After Jakarta, Asean must tackle the roots of radicalisation
The terrorist attacks in Jakarta have underlined the need for Asean leaders and security authorities to address the conditions that have resulted in a growing number of young people turning to jihadist movements such as Islamic State.
To deal with the growing sense of disenfranchisement, experts say countries must promote cultural and religious integration, and develop criminal justice systems based on full adherence to human rights and the rule of law.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the grenade attacks and shoot-outs in the heart of the Indonesian capital on Jan 14 in which eight people -- including four civilians -- were killed and 23 injured. Though the scale of the attacks was small compared with the terrorist assault on Paris last November, there could be region-wide economic implications in terms of tourism as well as foreign investment as businesses reassess risk in Southeast Asia.
The war on terror may have seemed to be something that was taking place farther away in the Middle East, but the reality has now hit much closer to home and a higher frequency of incidents can be expected, said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
Challenges lie ahead for governments to reassure investors that the region's promise of becoming a global growth engine will not be dimmed by acts of terror, he said.
"The latter will not be an easy task, especially in today's bearish markets due to the global commodities slump and the slowdown in the Chinese economy," said the veteran security analyst.
It will become increasingly imperative for governments in Southeast Asia, said Mr Tay, to ensure that their economies remain stable, with equitable distribution of resources, and that there are enough job opportunities for their youth.
"Otherwise, Southeast Asia risks becoming a region that supplies terrorist cells with young recruits or a hotbed of terror activities," he cautioned.
Countering terrorism demands a holistic approach, stressed Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"To achieve effectiveness in the long run, governments in the region need to deal with the conditions that are frequently conducive to the spread of violent extremism," he said.
This involves investing in social and economic development, promoting cultural and religious integration, and developing criminal justice systems based on full adherence to human rights and the rule of law.
In the medium term, Mr Douglas said, countries in the region needed to work together against the threat posed by Islamic State and its sympathisers and affiliates among already existing local insurgent cells.
The desire of IS to expand its influence in the region is no secret. An estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians have travelled abroad to fight with IS, which even has a special combat unit named Katibah Nusantara, consisting of around 500 Bahasa-speaking Southeast Asians, fighting in Syria, according to the UNODC database.
The rise of IS seems to have reinvigorated terrorist groups in Southeast Asia and other regions, many of which are trying to associate themselves with it by making public pledges of allegiance or by carrying out spectacular attacks to impress the IS leadership.
There seems to be some sense of momentum for home-grown regional radicals to take action, and against such a backdrop the Jakarta attacks do not come as a complete surprise. Security agencies in Indonesia had received information that something was under preparation and had issued warnings at the end of 2015.
"The quick reaction of Indonesian security forces likely prevented a more tragic outcome, but the bottom line is that a terrorist cell managed to carry out a coordinated deadly attack in a major urban centre in the region, and we should not lose sight of this fact if we want to avoid similar events in the future," cautioned Mr Douglas.
It was another reminder that the region was not only not immune to terrorism, but also was an appealing target for jihadists, said the Bangkok-based UNODC chief.
"So unfortunately there is no reason to think that this could not happen again, either in Indonesia or in another country, and maybe on a major scale. Governments have an obligation to their citizens to prepare based on this hypothesis."
That doesn't mean that that countries in the region haven't been doing anything in the counter-terrorism field. In fact Malaysia and Indonesia have done a lot, but there is still more that needs to be done, said Hernan Longo, a UNODC terrorism expert.
"Among the areas need to be redesigned or improved include the immediate threat posed by fighters returning from combat operations with IS in Syria and Iraq," he said. "There should be appropriate programmes in place to monitor and manage returnees, including disengagement strategies."
Being aware of the root causes and the types of messages that drive radicalisation is also important, he noted.
"IS has been very effective in the use of social media to spread its propaganda and recruit people, mostly youngsters, but we are yet to see a government counter-narrative that is as effective as IS messaging," said Mr Longo.
He suggested working inside prison facilities as they can be a fertile ground for the spread of extremist ideology and even for the planning or coordination of operations.
"Overall, counter and de-radicalisation programmes often lack the creativity and expertise which is more typical of private-sector media campaigns," said the Bangkok-based terrorism expert.
He also expressed concern that criminal laws and procedures in many countries in Southeast Asia are simply not good enough to deal with the current situation.
"Some countries are not even in a position to legally prevent their citizens from travelling to Syria to join IS, or to prosecute those that finance travel for fighters to go to Syria to join IS, and it speaks about how much more preparation is still required," said Mr Longo.
Governments, he added, could not delay addressing these matters comprehensively and thoroughly. They need to collaborate with local communities, civil society, religious institutions and victims of terrorism.
"They have to address terrorism with a sense of regional solidarity. Political commitment is the key but it is not enough: words have to be translated into actions by putting in motion technical areas within each administration."