The United States and Indonesia on Friday signed a memorandum for strengthening bilateral cooperation and information-sharing in fighting terrorism, as America’s top ambassador on counterterrorism wrapped up a five-day visit to Southeast Asia.
U.S. Ambassador at Large Nathan A. Sales signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Jakarta with Suhardi Alius, the chief of Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency, the BNPT, officials said. Sales, the U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism, traveled to Singapore and Malaysia prior to visiting Indonesia.
“His trip was focused on working with the three countries to strengthen legal frameworks, investigate and prosecute terrorism cases, increase regional cooperation and information sharing, and address critical border and aviation security gaps throughout the year,” U.S. State Department officials in Washington said Friday in response to questions from BenarNews.
“Cooperation between domestic law enforcement and judicial authorities throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, resulted in high numbers of terrorism-related arrests and, in many cases, successful prosecutions.”
In an interview with the Straits Times in Singapore earlier this week, Sales stressed the need for countries to improve collecting and sharing travel data in an effort to detect and capture terrorists including Islamic State (IS) fighters returning home as the organization loses ground in Iraq and Syria.
“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,” he told the Straits Times.
Referring to the ambassador’s interview with the Singaporean newspaper, State Department officials said countries were “now required to collect such data and more aggressively track terrorist travel under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2396, which was passed in December of 2017.”
In July, Indonesian officials sentenced a former government official who traveled to Syria with his family in 2015 to join IS on charges of conspiracy and helping to fund terrorism. After two years in Syria, Dwi Djoko Wiwoho decided to return to Indonesia where he was arrested for his role with IS.
In Malaysia, officials and a counter-terror experts have told BenarNews that IS fighters and their families are desperate to return home because of terrible living conditions and constant fears.
“The desire intensified after the fall of Mosul, Raqqa and Aleppo. The international NGOs did inform police but police were careful because of safety concerns,” Ahmad El-Muhammady, an adviser to the Royal Malaysia Police on rehabilitation programs for terrorist detainees, said in June.
“Today the scenario is different. Many are dead and many foreign fighters have returned home, including Malaysians.”
Counter-terror officials fear some of those returning will continue their terrorist ways. IS-linked fighters have been blamed for the May 2017 launch of a five-month battle with Philippine troops in the southern city of Marawi.
Southeast Asian nations can improve collecting and sharing travel data to track militants’ movements in and out of war zones, Sales told the Straits Times.
“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,” Sales said.
Meanwhile, an official with Indonesia’s BNPT said his country would welcome U.S. support.
“Cooperation with the U.S. includes sharing information about people who are connected to terrorist organizations and the terrorist organizations themselves. All are general in nature, the same as with other countries,” Hamidin, who uses only one name, told BenarNews.
BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.