South-South Cooperation: What can be learned from the Southeast Asian counter-terrorism experience? Spécial

By Bakary Sambe

Timbuktu Institute - November 2022


Since 2016, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has been conducting a propaganda offensive targeting Southeast Asian Muslims as they recruit Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos to join the “war effort” in Iraq and Syria, or to carry out armed jihad in their own region.  Subsequently, a joint war against IS was waged by the Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Global Coalition to Defeat IS). Despite the colossal work that remains to be done in the Middle East to demolish all the cells of the IS and Al-Qaeda. However, attention is turning to the second front in the fight against global terrorism [1] which is South-East Asia.

One of the frontiers of the next round is likely to be Southeast Asia, where Middle Eastern terrorist groups (ISIS al-Qaeda, etc.) have found common cause with separatist movements and Muslim extremist groups in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Certainly, terrorism in South-East Asia is not new. In 1995, Bin Laden cells in Manila plotted the assassination of President Clinton and the Pope and planned to blow up American planes on East Asian routes.

Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) within Al Qaeda and the Islamic state have been one of the major threats to peace and security in South and Southeast Asia.  Indeed, before the Islamic state, Al-Qaeda had created allies around the world, particularly in Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, etc.) through foreign terrorist fighters, who returned to their home countries, when the Islamic state suffered devastating military defeats, losing control of virtually all the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. It is almost certain that such cells will continue to exist in another territory, carrying out the same terrorist acts and activities and violent extremism[2].

In Indonesia,

Cells affiliated with the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and isolated Islamic state-inspired actors continue to target police and other government targets. Although Indonesia is not a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Coalition to Defeat ISIS), the Indonesian government and Muslim civil society leaders have strongly and repeatedly denounced the IS and have actively promoted the importance of the CVE's efforts to complement CT's law enforcement efforts. While Indonesia's efforts to combat violent extremism have had some success, part of its Islamist community remains committed to militant jihadism. The return from abroad of hundreds of militants linked to the Islamic state means that there is now a greater need than ever for interventions to prevent radicalization - and for programmes to reintegrate militants into society.

As part of institutional cooperation in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is an active member of the Global Counter Terrorism Forum (GCTF) and co-chairs the CVE working group with Australia. The Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine Armed Forces continued their coordinated patrols in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas to deter and prevent kidnapping and terrorist transit in their adjacent Exclusive Economic Zones.

In the Philippines,

Terrorists continued to target civilians and security forces with booby traps and small arms, and the emergence of suicide bombings posed new challenges to Philippine security forces. Indeed, there are terrorist groups active in Indonesia and at the same time in the Philippines.  EI-Philippines affiliated groups continue their efforts to recover from battlefield casualties, recruit and train new members, and organize suicide attacks and attacks. EI affiliates in the Philippines include elements of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP) and the Maute Group. The Philippines remained a destination for FTFs from Indonesia, the Gulf countries, etc. The Philippines remained a destination for FTFs from Indonesia, the Gulf countries, etc.

China and the Philippines

The two countries share broad common interests in non-traditional security issues, and both countries have great potential for cooperation in counter-terrorism. As a major responsible country, when the Philippines suffers terrorist attacks, China has an obligation to provide assistance.

 In 2017 and 2018, China has donated three batches of weapons to the Philippines to help the country fight terrorism. According to Rodrigo Duterte, on improving his country's security, cooperation with China and the suppression of terrorism. "Only China can help us".

As for Singapore, the fight against terrorism still remains a major political priority. Singapore's national counter-terrorism apparatus and its ability to detect, deter and disrupt threats have remained effective. Singapore has been a member of the Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Coalition to Defeat ISIS) since 2014 and extended its support in 2016 beyond military means to include medical teams in Iraq. It has developed a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy based on global and regional trends. This strategy includes vigilant security measures, regional cooperation (with countries in the South-East Asian region) in law enforcement, efforts to counter radicalization and strategies to prepare the population for possible attacks.

The very productive levels of counter-terrorism cooperation (among the countries of the region) that have developed in recent years are still continuing, as is the increased sharing of information.


