The View From Asia

Defusing the terror threat together

Asia News Network commentators argue for regional partnerships to contain terror. Here are excerpts of selected commentaries

Focus sharply on terrorism

Bunn Nagara

The Star, Malaysia

The terrorist threat in South-east Asia has officially worsened since 2015 with a focus on Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

However, it would be presumptive to suggest a steady deterioration of security throughout these countries. No clear evidence indicates the terrorist threat in this region has worsened overall. Given the sheer expanse of the Indonesian archipelago, terrorist cells and training camps operate with greater discretion and impunity. This factor also impacts on militant activity between neighbouring countries.

Basically, there are three ways in which transnational terrorist attacks occur: financial sponsorship as in Bali 2002, the influx of foreign fighters; and the foreign training and return home of local fighters.

Being merely "inspired" by the distant terrorist acts of Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does not constitute an active link. Simply claiming "allegiance" to either group, or for the groups to claim stewardship of the attacks, need not indicate a meaningful link either. In fact, assuming such linkages can detract from forensic probes to trace the immediate origins of the threat and local sources of radicalisation. That the majority of the threats in this region are lately of this nature makes this even more pertinent.

The Indonesian terror cell Katibah Gonggong Rebus is a case in point. Comprising only a few members, they had the outlandish idea of attacking Singapore by firing a rocket from Batam. Indonesian police arrested most members last August with assistance from the Singapore authorities. But there are other such smaller groups with no direct or any link to ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

In April this year, a shootout between Indonesian police and local militants in East Java resulted in the deaths of six militants. Their "plan" consisted of driving up to a police post and opening fire. It failed and they were pursued by police in a car chase. The militants then abandoned their vehicle and fled, only to be gunned down.

Another terrorist attack on Java island last month had a suicide bomber killing three policemen at a bus station. These Java attacks were traced to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a local group said to be "linked" to ISIS. The JAD is a recent development - reportedly an umbrella grouping of about 20 local militant groups pledging allegiance to ISIS. But the JAD's constituents are essentially local, such as a splinter faction of the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, itself a splinter of Jemaah Islamiah.

What exactly - if anything - constitutes an operational link to ISIS remains unclear. Continued presumption of this linkage in the absence of hard evidence leads to another problem: lack of attention to the spread of radicalisation locally. This is a particular problem for Indonesia now.

After April's shootout, President Joko Widodo had an emergency meeting with his country's head of counter-terrorism, General Suhardi Alius. Among the main issues they discussed was the lack of national coordination among provincial authorities and between the provinces and Jakarta.

Some 500 convicted terrorists have been released in Indonesia after serving their jail terms, with about the same number fighting abroad now. A significant number of those released have returned to their old ways, coming to the notice of the authorities only after new attacks. The outstanding lack of coordination among the provinces thus becomes that much more alarming. The issue is not limited to Indonesia, as militants travel quietly and freely in the region.

Regional militants have targeted Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as ripe for attack. These five original Asean countries need to work more cohesively to eliminate the threat swiftly and comprehensively.

Police at the scene of an explosion at a bus station in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, Indonesia, last month, which killed three policemen. Simply claiming "allegiance" to ISIS or Al-Qaeda, or for the groups to claim stewardship of attacks, need not indicate a meaningful link. In fact, assuming such linkages can detract from forensic probes to trace the immediate origins of the threat and local sources of radicalisation. PHOTO: REUTERS

Joint patrols, finally


The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Trilateral coordinated patrols by Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia were finally launched after protracted preparations to secure the porous waterways among the three Asean countries.

The idea was first floated during the height of kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf, a loose alliance of militants who turned from being freedom fighters to pirates.

Despite the mounting number of Asean citizens being taken hostage, the governments were slow to act, citing a lack of resources.

Compare this with the joint patrols in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest choke points.

Malaysia and Indonesia have much experience, in cooperating with Singapore, to share with the Philippines from their experiences in the Strait of Malacca. The joint patrol initiative in the Strait of Malacca has reduced piracy, thus preventing intervention from outside forces.

Securing the Strait of Malacca is somehow easier with two land masses creating a natural barrier of the narrow channel, compared with challenges of the second joint patrol arrangement.

The arrangement around the Sulu Sea and the southern Philippines requires many more resources, with patrol boats or aerial assets needing more personnel. With islands sprawling from Mindanao to Kalimantan, militants could move practically undetected. Not to mention the route towards Sangihe just north of Sulawesi. It is therefore understandable that the trilateral arrangement took some time to materialise.

It took the siege of Marawi city by militants pledging allegiance to the ISIS movement in the southern Philippines to accelerate the seemingly dormant arrangement. And just in time. As the Armed Forces of the Philippines is mounting more pressure to liberate Marawi city, ISIS militants are trying to escape and regroup.

Fleeing south to Malaysia and Indonesia would be their best option to survive, hence the importance of the joint patrols.

Maute's ISIS recognition

Manuel L. Quezon

Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippines

The most difficult way to conduct a war is to do it along two or more fronts. Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote, war is the continuation of politics by other means. If so, one must ask: What kind of politics led to the fighting in an urban setting, just one of many simultaneous campaigns, each of which affects the capacity for battle?

The role of politicians is to set policy; this includes defining what victory is, which governs the actions of the military. An environment, created by politicians, wherein the goal of policies is neither clear nor conducive to successful military operations, can be fatal to the national interest.

The military had to conduct a rearguard action with its own commander in chief, even as its Vietnam-era equipment and tactics ponderously heaved into action in Marawi.

President Rodrigo Duterte put political objectives - martial law, the proposal for Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Moro National Liberation Front and New People's Army to join the fighting - ahead of fixing the real problem, which ranged from a shortage in precision-guided missiles to lack of capacity in conducting surveillance (only sorted out when the Americans were approached for assistance after nearly a year of disengagement mandated by the President).

Amid all these distractions, the military tried to prevent the attack from turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It failed. The President was the biggest early booster of Maute as an ISIS unit. He helped (along with the military being bogged down) assure Maute's formal recognition by ISIS.

Now, the military has conceded the "point of no return" has been passed, and the problem is whether a Malaysian-Indonesian-Philippine alliance can prevent the infiltration of motivated, ruthless foreign fighters in large numbers into Mindanao and elsewhere.

  • The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline 'Defusing the terror threat together'. Print Edition | Subscribe