SINGAPORE - Top US counterterrorism official Nathan Sales on Monday (Sep 11) called on South-east Asian governments to do more to collect and share travel data. This would better detect and halt terrorists in transit, especially as ISIS fighters return home to the region as the group loses ground in the Middle East, he said.
"The ISIS physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq is on its last legs, but that doesn't mean the terrorist threat is over. It simply means the threat is changing," Ambassador-at-Large Sales said in an interview with The Straits Times.
The counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, who is on a five-day trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia ending Friday (Sep 14), will discuss counterterrorism cooperation, countering violent extremism and foreign terrorist fighters, as well as aviation security with his counterparts in the region.
Returning ISIS fighters are a "very dangerous lot" who pose a threat to South-east Asia, said Mr Sales in the interview at the US Ambassador's residence, where the American flag was lowered to half-mast in memory of the victims of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on America exactly 17 years ago.
"These are people who made the decision to travel great distances, at great personal expense, in order to lend their services to the false caliphate. While they were there, they developed weapons, maybe bombing expertise, and networks of fellow terrorists and like-minded extremists. When they come home, they bring all that baggage with them," he said.
He also cited the siege of Marawi City by ISIS-linked militants in the Philippines last year and the suicide bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia, in May as stark reminders that more work is needed to confront ISIS and ISIS-inspired terrorists.
He said: "Our adversaries are not going to unilaterally disarm, they're going to continue to fight. That's why regional cooperation is vitally important to address this threat."
South-east Asia has room for improvement, he said, particularly in collecting and sharing travel data that could help track these fighters' movements in and out of war zones and ferret them out.
The desired data includes airline reservation data such as the personal information and itineraries of passengers, biometric information like fingerprints, and lists of known or suspected terrorists.
The US has been using such data to screen for potential terrorists since 9/11, and is working with countries on a bilateral basis to get them to implement such tools as well, said Mr Sales.
He cited the example of a Jordanian named Ra'ed al-Banna, who tried to enter Chicago in 2003 with the correct immigration papers and had a clean history of living in the US.
"Everything looked like it was in perfect order... but the system that the US uses to analyse airline reservation data flagged him as somebody who should get a little extra scrutiny. Something was a little off."
Unsatisfied with his answers, the customs officer denied him entry - and only heard about him again two years later, when he drove a truck into a crowd of police recruits in Hilla, Iraq and detonated a massive bomb that killed over 130 people.
Said Mr Sales: "That's the kind of powerful counterterrorism tool that airline reservation data is. It helps us find hidden connections between known terrorists and their unknown associations, and look for suspicious patterns of travel and identify people who might have otherwise escaped our notice."
Countries are now required to collect such data and more aggressively track terrorist travel under the United Nations Security Council resolution 2396 passed last year.
The resolution, which also encourages countries to share their lists, was spearheaded by the US and co-sponsored by 66 countries.
Said Mr Sales: "If everyone in the region is collecting and analysing airline reservation data, collecting biometrics, and developing and sharing lists of known or suspected terrorists, that would dramatically improve our ability to confront this adversary."