There’s been much discussion in recent months regarding the threat posed to Australia by Australian nationals fighting overseas in Syria and Iraq alongside extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But that’s not our only worry. In a speech in August, ASIO’s Director-General David Irvine noted that ‘any threat to Australian interests is exacerbated by the number of South-East Asian extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq.’
The number of Southeast Asian foreign fighters operating overseas is troubling. The Indonesian Government has stated that approximately 60 of its citizens are active in Iraq and Syria (although unofficial estimates put this figure as closer to 200). The Malaysian Government disclosed that more than 100 Malaysians may be operating overseas alongside ISIS. And the Philippines Government estimates that more than 200 Filipinos may have joined ISIS, with over 100 known to be actively fighting alongside ISIS militants. Even Singapore has confirmed that a handful of its citizens are engaged with extremist groups, with Interior Minister Teo Chee Hean stating in July that at least two Singaporeans are known to be fighting in Syria—one has been detained by authorities after attempting to travel to the Middle East to ‘engage in armed jihad’.
High-ranking members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf have publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS in recent months and encouraged followers to do the same. In July JI’s spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, pledged an oath of allegiance to ISIS from his high-security jail cell in central Java where he is serving a 15-year sentence for terrorist offences and urged Indonesians to join the fight in the Middle East.
Muslims across Southeast Asia are also being encouraged to join the ranks of extremist groups abroad via online forums and YouTube recruitment videos. One such video released in July by ISIS entitled ‘Join the Ranks’ shows a group of Indonesian men urging other Indonesian Muslims to join and support the ISIS cause. In the video the men state that it’s an obligation for Muslims to join ISIS and pledge allegiance to the group.
The implications for Australia of Southeast Asian nationals returning to the region from jihadist conflicts abroad are significant. Krita Sapra at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies warns that returning fighters, armed with tactical expertise and having forged links with like-minded fighters from across Southeast Asia, could return to form a ‘regional extremist network’. Sapra also warns of an alternative scenario which sees returning fighters reviving existing extremist organisations such as JI and Abu Sayyaf, undoing regional counterterrorism gains of recent years.
Here in Australia, the Government’s recent actions go some way towards bolstering Australia’s domestic capacity to deal with a potentially increasing terror threat. But noting the risks outlined above, Australia also needs to focus on how it can support its near neighbours in countering their own domestic terror threats.
The recent signing of a Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct between the Republic of Indonesia and Australia marked a warming of relations between Australia and Indonesia following recent spying allegations and is an important step forward. The Joint Understanding affirms that Australia and Indonesia will work together to combat and eliminate international terrorism. It outlines intentions to revive intelligence-sharing arrangements and provides for increased capacity-building assistance to Indonesia in the areas of law enforcement, defence, intelligence and national security.
Australia’s Justice Minister Michael Keenan’s recent visit to Indonesia to attend the 10th Anniversary of the jointly-managed Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation is a further indication that Australia and Indonesia plan to work closely in the face of a renewed terror threat.
Still, more can be done. Sapra suggests Australia (along with the US) should work with Southeast Asian partners to re-establish regional mechanisms such as the now-defunct Global Counter-Terrorism Forum’s Southeast Asia Capacity Building working group and review ASEAN’s Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism.
Bilaterally, Australia could also do more through increasing capacity-building assistance to nations such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia. Assistance in areas of intelligence sharing, law enforcement, counter-radicalisation and prison management are particularly important. Although Australia provides some assistance of this nature already, in the face of a renewed and likely increasing terror threat in Southeast Asia, Australia really should devote greater time and resources towards working with partner nations in areas requiring the most support.
Returning Australian foreign fighters present a national security challenge to the Government. But so too do returning Southeast Asian foreign fighters.
To date, Australia has been lucky not to have fallen victim to terror attacks on Australian soil. However, few Australians would forget the events of 2002 in Bali in which 88 Australians were killed in an attack planned and orchestrated by JI. While it’d be wrong to suggest here that the threat posed by Southeast Asian foreign fighters is overwhelming and immediate, it’s definitely something that the Government could bear in mind when developing future counter-terrorism policy.