anti-terrorism police in Jakarta may have prevented looming attacks on election rallies when they arrested six men suspected of being Islamist militants and shot another dead, Reuters reported in May 2019.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on May 9, 2019, clarifying a list of measures it has taken in recent years to counter violent extremism, emphasizing its efforts within the U.N. counterterrorism framework, collaboration with its Indo-Pacific neighbors and actions within its own borders.
Lieber explained that assistance from Western countries has been helpful in firming up Indo-Pacific nations’ capabilities, particularly “in training and security force assistance.”
Training courses on the use of “criminal databases, data processing and counterterrorism investigative skills” are all part of Project Sunbird, a three-year (2017-2020) Interpol initiative to enhance police capabilities in ASEAN in combating terrorism and organized crime with support from Canada, the Interpol Secretariat reported. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, along with the seven other ASEAN member states, are participating. (Pictured: A Malaysian policewoman uses an Interpol database to track violent extremists.)
Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.