At a time when global terrorism is on the rise, co-operation among South-east Asian countries is key in combating terrorist activities in the region, said security and terrorism experts in response to the latest United States report on terrorism.
The Country Reports on Terrorism 2014, issued by the US State Department on June 19, indicates that the number of terrorist attacks increased by 35 per cent from 2013 to last year, and the number of fatalities increased 81 per cent in that time.
Although Asia "continued to weaken the ability of terrorist groups", the report noted that some countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia still face a number of challenges when dealing with the threat of terrorism.
In particular, the report highlighted the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines as an area where violent extremists tend to operate, train and meet.
Security and terrorism experts say the area is notorious for the movement of personnel, drugs and militants and more coordination between countries is necessary for the problem to be addressed.
Senior political scientist Peter Chalk, from think-tank Rand Corporation, noted that the Philippines and Indonesia lack assets and personnel needed for maritime patrols, while Malaysia is the most equipped of the three countries.
"By default, co-operation is the name of the game because none of the three nations can sufficiently monitor the area themselves," he said.
Regionwide, Dr Chalk pointed out, ASEAN has plans to introduce a Political-Security Community to coordinate regional security policies by the end of the year.
Patrols in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas "would fall naturally under this third pillar of the ASEAN community", he said, adding that "fostering and encouraging more joint action to deal with counterterrorism on a regional basis" is something ASEAN could look at as a whole.
If the problem of terrorist operations in the region is not dealt with, said Mr Jacob Zenn, an analyst in Eurasian affairs at think-tank Jamestown Foundation, "the long-term prospect is not particularly optimistic as extremist groups operating there can choose to join groups in the Middle East, or they can carry out attacks in the region".
The US report also notes that governments in Asia became "increasingly concerned about the growing threat" of the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the past year.
Indonesia, in particular, "continued to face challenges trying to stem the flow of Indonesians travelling abroad to engage in terrorism", said the report.
Last July, an ISIS recruitment video specifically called for Indonesians to join their ranks. Indonesian officials have estimated that up to 300 Indonesians may have become foreign fighters in the Middle East over the last three years.
To a lesser extent, Malaysia also faces the problem of foreign fighters - it has identified 39 Malaysians working with militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
Out of 50 suspected ISIS supporters arrested by Malaysian authorities, only 22 were prosecuted, prompting a suggestion in the report for Malaysia to "strengthen proactive co-operation between police and prosecutors from the outset of an investigation".
Dr Chalk added that Malaysia could strengthen its judicial process as a whole, ensuring there is "transparency and oversight", so that anti-terror laws are not used for political purposes but specifically as security tools.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna, who heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said that while Asian governments have already made efforts to work with neighbours and internationally on terrorist threats, more co-operation is necessary.
"Governments must build common databases, exchange personnel (and) conduct joint training and operations to make the Asia-Pacific region hostile to ISIS and unfriendly to ISIS supporters," he said.
US report praises Singapore's anti-terrorism efforts
Singapore was praised for its efforts to stem terrorist activities in the Country Reports on Terrorism 2014 released by the US State Department.
The report stated that Singapore's "law enforcement agencies displayed coordination, command and control in responding to threat information affecting Singapore's security".
It added that "Singapore's existing legal framework, in conjunction with the Internal Security Act, provides the government necessary tools to support the investigation and prosecution of terrorism offences".
The report, released on June 19, also highlighted Singapore's revised regulations to counter the financing of terrorism. "Singapore's robust financial regulatory framework makes terrorist financing illegal and the government, in co-operation with the financial services industry, remains vigilant against this threat," the report said.
On the topic of countering violent extremism, the report said the government and Muslim community organisations actively promoted tolerance and provided a counter-narrative.
For example, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore maintains a Facebook presence and holds outreach and education events to counter terrorist propaganda and recruitment efforts.
Ms Veryan Khan, editorial director of Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, agrees with this approach, saying that the best way to combat foreign fighters "is at home, as close to the beginning of the radicalisation process as possible", with a strong reliance on friends and family.
But Professor Rohan Gunaratna, who heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, believes that more can be done by the entire region, including Singapore, to "contain and counter ISIS messaging" especially online, referring to the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Prof Gunaratna said that in terms of the propaganda and publicity war, "ISIS is sprinting and the governments are crawling".
This article was first published on June 29, 2015.
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