Southeast Asian leaders and their counterparts led by the United States and China agreed in annual talks in Singapore on Thursday to boost the fight against returning terrorist fighters, underscoring that militants remain a “menace” to societies.
Noting that terrorism constitutes a “global threat to international peace,” the leaders agreed to boost collaboration to promote a “culture of prevention” that would help combat terrorist narratives and propaganda, according to a joint statement.
The region, particularly in the southern Philippines where foreign-backed fighters attacked the city of Marawi last year, continues to face new challenges, including the ongoing recruitment of fighters who manage to cross boundaries, the leaders noted.
“In this regard, EAS (East Asia Summit) participating countries will respectively establish domestic laws and regulations sufficiently robust to provide the ability to prosecute and penalize the criminal activities of the FTFs,” the group said in the statement, using the acronym for foreign terrorist fighters.
Apart from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, other countries included in the EAS are the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Russia.
The region is grappling with regional fighters affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS), which continues to attract fighters from the region despite its defeat in the Middle East.
Fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as from some Middle Eastern countries, trooped to the restive Philippine south last year to join the siege of Marawi city.
They engaged Philippine security forces for five months in intense street-by-street warfare that saw them digging holes in urban structures around the city. Australia and the United States came to the aid of the beleaguered Filipino troops by providing crucial intelligence that led to the defeat of the militants.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence described terrorism on Thursday as “a global challenge and a growing problem in Southeast Asia, and it has the potential to grow worse as foreign fighters return from the Middle East.”
“After ISIS-inspired terrorists went on a rampage in the Philippines last year, the United States helped our ally liberate Marawi City, and we’re helping rebuild it, as well,” Pence said during the summit, using another acronym for the IS.
“We will never let ISIS – or any radical Islamic terrorists – establish a foothold in the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
More than 1,200 people, most of them militants, were killed in the May to October fighting. The Filipino leader of the terrorists, along with his several lieutenants, were killed in the final push, though military and police officials said that dozens were able to escape Marawi during the fighting.
They are believed to be hiding out in jungle camps that dot the vast expanse of southern Mindanao island, and are said to be regrouping.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.