Southeast Asian Defense Chiefs Sound Alarm on Terror Threat – Bloomberg

Southeast Asian defense officials are urging greater regional security cooperation to counter what they say is the growing threat of Islamic State-linked extremists.

The need to contain terrorist activity in the region was a common refrain among the defense ministers and top brass at the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Asia’s most high-profile security conference. The host country’s defense chief, Ng Eng Hen, warned Sunday that terrorism was the region’s “biggest security concern” and said the potential of Islamic State fighters returning was growing as they lose ground in the middle east.

The warnings came amid condolences for the U.K. as news reports rolled in about the latest terrorist attack in London. Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was not at the summit, electing to stay home after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law to fight Islamic State-linked militants in the southern city of Marawi.

“Even as this conference ensued, events are unfolding in Marawi and London,” Ng said. “The ferocity of attacks in the U.K., as recently as yesterday, and European countries, even when conducted by single individuals or small groups, are a grim reminder of the harm our citizens are exposed to, if ISIS-related or -inspired attacks occur here.”

At least 31 regional groups have pledged alliance to the Islamic State, Ng said, and there was evidence of growing transnational cooperation between them.

“Porous borders and dense jungles provide easy access and safe havens for terrorism training camps,” Ng told the conference. “If these groups further entrench themselves in our region, more attacks will occur.”

Fierce Debate

The agreement on the need for new action to fight terrorism stood in contrast with fierce debate at the Shangri-La Hotel over how to handle things like the Trump presidency, China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis each called for greater anti-terror efforts in speeches otherwise preoccupied by regional strategic competition.

Those sentiments were echoed by defense officials from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China, who worry militants might use the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as a springboard. Philippine Undersecretary for Defense Policy Ricardo David said 250 to 400 foreign fighters were believed to be operating in the country.

“The terrorism threat in this region has evolved into an unprecedented immediate level of emergency,” said Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, whose capital, Jakarta, was struck last month by twin suicide attacks that killed three police officers. “The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”

Ryamizard called for expanding anti-piracy patrols initiated in August by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines near Mindanao to include Singapore and Thailand and focus on terrorism. President Joko Widodo has called on lawmakers to expedite the passage of revised anti-terrorism laws to give police more power.

Zhu Qichao, a People’s Liberation Army delegate to the conference, told reporters that China was willing to have “deeper cooperation with other regional countries” and to adopt new technologies in anti-terrorism operations.

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