Crime, Terror, and Porous Borders in Southeast Asia

Porous borders in Southeast Asia have been facilitating transnational criminal networks for decades. Taking advantage of cultural bonds, migration trends, economic inequalities, and occasional conflicts, criminal networks have expanded because of the ability to cross borders.

In the same way, terrorist organisations will benefit from weak border security unless regional governments take coordinated steps to address the problem. Drugs, persons, weapons and wildlife are smuggled across borders in Southeast Asia at alarming rates. In total, the criminal industry in Southeast Asia is worth upwards of US$100 billion.

The criminal networks operating throughout the region are highly organized, technologically advanced, well-armed, and sustainably financed. The cross-border dimension of crime allows for such networks to evade the authorities and expand operations. In addition, rapid economic development has improved transport links between states, benefitting not only criminal networks but terrorist organisations too.

Southeast Asia has long suffered at the hands of terrorism. Attacks in Bali (2002 and 2005), Jakarta (2003, 2005, and 2009) and the southern Philippines (2004) were committed by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah. Islamic militant groups in the southern Philippines such as Abu Sayyaf have been fighting the government for years and Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand have been leading an insurgency since 2001. Ethnic tensions throughout the region have also increased the use of violent tactics for political means.

More recently, the Islamic State began showing a stronger interest in Southeast Asia. Abu Bakr-Baghdadi announced a caliphate in June 2014 and it only took months for militant groups in the Philippines and Indonesia to pledge allegiance. By September 2014, a Southeast Asian wing of the Islamic State was launched which became known as Katibah Nusantara. It’s estimated that about 1,000 people from Southeast Asia have become foreign fighters with IS and other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria. Those foreign fighters who return will be armed with new tactics and capabilities and have the ability to link up existing terrorist organisations operating in the region.

“IS has emerged as the signal expression of this threat, in part, because of the speed with which it has gained popularity in the region,” Joseph Chinyong Liow of the Brookings Institution said in 2016 testimony before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and intelligence. “When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced on June 28, 2014 (the first day of Ramadhan) that a caliphate had been formed by ISIS, the announcement captured the imagination of the radical fringes across Southeast Asia. July and August that year witnessed a series of bay’at (pledge of allegiance) to IS taken by radical groups and clerics from Indonesia and the Philippines. It was the audacity of its announcement of the caliphate and forcefulness of its communications strategy that set IS apart from other groups.”

Indeed, IS has already coordinated attacks in the region. Most recently, the organization conducted double attacks in Jakarta on May 24. Earlier in the month, militants linked to IS smuggled weapons from Thailand into Malaysia and stockpiled them for future use. The Malaysian government arrested six individuals linked to IS, but another allegedly escaped by crossing the border into Thailand. Further attacks were conducted by IS in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur in January and June 2016, respectively.

Unknown suspects allegedly linked to IS bombed a night market in the southern Philippines in September that year, and Thailand has experienced a spate of attacks since the beginning of 2017, albeit there are no clear links to IS at present. In short, terrorism is thriving and borders are enhancing capabilities. The threat of terrorist organisations exploiting the same routes that criminal networks use is becoming a reality.

The similarities that exist between criminal and terrorist organizations is well established: terrorist organisations engage in criminal activities to earn revenue and criminal organisations use terror tactics as a means of control.

Less understood is the capability for terrorist organizations to exploit the capabilities of criminal networks. Logistically, criminal networks can support terrorists in a number of ways, including by providing fraudulent documents, organising travel arrangements, and smuggling terrorists and weapons across borders. There is little reason why criminal networks would avoid cooperation with terrorist organisations. The presence of Hezbollah in Latin America is telling enough.

Weak border security allows for neighboring states to act as safe havens for terrorist organizations. It is only through working together to restrict illegal cross-border movement that Southeast Asia can avoid terrorists exploiting cross-border movement. ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) member-states must enhance cooperation to combat the nexus between crime and terrorism. There is need to share intelligence on criminal networks and terrorist organisations, tackle corruption on border crossings, share best practises between governments, and conduct joint operations against terrorism and criminal activity, amongst other measures, to effectively combat terrorist organisations taking advantage of borders.

The recent terms of reference (ToR) signed between the Malaysian Army and the Royal Thai Army is a positive step forward. The ToR will facilitate joint border patrols to fight terrorism and illegal border crossings. In addition, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia have an agreement to combat terrorism and fight crime in the Sulu-Sulawesi-Celebes Sea, a hotbed of lawlessness. Other institutions should link up to challenge the emerging threat.

Criminality has undermined efforts to enhance the rule of law in the region for a long time. But the new threat that regional governments must face is the use of borders to advance terror operations. In a region as intertwined as Southeast Asia, cooperation is vital.

Matthew Abbey is a writer, analyst, and researcher focusing on human rights and international security.