Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed above are those of the authors.
Southeast Asia was known as a region of conflict 50 years ago because of many wars. Since the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967, the region has gradually found stability and peace. However, the twenty-first century introduced a new threat to the region: terrorism and violent extremism.
The Bali bombing was the first major terrorist attack in the public eye, establishing Indonesia’s reputation as a dangerous country to visit and associated with terrorism in Southeast Asia. Terrorist networks and plots have been discovered and expanded rapidly in Indonesia and the region since then. Southeast Asian countries that have struggled the most to combat terrorism and violent extremism, in my view, are Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Terrorism and violent extremism have changed the security paradigm in the region, at least for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. This paradigm shift was followed by a series of policy announcements and organizational reforms to address the new threat.
Since the Bali Bombing, the approach of law enforcement and combating terrorist activity has dominated regional counter-terrorism and extremism policies. That approach was later assessed as insufficient to address the threat of terrorism because the policy focused only on the back end of terrorist activities. That strategy did not prevent or address the spread of radical teaching, which led to terrorist plots and activities.
The Terrorism Laws in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines
Then the Law was adjusted, for instance, in Malaysia. Its parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2015, also known as POTA, and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act, also known as SMATA. Like Indonesia, Malaysia also uses deradicalization strategies in collaboration with local communities.
Indonesia does the same thing by updating and replacing the Law of Terrorism of 2003 with the new Law in 2018, which is more comprehensive and holistic in addressing not only the back end of terrorism activities but also the prevention and counter-radical teaching, including more clearance of the police and the military role in preventing and combating terrorism and extremism.
I contend that the Philippines has the most comprehensive laws about terrorism and extremism. Later in Indonesia, the first Law passed by the Philippine Congress related to terrorism was in 2007 and titled “Act to Secure the State and Protect Our People from Terrorism,” or known as the Human Security Act of 2007. This primary piece of legislation guided the Philippines’ counter-terrorism strategy. In 2013, Congress updated the Money Laundering Act and included terrorism financing as a subject of crime. Like Indonesia, to adapt to the new trends of terrorism, President Duterte’s administration updated the 2007 terrorism law into the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which also addressed counter-extremism.
ASEAN’s Collective Action Against Terrorism and Extremism
In ASEAN, 2007 was the year that ASEAN leaders took a strategic step for the first time on the urgent need for the region’s collective effort to fight terrorism. As a result, the ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism was signed in Cebu, the Philippines. This convention provides the region with a framework for cooperation to counter, prevent, and suppress terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. As well as to deepen cooperation among law enforcement in 10 ASEAN countries.
Not limited to the convention, and to answer the trend of radicalization and extremism, ASEAN issued its Plan of Action and Work Plan of Action to prevent and counter the rise of radicalization and violent extremism from 2018 to 2025.
Is that enough?
The Blind Spot: Cyber Terrorism
ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, have not only established institutions to oversee and coordinate the Law’s implementation but also provided and updated the legal umbrella of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism. For instance, in Indonesia, there is the BNPT or the National Counter Terrorism Agency. In the Philippines, there is the Anti-Terrorist Council, both institutions reporting directly to the President. In addition, to counter-terrorism narratives, the Malaysian government established the Counter Messaging Center (CMC), tasked with monitoring and countering terrorist narratives in the societies.
Circling back to the question of “Is that enough?” the answer is no. Because there is a new trend in cyberterrorism, the government needs more knowledge and a minimal plan to address it effectively. I do not mean to say that the government has not done anything. In Indonesia, the government established a new agency for cyber and crypto, which is monitoring and suggesting policies on cyber security, and Malaysia and the Philippines have similar agencies. However, in the case of Indonesia, the newly established agency is still building up its capabilities and is underfunded. Even this organization’s website will get hacked in 2021.
Cyberterrorism needs to be sufficiently addressed in ASEAN’s documents. In the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism, the word “cyber terrorism” is only stated once in the line “Strengthen capability and readiness to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear (CRBN) terrorism, cyber terrorism, and any new forms of terrorism.” Even cyberterrorism is stated last, meaning it is not a priority. In the Bali Work Plan and Action, I do not find the word “cyber terrorism,” There are only seven words about the internet out of 34 pages, none of which address how to tackle cyber terrorism.
We cannot ignore that the Indonesian, Malaysian, and Philippine governments have significantly addressed the threat. And not only providing legal, monitoring, enforcement instruments, and funding, the three governments have been fighting effectively in preventing and countering terrorism and extremism in their respective countries. We can see how the Philippines government managed to handle the war against the terrorist group in the southern Philippines and how the Indonesian and Malaysian governments cracked down on plots and networks of extremism and reduced the number of attacks in both countries to the lowest point.
However, the government should also be agile with the new method of funding, operating, recruiting, and developing extremist and terrorist groups. They have shifted from a traditional to a non-traditional method, which heavily uses the technology of the internet and the benefits of freedom of speech that implies in Southeast Asia. I am not saying the government should discount the value of internet freedom and speech in society. However, the threat of extremism on the internet is accurate and holds more catastrophic implications for the safety of the people and the country’s sovereignty.
Thus, cyberterrorism cannot be the second priority in the topic of counter-terrorism and extremism in ASEAN and respective Southeast Asian countries.