Southeast Asian governments have to step up their games to counter the Islamic State (IS) threat as the extremist group seeks to establish safe havens in the region following defeats in Syria and Iraq, a senior U.S. State Department official said.
Irfan Saeed, director of the department’s Bureau of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), specifically named Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines while also praising their counter-terrorist efforts during a conference call this week from Washington with reporters in East Asia.
“We need to understand both the global and local drivers of violent extremism because situations are not the same on the ground,” he said, adding that drivers that trigger radicalization of people in the Philippines were different than those in Indonesia or Malaysia.
Saeed stressed the need for research into identifying local drivers of violent extremism as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Research, he said, was the first of a five-prong approach to combatting CVE followed by prevention, de-radicalization and reintegration, along with counter-messaging.
He praised the three nations for efforts already in place to counter extremism.
“Malaysia is doing a good CVE job in the educational sector and in the government reform perspective as well as by having initiatives such as their Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism,” he told reporters during Wednesday’s call. “The Philippines is having its long-term anti-extremism programs in place while Indonesia is doing well in understanding the drivers of violent extremism.”
Saeed warned that the region must remain vigilant, even though Islamic State was losing territory in Iraq and Syria.
“At this time last year I think our focus would have been on the over 1,000 foreign terrorist fighters that had gone from Southeast Asia and different parts of Southeast Asia up to Syria and Iraq to join the ISIS fight,” he said, referring to IS by another acronym.
“A year on a lot of good work by our partners across Southeast Asia, our partners across the world, the Global Coalition, and the good news is that we are not talking about a massive flow of fighters going to Syria and Iraq anymore.”
The bad news, however, was that Islamic State was now eying other parts of the globe for its operations, he said.
“They are looking at different parts of the world, and unfortunately I think Southeast Asia is in their radar. They are looking very clearly about how to establish safe havens across maybe the Southern Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. So, when we are looking to counter violent extremism and counter terrorism, it’s important to ensure that we don’t give them that safe space that they need,” Saeed said.
Nations also needed to guard against the threat that IS and other militant groups “do not reconstitute, they don’t strengthen, and they don’t continue to inspire others to commit acts of violence,” he said, adding Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf should not be allowed to take their place.
“We can’t let them grow in a vacuum that ISIS used to occupy,” Saeed said.
Learning from each other
To counter those efforts, the State Department official said, each country had something to offer the others and it was important that they learned from each other to address terror threats that had not gone away. The countries could also learn from the initiatives of others including United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Britain.
Southeast Asian countries also should follow the lead of IS and use social media against it by intensifying campaigns to drive out militant groups, Saeed said, adding that as IS lost strength in Iraq and Syria, it had used social media to establish new caliphates.
In Malaysia, Mohamad Abu Bakar, a retired international security analyst from the University Malaya, supported the State Department’s message. The sharing of best CVE practices among Southeast Asian nations was necessary because of unique circumstances and situations, he said.
“What is suitable for Malaysia may not be currently usable for Indonesia, for example,” he told BenarNews.
“But because of sharing, Indonesia will be prepared for a driver of violent extremism if it emerges in the future. And for such a driver, the Indonesians will know how to address it thanks to lessons from other countries who had such an experience in the past,” he added.
Abu Bakar also said Southeast Asian countries could learn from the Middle East in dealing with such conflicts.
“The Arab world’s grievances, rooted in colonial times, have a long time ago turned into conflicts in what I’d call ‘crunch zones,’” he said. “In Southeast Asia, our conflicts have started relatively recently, so we could learn also from the experience of the Middle East countries.”
BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.