“ASEAN Military Response to Counter-Terrorism” by Hoang Thi Ha

2018/10, 12 February 2018

Counter-terrorism was on top of the agenda of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Retreat on 6 January 2018 in Singapore, which identified “terrorism as the most serious security threat to the region.” The Ministers also issued a joint statement to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation among ASEAN defense establishments and with external partners. This came barely four months after the issuance of a joint statement on the same topic at the Special ADMM in October 2017. With good reason, Singapore taking on the role of the ASEAN Chair has given heightened attention and priority to addressing this challenge during its Chairmanship.

This intense focus on counter-terrorism is unprecedented in the ADMM’s history. Although counter-terrorism is a priority area under the ADMM-Plus with six participating Dialogue Partners, it did not feature prominently in the ADMM agenda. Practical cooperation among ASEAN defense establishments has thus far focused more on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The ADMM Work Programme (2017-2019) adopted last year does not contain robust action lines regarding ASEAN defense cooperation on counter-terrorism.

The siege of Marawi by ISIS-linked militant groups in May 2017, ensued by a five-month conflict with the Philippine security forces, marked a turning point. While concerns over Southeast Asia becoming the second front of global jihad may be overemphasised, the Marawi conflict showed that ISIS ideology has taken root in the region. The militants’ dragging battle with overwhelming government forces has galvanised radicals and terrorists from other parts of the region, especially neighbouring Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Post-Marawi, these countries’ governments have sharpened their focus on other “soft bellies” that could invoke new waves of radicalisation and violence, such as the persecution of Muslim Rohingyas and Southeast Asian returning fighters from the Middle East.

On the upside, the Marawi crisis opened avenues for closer counter-terrorism collaboration among ASEAN militaries. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand provided considerable assistance to the Philippines, including humanitarian relief and military assets. Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) especially offered its Air Force transport aircraft, urban warfare training villages and drones to the Philippine armed forces. On top of that, sub-regional initiatives such as the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangements and most recently the Our Eyes Initiative have laid ground for future robust counter-terrorism partnerships among regional defense establishments.

Nevertheless, the ADMM must still carve out its own niche in the regional counter-terrorism architecture. The leading ASEAN mechanism on counter-terrorism is the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC) comprising ASEAN law enforcement agencies, which also runs annual consultations with Dialogue Partners on counter-terrorism. Given their assets and capabilities, ASEAN defense establishments can make contributions in their niche areas of intelligence-sharing, surveillance and reconnaissance, training and exercises, and exchange of counter-insurgency best practices.

Apart from the need not to overlap or overstep the AMMTC, enhanced collaboration on the defense side should not embolden military responses at the expense of other “soft” aspects that defy radical narratives through educating and promoting the messages of respect, inclusion and moderation. Hard measures, if pushed too hard, could undermine the cause – de-radicalisation – that it purports to achieve. As recognised in the ADMM joint statement in October 2017, terrorism has multiple dimensions, hence the need for an integrated and balanced approach among all ASEAN relevant sectors dealing with this challenge.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political and Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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