Exchanging information vital to fight terror in the region: Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu

Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacud was one of four guest speakers at the 2018 Southeast Asia Counter-Terrorism Symposium: A Collective Approach. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Precious lives could have been saved if government agencies and ministries within the region had shared and exchanged quality intelligence during the May 2017 siege of Marawi in the Philippines.

The incident could have been prevented or even pre-empted, said Indonesia's Defence Minister, General (Ret) Ryamizard Ryacudu, in his keynote address on Thursday (Oct 4) at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Southeast Asia Counter-Terrorism Symposium: A Collective Approach.

"The siege of Marawi demonstrated that our region was unprepared for the current and emerging wave of terrorism," said the general.

"It also demonstrated the need for a new security architecture for the Asean region."

The Defence Minister was one of four guest speakers at the event organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). The two-day symposium at the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel was organised as part of Singapore's Asean chairmanship.

The Marawi attack by Filipino terrorists aligned with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was an example cited by Gen Ryamizard to highlight lapses in intelligence sharing.

"Regional governments were culpable for not exchanging intelligence sufficiently to prevent the fall of Marawi city to IS. Even after the siege of Marawi, the flow of intelligence was absent, partial or flawed," said Gen Ryamizard. IS is another common acronym for ISIS.

The siege lasted five months, resulting in more than 900 militants captured or killed.

While ISIS may have been defeated in the Middle East in 2017, the threat of terrorism remains a key challenge in South-east Asia.

Today, 63 terror groups in South-east Asia have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

On May 13, there were multiple suicide attacks involving entire families - including women and children - in Surabaya, Indonesia.

Recently uncovered plots revealed plans by terrorists to make anthrax and botulinum in Malaysia and ricin and thorium in Indonesia.

Gen Ryamizard added the suicide bombing in Basilan in the Philippines by a Moroccan terrorist on July 31 was "the most significant recent attack".

Asean is trying to get its act together.

On Jan 25 this year, six nations from the region formally launched the Our Eyes Initiative in Bali to share intelligence among themselves. .

The idea for this had originated when Gen Ryamizard visited RSIS in July 2017.

Added Gen Ryamizard: "Evil will spread when good men do nothing. We have to do something (to fight terrorism)."

Meeting Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam gave Gen Ryamizard confidence to build a collaborative intelligence platform, he said.

In the end, the defence ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei agreed to establish a joint working group with plans to include more nations into the group later.

The new pact would create a common database, facilitate the exchange of personnel, share expertise, resources and experiences, including conducting joint training and operations.

Still, returning ISIS fighters continue to be one of the current concerns, said Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of RSIS.

Unlike Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah, ISIS has capitalised on the use of cyberspace to spread its violent message.

"ISIS operatives, sympathisers, fanboys and fangirls have benefited greatly from use of the darker corners of the Internet," Mr Ong said during his opening remarks.

But the recent terrorist attacks in South-east Asia have shown patterns of "radicalisation, sources of terror financing and technological and tactical sophistication", said Philippine Undersecretary of National Defence Cardozo M. Luna.

"Daesh (ISIS) have been able to provide occasional money transfers to the Maute group (involved in the Marawi attack) using electronic transfers," said Mr Luna. "Nonetheless, the emergence of cryptocurrency has provided Daesh with more security - untraceable, anonymous transactions."

Mr Luna and Undersecretary for Defence Operations Cesar Yano called on Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at the Ministry of Defence on Thursday afternoon.

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