Terrorism remains high on the agenda of defence and security organisations worldwide.
Indeed, the recent Shangri-La Dialogue 2018 in Singapore brings together defence officials to unpack the new dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism in its plenary sessions. The dialogue is crucial as current developments attest to the intractable nature of the problem.
The annual spring offensive by the Taliban underscores how terrorist groups continue to be a destabilising force in Afghanistan. The war in Yemen and recent launch of the jihadi propaganda outlet “Al-Badr”, named after a fabled battle in AD 624, highlight the longevity of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Suicide attacks committed by jihadi families and the Depok prison riot caused by inmates – both linked to the Islamic State (IS) – in Indonesia in May 2018 demonstrates how IS is far from defeated and evolving from a caliphate into a transnational terrorist movement similar to Al Qaeda.
STRUGGLING TO CONTAIN TERRORISM
New dimensions of terrorism, the theme of a plenary at the Shangri-La Dialogue, is a pertinent theme because the resilience of jihadi terrorist groups is one of the primary reasons why the world is still struggling to contain the problem 18 years after the 9/11 attacks.
For example, the shift in IS’ focus from its diminished position in the Levant to the wider world – cities in non-conflict zones and other restive regions – may reek of desperation but more importantly highlights how IS adapts to counter-terrorism efforts by framing a battlespace that is unencumbered by national borders.
This puts more pressure on the approaches that nations currently take to coordinate operations and share intelligence at the international level while upholding their sovereign interests.
The interaction of military and civilian targets in the urban environment, given the need for soldiers to support police officers in joint operations to deter and disrupt terrorist attacks, may blur the lines between targets. Furthermore, any public concerns arising from certain socio-political sensitivities over the separation of functions between the military and police may influence counter-terrorism strategies.
Geopolitical developments such as the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem has inflamed sentiments of Palestinian victimhood, and by extension sentiments of Muslim victimhood. This risks reinvigorating jihadi narratives, which terrorist groups could espouse to galvanise their supporters and justify domestic attacks against the West, their allies and their interests overseas.
Closer to home, Southeast Asia is seeing new dimensions of terrorism unfolding with no clear solutions in sight.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state risks engulfing the region in an endless cycle of disenfranchisement that regional terrorist groups could capitalise on to radicalise individuals.
The crisis complicates regional security (and humanitarian) cooperation as, firstly, some soldiers there have been accused of abuses, secondly the violence there has given rise to non-jihadi militancy among hardline Buddhist groups, and thirdly whether the crisis is domestic or regional has become a divisive issue.
The battle of Marawi may have ended but it revealed how the military may be underprepared for an Aleppo scenario – urban takeover – happening beyond Middle East.
Furthermore, Marawi has seen how terrorists can leverage new technologies – consumer drones – to match the capabilities of security forces; and the city is now seeing how rehabilitation – a key effort of counter-terrorism – is potentially becoming an issue of geopolitical rivalry given concerns over the involvement of Chinese construction firms even as the US provides military aid.
The series of suicide attacks by jihadi families in Indonesia demonstrates the operational difficulty of gathering intelligence on and intercepting numerous foreign fighters and their radicalised families returning home from the frontlines.
This by extension may give rise to the risk of these individuals surreptitiously crossing the borders to launch attacks in neighbouring countries.
Furthermore, security forces would need to gird for increased public scrutiny especially if the use of necessary force to neutralise attackers who are women and children risk inflaming anti-government sentiments, which terrorists could then capitalise on.
ASEAN – MULTILATERALISM IS KEY
The current trajectory of terrorism increasingly blurs the lines between domestic and international security. For example, IS foreign fighters are combatants that the military must neutralise in the Levant. However, they also constitute social and security challenges when they return home as well as pose a cross-border security threat if they travel through other countries.
The situation in Syria shows how big power rivalry between Russia and US may impede counter-terrorism actions at the frontlines, and even feed the terrorist narratives. These issues, if not addressed, would only perpetuate terrorism and frustrate counter-terrorism efforts.
These issues cannot be resolved unilaterally or bilaterally, but best addressed through neutral multilateral platforms that facilitate international cooperation in an open and inclusive way.
ASEAN is the key regional architecture in East Asia and beyond a “talk shop”; it plays a central role in enabling multilateral platforms that facilitate international counter-terrorism cooperation particularly in raising awareness of emerging terror threats and reducing disparities in counter-terrorism capacity among member countries.
Within ASEAN, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus are key to maintaining good relations that underpin strong defence cooperation in various areas; and engaging external partners such as China and US to build confidence and lower the risk of miscalculations at the frontlines.
The ASEAN Political-Security Community, through its Convention on Counter-Terrorism helps strategically in coordinating counter-terrorism policies in the region. It operationally supports counter-terrorism efforts by police forces through better information sharing on its enhanced database and its partnership with other regional police organisations such as EUROPOL.
ASEAN member countries should stay united to ensure that the architecture continues to work well and not be blindsided by new dimensions of terrorism.
Southeast Asia is high on the jihadi terrorist groups’ agenda given the region’s history of terrorist threats such as Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda, and more currently groups that are associated with IS. These groups seek to radicalise, manipulate, and divide the Muslim communities here, which make up about 65 per cent of the global Muslim population.
Member countries should ensure that the state of their counter-terrorism cooperation keeps pace with the trajectory of terrorism. This would require reviewing existing multilateral initiatives – strategic and operational – and adapting them to suit new dimensions of terrorism.
SINGAPORE – NAVIGATING THE WAY FORWARD
As the current chair of ASEAN in 2018, Singapore is in a good position to advocate deeper cooperation at the strategic and operational levels among the member countries to keep pace with the new dimensions of terrorism.
This position also stems from Singapore’s strong defence relations with its neighbours and external partners, commitment to a rules-based international order; and credibility in the form of a strong Armed Forces (SAF) and effective homeland security organisations.
For example, the professional exchange on Urban Operations between the SAF and Philippine Army at the Murai Urban Training Facility in December 2017 marks the blending of Singapore’s state-of-the-art urban operation capabilities and Phillipines’ deep experience in combatting terrorists at the frontlines.
Moving forward, ASEAN member states and external partners should work closely with Singapore to sustain good bilateral and multilateral relations, and build confidence among themselves.
This would pave the way for deeper counter-terrorism cooperation that is essential to first countering transnational terrorist threats that do not respect national borders, and second adapting existing strategic and operational CT initiatives to suit the changing terrorism landscape.
*Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore