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Pattharapong Rattanasevee
A New Threat to Southeast Asian Security: Insights on Tackling Transnational Terrorism
16 Mar 2016

The terror attacks in Paris on the evening of Nov. 13 revealed a sense of vulnerability across Europe and represented a critical moment for European security. Until now, investigators and the public remain unclear about when, where and how the attacks were planned, why certain targets were selected and what the rationale was behind the attacks. However, given the magnitude and sophistication of the assault, we can be certain that terrorism capabilities have gone a step beyond conventional expectations. Moreover, because the attacks were carried out within the capital of a country with a highly advanced surveillance and security system, we can conclude that current Western technology has significant operational limits in detecting a plot that was as extensive and sophisticated as this one.


While Western countries and the rest of the world continue to review their security and strategies for dealing with transnational terrorism, the Islamic State (IS) has been inspiring a large number of radical Islamists around the world, including in Southeast Asia. It has now become a real global threat that could well last for the next 10-20 years. Although Southeast Asia is not a main terrorist target, there is considerable risk in this region, because it has been reported that a number of citizens, particularly from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, have joined the fight in the Middle East, pledged allegiance to, or been ideologically influenced by, IS. As recently as Jan. 14 this year, IS claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack in central Jakarta tool eight lives, four of them terrorists, and injured more than 20. Also, there were reports of imminent terrorist threats ahead of a gathering of world leaders for a regional summit in Malaysia, including arrests of suspects with links to IS. In Malaysia alone, some reports have claimed that the number of IS supporters or sympathizers is as high as 50,000.


The growing influence of IS within Southeast Asia has raised concerns about peace and security and could potentially escalate some ongoing domestic insurgencies involving religious disharmony, Islamist terrorist groups and separatist movements. It is time to draw attention to what Southeast Asia should consider as it prepares to deal with what could be the threat of decades of transnational terrorism.


First, striking IS and joining the West’s military intervention is not a solution, and could lead to an intensification of the problem due to IS’s growing global network and its ideological influence, which is drawing support from around the world. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the military operation in Syria will not end the conflict there and that a political solution is needed. In fact, almost all of the recent terrorist attacks have occurred in countries whose governments have been involved in the Middle East. For this reason, it is important that Southeast Asian countries remain non-aligned, adhering to the principle of the sovereignty of states, opposition to power politics and military alliances, and promotion of global collective security. That is, fighting against terrorism should be decisively immune from politicization and double standards.


Second, in the light of the implementation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), the AEC could be exploited to step up security cooperation among member states. The free movement of information should be prioritized as being just as important as the free movement of goods and services. Establishing an integral regionwide information system or a shared database, including the sharing of airline passenger data, would allow security forces, police and border control agents to raise alerts on individuals, objects and vehicles. This is perhaps the best preventive measure to combat terrorism. Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries should also review their security protocols constantly and invest in upgrading their surveillance and intelligence capabilities, together with improving law enforcement in order to enable authorities to interrupt and prevent terrorist attacks.


Third, because terrorists hit a few to frighten many, efforts to create solidarity, an inclusive community and prevent social outcasts are required. A cohesive, inclusive society would be less likely to face terrorism from inside than one divided by class, color, ethnicity or religion. All involved parties in society must refrain from exploiting any historical, cultural and religious sensitivities, ensuring that no actions provoke or offend any particular beliefs. It is also important that all parts of society avoid buying into extremism and that governments should not tolerate terrorism in any form.


Finally, regarding the ongoing crisis in Syria, the international community should demand more active intervention from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League, because they understand the nature of the conflict and would be in a good position to help mediate a compromise solution.


Pattharapong Rattanasevee is a lecturer at Burapha University, in Chonburi, Thailand.


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