Tougher security measures, more cooperation needed to counter militant threat, says terrorism expert

Early morning peak hour jam on the Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia.
Early morning peak hour jam on the Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia. PHOTO: ST FILE

Governments must counter the threat of terrorist groups that do not accept traditional borders by strengthening security measures and stepping up coordination on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism efforts, said academic and ex-Indonesian ambassador Barry Desker in Singapore.

The emergence of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has had an impact on South-east Asia as seen by the Jan 14 terrorist attack in Jakarta and the threat will be an ongoing one for countries in the region, said Mr Barry Desker, distinguished fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University.

ISIS and its declaration of a global caliphate have posed a greater danger to authorities in the region than previous terror groups such as Al -Qaeda particularly because the group's mode of operation transcends states. That has put the impetus on countries to rethink beyond their borders, underscoring the need for them to step up cooperation to deter against the group's operations, Mr Desker said. 

"The problem for all of us is that we think in terms of states, the truth is that these groups don't think in those terms. For them, Southeast Asia is seen as a unified whole. The operations extend across borders very easily," he said. 

Mr Desker was speaking on the threat of terrorism at a quarterly briefing for The Straits Times Global Outlook series organised by The Straits Times in partnership with OCBC Premier Banking.

Mr Desker cited Singapore's recent deportation of four Indonesians believed to have been en route to the Middle East to join ISIS as an example of the cross-border threat posed by the group's members. Effective cooperation among the authorities in that situation had also shown how governments can work together to prevent people from travelling to join the terror group. 

The four suspects, including a 15-year-old boy, were arrested at Woodlands Checkpoint as they were making their way into Singapore from Johor, Malaysia.

As such, countries must be on guard, given that the region remains vulnerable to pockets of insecurity and militancy. Mr Desker cited an "ungoverned area" comprising the southern Philippines, east Kalimantan and central Sulawesi where kidnappers, smugglers and militants move easily across borders. "The fact that we have borders which are permeable and borders which are accessible will mean that unlike in Singapore, it will be very difficult to control cross-border illegal travel."

In the face of such threats, governments must step up security measures including taking action to stop people from travelling to Syria and prevent the emergence of a new generation of militants through, for example, terrorism rehabilitation and countering the use of radical websites. 

Mr Desker added that prison surveillance must also be stepped up to prevent radicalisation of inmates influenced by terrorist ideology, citing the example of radical ideologue Aman Abdurrahman who is suspected to have orchestrated the January attacks in Jakarta from prison.

In addition, he also emphasised that societies must be resilient when faced with acts of terror.

"Acts of terrorism will continue to occur. The challenge for Singaporeans is that intelligence agencies, including in Singapore, can prevent 99 incidents but the difference is that one will get through. The question therefore is: How do you get out the day after? How to ensure that you create social resilience?"

He noted that what was interesting in Indonesia after the Jakarta attack was the strong belief among the people that what had happened was simply unacceptable.


Other speakers at the forum - which looked at the political, security and economic implications of the Jakarta attack - included the newspaper's Indonesia bureau chief Francis Chan and Ms Selena Ling, OCBC's head of treasury research and strategy. The forum was chaired by The Straits Times Foreign Editor Audrey Quek.

Mr Chan during the briefing shared his experience covering the attack, recounting the chaos that unfolded after the powerful blasts ripped through downtown Jakarta. Mr Chan also noted that Aman, 44, is now Indonesia’s most dangerous radical ideologue, replacing Abu Bakar Bashir, the 76-year old spiritual leader of the notorious Southeast Asia terror network, Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

Bashir, an influential militant cleric, is serving a 15-year jail sentence for helping to fund a paramilitary training camp in Aceh that police raided in 2010. Mr Chan said Bashir had since “lost the respect” of some of Indonesia’s Muslim extremists after he appealed against his conviction in court. 

Turning to the economic front, Ms Ling said Indonesia is moving in the right direction in its effort to attract more foreign investments but needs to be more consistent in its policy execution. 

She cited the example of the recent snags to build the US$5.5 billion (S$7.7 billion) Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail line that is now in limbo. While the project has broken ground, progress has been stalled because the company building the link has yet to be granted a business permit and other necessary documents, the Jakarta Post reported last month. 

The rail project is one of dozens being planned or in the works across Indonesia - part of President Joko Widodo's bid to improve the country's lacklustre growth through boosting infrastructure spending.  

"They've broken ground but nothing much has moved on that project as far as I know," said Ms Ling. Those problems, she said, reflects some of the "institutional capability issues that we have always seen within some sectors," she added.

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