Counterterrorism Conundrum

Rethinking Security Policy in Australia and Southeast Asia

A hostage runs towards a police officer outside Lindt cafe where other were being held in central Sydney on December 15, 2014. Jason Reed /Courtesy Reuters

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Australia has enacted some of the harshest and most extensive antiterror laws in the world. The laws give sweeping powers to security and law enforcement agencies and have reportedly helped thwart several terror plots inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Yet on December 14, Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed cleric from Iran whom Australia granted asylum in 1996, managed to take more than a dozen people hostage in a café in downtown Sydney. The siege ended less than 24 hours later when Australian commandos stormed the café; the standoff left Monis and two hostages dead.

Monis’ motivations, and the extent to which he was even inspired by events in the Middle East, remain a matter of speculation; a debate now rages over whether he was a terrorist or merely a mentally disturbed bigot. The siege itself, however, serves as a reminder that even the strictest and most comprehensive antiterrorism laws cannot immunize a society from risk. That lesson is all the more salient for Southeast Asian countries, which have experienced since 2000 several high-profile terrorist attacks in public places.

As I wrote in my recent article for Foreign Affairs, the large number of international fighters joining ISIS today recalls the stream of Southeast Asians who joined the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. I concluded that because of the region’s earlier experience with those fighters returning home, its governments possess a far more extensive set of tools to mitigate the terrorist threat. Even so, I urged caution and warned against complacency. Regardless of Monis’ motivations, the events in Sydney occasion a rethink on the ways in which the region remains vulnerable.

One major concern centers on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelagic chain. Although the islands are Philippine territory, Manila has struggled to assert authority over them. These territories have long been troubled by warlordism and clan conflicts and provide a space for potential ISIS sympathizers to operate and train. Terrorists from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore had

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