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News analysis

Collaborating more closely across borders against terror

Malaysia last Thursday unveiled a special operations force comprising men from its police, coast guard and military, to beef up its response to domestic terror threats.

A week earlier, lawmakers in Indonesia agreed to legislative changes which will allow its armed forces to play a more direct role in fighting extremism on home soil - a mission currently spearheaded by its police.

The decision by members of Indonesia's House of Representatives came just days after Singapore staged its largest counterterrorism exercise in the country. While it was meant to raise awareness of terrorism, it also showcased a strong synergy between the Home Team and the Singapore Armed Forces when it comes to tackling security threats.

These developments in the three countries, closely connected by both land and sea borders, come at a time when South-east Asia runs the risk of becoming the next battlefield for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.

As ISIS loses territory in the Middle East, there is a real fear that its call for foreign fighters and militant groups from this region to strike at home will ring louder and lead to deadlier attacks.

The United Nations estimated that there are 516 Indonesians, 100 Filipinos, 100 Malaysians and two Singaporeans who have left home to fight for ISIS.

Experts say these militants can be expected to take the fight back home as US-led coalition forces flush ISIS elements out of places such as Mosul city in Iraq, and possibly Raqqa, Syria, in the months ahead.

A whole-of-government approach in the war on terror, which sees countries tapping the multiple resources at their disposal, is to be expected in this day and age.

The significant steps Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have taken, in passing tougher laws and building inter-agency capabilities in fighting extremism and radicalisation at home, are laudable. They send a strong message of the resolve to stave off ISIS and its ideology.

But no country is able to solve the problem of terrorism alone because it is often a transnational threat, said observers such as Mr Jasminder Singh.

The senior analyst from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research noted that the source of leadership, ideology, financing and training of terrorists often lies overseas. Their attacks are also not limited to targets in their homelands.

This is particularly true in the region, where different terror groups often fight as a "singular force even if they employ multi-faceted tactics", he added.

A case in point is the foiled terrorist plot to fire a rocket at Marina Bay in Singapore from Batam island, which was planned by an Indonesian with ties to a militant in Syria. Recent court hearings also revealed how the brazen Jan 14 attack in downtown Jakarta was funded and possibly directed in part by Indonesians fighting for ISIS in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the Philippines was red-flagged by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, with the rising threat of "pro-ISIS" groups in Mindanao, a cluster of islands in the southern Philippines near Indonesia and East Malaysia. A recent report by the think-tank confirmed that ISIS leaders have marked the Philippines as an extension of its caliphate in South-East Asia.

"So, to neutralise such threats, it is not only imperative to have a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach, but there is also a dire need for international cooperation," Mr Singh told The Straits Times.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have in the past shared information and collaborated on counterterrorism, but they will now need to create a framework to work even more closely with the increasingly cross-border nature of extremism.

This includes going beyond what appears to be case-by-case collaborations, to a more systematic exchange of not just intelligence but also personnel for training and exposure to one another's operations.

This will strengthen bilateral cooperation and ensure that the "singular force approach" is not weighed down by bureaucracies or rivalries.

"Security agencies must move beyond joint collaborations and think of how they can work as a singular regional force to defeat terrorism," said Mr Singh.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Collaborating more closely across borders against terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe