What does the US State Department terrorism report say about its stance in Southeast Asia?

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte salutes a soldier killed by the Abu Sayyaf Group. Photo: REY BANIQUET/PPD / Public domain

In 2019, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines made major efforts to defeat local and international terrorist organizations. But did these countries meet the US government’s criteria for combating terrorism?

By Umair Jamal

The US State Department recently released its annual country report on terrorism. The report offers the US Congress an overview of countries and regions that their government believes are combatting or supporting terrorism.

The latest iteration outlines counterterrorism efforts and portrays counterterrorism in Southeast Asia as satisfactory.

However, it warns that several militant networks with transnational agendas are trying to establish networks in the region, threatening Washington’s security interests.

In Southeast Asia, the report focuses particularly on Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, as these three countries face serious threats from several Jihadist groups.

The networks tied to the Islamic State, particularly Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), continued to spread their activities in Indonesia. In Malaysia, the Al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) emerged as one of the country’s most violent militant groups. Militant groups in the Philippines including Ansar al-Khalifa staged suicide bombings against the security forces and civilians, complicating the country’s security woes.

The report lays out a strategy to achieve better cooperation among the intelligence agencies of these countries, noting that a multilateral approach, supported by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, could prove effective in dealing with terrorist threats spread across Southeast Asia.

In 2019, the US continued to increase its role in combating anti-American terrorism in Southeast Asia, as in other parts of the world. However, in some cases, Washington used this international security discourse to target its political and diplomatic foes across the world.

How are Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines dealing with the threat of terrorism?

In 2019, the Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino militaries continued to classify counterterrorism as their key security priority. They formulated an inclusive counterterrorism strategy informed by effective legislation, regional and international cooperation and a diverse prevention and intervention approach to increase the resilience of communities and individuals in countering violent extremism (CVE). The three also cooperated to conduct monitoring and surveillance of suspected terrorist cells.

Evaluating Indonesia’s performance, the report notes efforts by Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) to introduce de-radicalization programs for terrorist convicts. BNPT has been using “former terrorists for CVE outreach campaigns and helped establish boarding schools to educate children of former terrorists.”

Describing Malaysia’s role as “a transit point” for terrorist groups, the report lists Kuala Lumpur as a “destination country” for terrorist groups including the Islamic State and Al-Qaida. However, it notes that last year, Malaysia launched CVE initiatives that included counter-messaging programs and efforts to engage youth through different police-lead community outreach plans. These programs, combined with efficient policing, will prove key in managing threats from groups like the Islamic State and their local affiliates.

On the Philippines, the terrorism report presented a grave view of the country’s counterterrorism challenge: militant groups continued to target law enforcement agencies, including through suicide bombings—a new challenge for Filipino security forces.

Several militant groups associated with the Islamic State in the Philippines continued efforts to aggressively launch attacks against the state forces. Islamic State affiliates included “elements of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Ansar al-Khalifa Philippines (AKP) and the Maute Group.”

Last year, the Philippines formulated a National Action Plan (NAP) on counterterrorism. Like in Indonesia and Malaysia, the country’s military “worked with local stakeholders to encourage defections from the ASG, BIFF and the Maute Group, and to rehabilitate former fighters.”

The US considers increased coordination among the Indonesian, Malaysian and Filipino militaries vital in fighting extremism on the regional level. The three countries “continued coordinated patrols in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas to deter and prevent kidnapping and terrorist transit in their adjoining exclusive economic zones.” 

On the whole, the region’s strategy remained focused on communal participation, engagement of vulnerable communities, tackling extremist propaganda and aiding de-radicalization.  

What does the terrorism report mean for the United States’ political and military interests abroad?

From the US perspective, the report achieves important strategic goals.

The document offers a preview of Washington’s prominent role in the “War on Terror” globally. It also indicates to the global community that the US maintains several broad-based international coalitions, which reinforces a narrative that Washington’s participation is necessary to defeat terrorism globally.

US soldiers training their Filipino counterparts. Photo: 1 SFG (A) ODA 163, Philippine, April,11 2002 02 flickr photo by US ARMY SPECIAL FORCES shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

In effect, it intends to show that the US remains the only power with the ability to act globally in military, intelligence, political and diplomatic terms.

The report considers cooperation from Washington’s allies important to achieving military success against transnational militant groups, particularly Al-Qaida and the Islamic State. To an extent, the report’s language puts forward a view that collaboration with Washington is key for countries to win their fight against militancy and extremism.

Does the report offer an impartial view of the global terrorism problem?

Generally, the publication is uncritical of nations that cooperate fully with Washington, especially those that aren’t central to the country’s national security policy. For instance, in the cases of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the report notes that these countries have cooperated fully with the US to manage threats emerging from various local affiliates of Al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

The report noted, for example, that “Indonesia’s Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) hosted a bilateral counterterrorism workshop with the United States on September 4-5 to build capacity for various Indonesian agencies in preventing and countering terrorist activities in border areas and outer islands.”

The report also mentions that Malaysia “cooperated with the United States and others to increase border security capacity at airports and in the Sulu Sea, CT messaging on social media, and to improve terrorist prosecutions.”

In the Philippines’ case, it mentions that the country continued to cooperate with the United States. “Philippine military, law enforcement and judicial authorities participated in numerous U.S. capacity-building programs, and used the training and equipment they received to prevent and respond to terrorist incidents.”

However, the document doesn’t examine Washington’s role in supporting extremist groups in certain conflict zones and in undermining states whose national security interests do not converge with those of the US. The US is likely complicit in war crimes in Yemen, for example. In Yemen, Washington’s support for the Saudi-lead coalition has killed thousands of innocent people. Last year, a team of United Nations investigators presented a devastating report in Geneva detailing how the US was likely complicit in war crimes in Yemen “because of continued weapons sales and intelligence support to the Saudi allies.”

The United States has instead used the report to put diplomatic and military pressure on countries whose regimes and policies create a challenge for Washington’s security and economic interests.

The State Department report designates several political groups, individuals and businesses from the Middle East and Africa as terrorists or their accomplices. For instance, Iran’s state-run intelligence agency, the Quds force, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the State Department. Thus, any entities engaging with the group can also be considered facilitators of a proscribed organization and a threat to Washington’s interests.

In this regard, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines remain in Washington’s good graces. However, to many, the report only serves as an instrument to push forward Washington’s view of the global terrorism problem rather than an objective view of the problem at hand.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15