ASEAN’s anti-terror coordination problem

ASEAN’s anti-terror coordination problem

ASEAN member states gathered last month to define and strengthen the bloc’s position on counter-terrorism. However, differences between members and the principle of non-interference are among the biggest obstacles to a coordinated strategy.

Rising number of attacks

Southeast Asia has seen several attacks by IS-affiliated groups this year, highlighting its vulnerability to terrorism. New trends are emerging, such as transnational collaboration among militants: in the Philippines last May, local groups joined forces with foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries, in an attempt to attack and claim Marawi as the “first IS province” in the region.

Attacks are expected to affect the region at an increasing rate, especially as the Islamic State seeks to attract support beyond the Middle East. Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the transnational nature of contemporary terrorism, as fighters are likely return to the region to continue their campaign, fueling violence and diminishing stability.

Furthermore, existing conflicts, racial and religious tensions and pockets of instability in ASEAN countries provide the ideal conditions for the expansion of IS-inspired ideology.

A step in the right direction

On 20 September, Ministers from the respective member states gathered in Manila, The Philippines, for the Eleventh ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (11th AMMTC) to consolidate and further strengthen regional cooperation in combating transnational crimes, including terrorism. In addition, one day prior to AMMTC, the Second Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism (2nd SAMMRRVE) took place in order to exchange views and best practices in combating the rise of radicalization and extremism.

These two meetings are a step in the right direction to strengthening cooperation on counter-terrorism issues among ASEAN members as well as between the bloc and relevant third parties such as China, Japan and South Korea. Members highlighted the need for mutual information sharing, exchange of best practices, resource sharing and improving states’ capabilities to combat terrorism.

Challenges to co-ordination

Effective cooperation amongst ASEAN members has been extremely challenging. One of the main difficulties in designing a common counterterrorism strategy has been attributed to the member states’ significant developmental, economic, political and social discrepancies, which result in different approaches to combat terrorism at the national level.

Malaysian UNGERIN anti-terror police.


Diversity among ASEAN members is likely to generate unequal results from the adoption of a more comprehensive regional counter-terrorism strategy. Members such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines share strong geographical bonds and are affected by extremism to a similar degree; thus, increasing cooperation in order to tackle the transnational movement of terrorists between them is an obvious priority.

However, it is unclear whether other member states would benefit to the same extent. For example, countries such as Laos or Cambodia may face economic difficulties in complying with stricter counter-terrorism rules dictated by ASEAN, both due to budget constraints and to the likely extensive legislative changes that such a strategy would entail.

Secondly, ASEAN is based on the principle of non-interference. Ensuring that coordination between its members can be carried out without foreign intervention in the internal affairs of each country has been a pillar of the ASEAN project since its inception.

Individual frameworks

As a result of ASEAN’s emphasis on non-interference, each country has been encouraged to develop its own framework to combat terror and militant groups. However, in practice this has hindered the creation of strongly needed joint operations, such as troop sharing and implementation of other regional counter-terrorism programs.

The principle of non-interference also resulted in the creation of a “comprehensive security approach”, which is widely adopted by the bloc. It highlights the role of the nation-state in providing security and focuses on non-military dimensions of terrorism and crime, while encouraging cooperation built on shared norms and trust between its members. While such an approach can be effective in addressing the root causes of insurgency, its critics point out that its state-centrism and focus on trust-building are inadequate to fighting transnational terrorism.

Furthermore, ASEAN still lacks the enforcement mechanisms that would be necessary to translate the bloc’s legal commitments into concrete measures. For instance, in 2007 the ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism (ACCT) was signed by all Member States, and was ratified as late as 2013. While the ACCT is a significant achievement for the bloc’s counterterrorism efforts and deepened regional cooperation, it does not specify mechanisms for enforcement. The implementation of earlier instruments, such as the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on Terrorism faced very similar obstacles, reducing the effectiveness of these regional efforts.

Cautious optimism

The latest bloc meetings leave some room for cautious optimism. For instance, on 13 September, an Improved Database System was launched for ASEAN National Police (ASEANAPOL) in order to improve connectivity and information exchange regarding terrorism and organized crime. While the web-based system was launched in 2006, the new version contains new features such as a discussion forum, which would allow law enforcement officials to share best practices, intelligence information and trends in crime and terrorism in an efficient and secure manner.

Enhanced information sharing on counter-terrorism issues is particularly necessary due to weak border security: ASEAN’s porous borders facilitate  smuggling networks and unchecked regional movement of people and weapons.

Indeed, members have been adopting more multifaceted approaches to counter-terrorism that seek to address terrorism as well as human trafficking, migrant smuggling and money laundering. These approaches could be emulated by other Member States in the bloc. Malaysia successfully developed four proposals to tackle transnational crime and terrorism.

Finally, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are considering creating a trilateral task force aiming to counter IS-affiliated terrorist groups, focusing on stricter border controls in the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea, as well as sharing intelligence and curbing terrorism financing. Other regional initiatives such as the Southeast Asia Regional Centre for Counter Terrorism (SEARCCT) are expected to gain importance by becoming a regional centre in counter-terrorism training and research. All of the above initiatives and proposals will do much to foster regional integration and create a comprehensive ASEAN counterterrorism strategy.



Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Benedetta Di Matteo

Benedetta obtained a LLM degree in International Laws from Maastricht University, specializing in Public International Law and International Relations. Benedetta worked as an open source analyst for Horizon Intelligence, a Brussels-based political risk firm, focusing on political and security trends in Latin America. She also completed a traineeship at the Council of Europe's Economic Crime and Cooperation Division. Benedetta focuses on international security issues, including transnational crimes.