Collaborating to Counter Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Southeast Asia

3 minutes read time
A large group photo, first row seated in chairs, second and third rows standing behind. About 60 people in professional attire, mixed men and women.
Participants at the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism Workshop “Initiative on Countering ISIS’s External Operations” in Malaysia, October 2017.

Collaborating to Counter Foreign Terrorist Fighters in Southeast Asia

I just returned last week from an exciting workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Oct 3-4, convened by the United States to focus on countering ISIS external operations in Southeast Asia. The State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) invited investigators, prosecutors, police commissioners, border security officials, and policy makers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand to offer expertise, increase cooperation, and identify capacity gaps to address the shared threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters. Officials from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and international institutions also joined their colleagues to discuss regional and global collaboration. This was the third in a series of workshops – first on the Balkans and then on North Africa, led by the United States to advance the CT Bureau’s “Initiative on Countering ISIS’s External Operations.”

As ISIS loses more and more territory in Iraq and Syria, foreign terrorist fighters are returning to their home countries with new operational and technical capabilities to conduct terrorist attacks. These returning fighters are applying these skills to launch attacks against soft targets, including in places like airports, tourist sites, and restaurants. To address this threat, this initiative seeks to bolster collaboration to disrupt ISIS recruitment and resource networks, increase information sharing, tighten border security, and promote the investigation, prosecution, and rehabilitation of returning foreign terrorist fighters. 

Experts at the Malaysia workshop shared new approaches and whole-of-government strategies for information sharing, addressing soft target vulnerabilities, countering online radicalization, and managing the flow of returning foreign terrorist fighters and their families. Discussions emphasized how these approaches are most effective when implemented with civil society organizations and private sector partners. 

The workshop produced concrete steps to address these challenges. There was near unanimous agreement towards establishing Advance Passenger Information systems at aviation ports of entry in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines all agreed on the importance of trilateral cooperation to address terrorist threats in the southern Philippines. Moving forward, the United States will continue to leverage multilateral organizations, including the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and INTERPOL, to facilitate counterterrorism engagement. 

Regional collaboration is essential to address the challenges posed by returning foreign terrorist fighters. The exchange of information, expertise, and tools to address this threat requires not only regional and global partnership, but also collaboration with international institutions. As the United States works with its Southeast Asian partners, we look forward to advancing the critical counterterrorism priorities of Southeast Asia into ongoing initiatives coordinated and launched through multilateral fora.

About the Author: Alina L. Romanowski is the Acting Principal Deputy Coordinator in the Department of State's Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on