South-South cooperation against terrorism

The ASEAN-CT initiative aims to enhance cooperation among law enforcement and other relevant authorities of ASEAN member States to combat, prevent and suppress terrorism, terrorist organizations and their associations, disrupt their support networks and hinder their planning of terrorist acts and bring them to justice[3]. One of the most important activities of the ASEAN-ETC programme has been the border security actions, called "Operation Sunbird", carried out in 2015 and 2016, which allowed the screening of passengers and travel documents at airports and border crossings. As a result of the enhanced border presence during Operation Sunbird II in 2016, five separate drug seizures were made at the port of Batam, Indonesia, resulting in the arrest of five people. In line with the counter-terrorism objective of the programme, the operations increased intelligence sharing among member countries in the region and beyond. One specific result was the arrest and deportation from South Korea of two Indonesian nationals suspected of having terrorist links[4].

In the context of preventing radicalization, recruitment and recidivism, ASEAN had an advantage in this fight, as almost all of its member States had considerable expertise in the area of rehabilitation and counter-propaganda. Two examples of such innovative approaches should be mentioned in particular. First, the Singapore Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which actively combats the misperceptions and instrumentalization of Islam by radicals through a grassroots approach. This includes a counselling centre, a smartphone application, publications by religious scholars, conferences and community outreach events[5].

The second initiative is RDC3, the regional digital counter-messaging communication centre recently launched by Malaysia. The centre opposes IS's propaganda and particularly its misuse of the Muslim religion in cyberspace by disseminating content developed in collaboration with the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (JAKIM))[6]

For China, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. But it did not receive much attention before the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, but it showed that no country, no matter how powerful, was immune to terrorism[7]. Certainly, China has a wealth of experience in the fight against terrorism as well as in advanced technologies and military equipment.

Certainly, to address these threats, the governments of Southeast Asian countries have adapted military and security, law enforcement and counter-radicalization efforts. Countries continue to cooperate with other countries in the South, such as China. At the meeting in Beijing on 7 April 2016, China and the countries of South-East Asia agreed to improve their security and counter-terrorism cooperation. In particular, by strengthening multilateral and bilateral cooperation, increasing information exchange, broadening areas of cooperation and building capacity for cooperation in the fight against terrorism, in order to establish a platform for multilateral cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism with regional characteristics to protect individuals in the region and help maintain regional security and stability. The authorities of the South-East Asian countries agreed with the Chinese authorities to commit to further strengthen information exchange and take pragmatic measures in the field of counter-terrorism with China[8]. For the ASEAN countries and China, the fight against terrorism has been and will continue to be one of the most difficult tasks in preserving their respective national security strategies.


South-East Asia faces a grim counter-terrorism situation. In recent years, there have been frequent terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines, and China can cooperate more closely with the whole of ASEAN. In 2018, six ASEAN member countries launched the "Our Eyes" intelligence initiative. They have developed a common database of violent extremists. But since most ASEAN countries still lack the capacity to deal independently with terrorist attacks, China can help them by forging cooperation. China also needs the help of Southeast Asian countries, as some extremists from Xinjiang tend to migrate illegally to the Middle East via Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam[9].


The experience of South-East Asia shows that South-South cooperation can build on the initiatives of individual countries, but above all on the opportunities to share experiences and good practices

The fact that the terrorist phenomenon is tackled by taking into account both the preventive and the counter-terrorism dimension tells us about the effectiveness of the mixed approach that has long been neglected in the Sahel.

The mutual trust that has facilitated intelligence sharing and established cooperative relations despite the many vested interests between these countries should inspire the Sahel countries. Moreover, the existence of regional and sub-regional frameworks should further promote and facilitate such a strategy.

Taking into account the regional dimension in the elaboration of strategies as well as the definition of community action frameworks seems to be an interesting avenue for West African countries at a time when foreign interventions have shown their limits. This is the price to pay for the re-credibilisation of the fight against terrorism and the adoption of alternative strategies to the all-security approach.


[1] Marguerite Borelli, "Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses", Vol. 9, No. 9 (September 2017), pp. 14-20,  in International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, available at:

[2]Country Reports on Terrorism 2018, BUREAU OF COUNTERTERRORISM, P. 43. available at: last visit: 23-06-2020

[3] ASEAN comprehensive plan of action on counter terrorism, Endorsed by 7th AMMTC on 17November 2009.


[5] Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). “About RRG.” [date unknown]. available at:

[6]Bernama. “Malaysia’s Counter-Messaging Centre combating terrorism, radical activities, says DPM.” New Straits Times. November 8, 2016. Available at: . Last visit: 02-07-2020