South-east Asian defence chiefs sound alarm on terrorism threat

US Pentagon chief Jim Mattis (left) chats with Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (centre) at the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 2, 2017.
US Pentagon chief Jim Mattis (left) chats with Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (centre) at the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore on June 2, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE (Bloomberg) – South-east Asian defence officials are urging greater regional security cooperation to counter what they say is the growing threat of ISIS-linked extremists.  

The need to contain terrorist activity in the region was a common refrain among the defence ministers and top brass at the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s most high-profile security conference.

The host country’s defence chief, Dr Ng Eng Hen, warned Sunday (June 4) that terrorism was the region’s “biggest security concern” and said the potential of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters returning was growing as they lose ground in the Middle East.  

The warnings came amid condolences for the UK as news reports rolled in about the latest terrorist attack in London.

Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was not at the summit, electing to stay home after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law to fight ISIS-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi.  

“Even as this conference ensued, events are unfolding in Marawi and London,” Dr Ng said.

“The ferocity of attacks in the UK, as recently as yesterday, and European countries, even when conducted by single individuals or small groups, are a grim reminder of the harm our citizens are exposed to, if ISIS-related or -inspired attacks occur here.”

At least 31 regional groups have pledged alliance to ISIS, Dr Ng said, and there was evidence of growing transnational cooperation between them.  

Fierce Debate

The agreement on the need for new action to fight terrorism stood in contrast with fierce debate at the 
Shangri-La Hotel over how to handle things like the Trump presidency, China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and US Defence Secretary James Mattis each called for greater anti-terror efforts in speeches otherwise preoccupied by regional strategic competition.  

Those sentiments were echoed by defense officials from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, who worry militants might use the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where Marawi is, as a springboard.

Philippine Undersecretary for Defence Policy Ricardo David said 250 to 400 foreign fighters were believed to be operating in the country, while Indonesian defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said the number was 1,200, 40 of whom are from Indonesia.

“The terrorism threat in this region has evolved into an unprecedented immediate level of emergency,” said Gen Ryamizard, whose capital, Jakarta, was struck last month by twin suicide attacks that killed three police officers.

“The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”

Gen Ryamizard called for expanding anti-piracy patrols initiated in August by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines near Mindanao to include Singapore and Thailand and focus on terrorism. President Joko Widodo has called on lawmakers to expedite the passage of revised anti-terrorism laws to give police more power.  

While Gen Ryamizard estimated there were as many as a million ISIS sympathisers in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, he said he believed that fewer than 700 were a “real problem.”

The broader South-east Asian region is home to about 15 per cent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims.  

“Porous borders and dense jungles provide easy access and safe havens for terrorism training camps,” Dr Ng told the conference. “If these groups further entrench themselves in our region, more attacks will occur.”