(Bloomberg) -- Terrorism is entrenched in Southeast Asia and will only worsen as Islamic State’s fortunes fade and foreign fighters skilled in bomb making and hijacking return from the Middle East, Singapore’s defense minister said.
“When we talk about endemic threats we usually refer to threats like dengue or tuberculosis, which means that it’s here to stay, that despite years of effort you can’t eradicate it,” Ng Eng Hen told reporters on Tuesday ahead of the country’s armed forces day on July 1.
“The problem will now come to Asean,” Ng said, referring to the 10 states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “Singapore is a target.”
Ng cited the siege of Marawi, a city in the southern Philippines, where soldiers have been battling Islamic State-linked militants for more than a month. Terrorist camps discovered in Marawi turned up large amounts of money, weapons caches and fighters recruited from outside the Philippines, he said.
Southeast Asian governments have for years highlighted the risk from returning fighters alongside those radicalized at home via the Internet. Those warnings have increased as Islamic State continues to lose ground in the Middle East, raising concerns it will metastasize and grow more potent in other places.
“Whatever the reasons, there is now if you like the terrorist core that is a magnet in our region that will pull terrorists to this region and say we want to establish an ISIS-like caliphate,” Ng said. “Tens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of foreign fighters will have the skills to make improvised explosives, to have the skills for hijacking, to have the skills for kidnapping.”
“They are just using religion as a false front, but they are basically criminals."
Speaking on June 28 in Brisbane, U.S. Pacific Command chief Harry Harris also warned the weakening of Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa would lead some fighters to return to Asia.
“These terrorists are using combat tactics that we’ve seen in the Middle East to kill in the city of Marawi in Mindanao -- the first time ISIS-inspired forces have banded together to fight on this kind of scale in this region,” Admiral Harris said. He described Marawi as a “wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
Philippine military chief of staff Eduardo Ano said last week there were around 40 foreign fighters in Marawi, including some from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Ng said even if the Philippine military could contain the Marawi attack -- and he said he had faith it would -- the danger from extremists won’t dissipate.
“The threat of terrorism, the skills of terrorists, the networks, have gone from wholesale to retail and that is why we are seeing more lone wolf attacks and small cells.”
Southeast Asia is home to about 15 percent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims. As well as the Marawi violence in the southern Philippines -- where President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law -- the Indonesian capital of Jakarta was also struck recently by twin suicide bombings that killed three police officers.
On June 12, the Singapore government said Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, who planned to travel to Syria to join Islamic State, was detained under the Internal Security Act, the first female to be held in the country for radicalism.
Earlier in June, six Indonesian militants behind a foiled plan to fire a rocket at Singapore’s Marina Bay from Batam island in Indonesia were found guilty of conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Intelligence sharing -- done “behind the scenes and quietly” -- has increased between Southeast Asian nations, Ng said. Singapore is also training more troops to conduct joint operations with homeland security forces. A new counter-terrorism training institution will open next month, through which 18,000 soldiers from active and national service units will pass each year.
Still, Singapore is not involved in joint patrols by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in the Sulu Sea, a shared water body that has become a popular access point for terror groups.
“If they want us to join in the Sulu Seas patrols we’d be happy to,” Ng said. “Just as we’ve done in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Singapore and other countries internationally should be willing to help.”
The minister also cited cyber crime as a key threat, saying “Singapore has now found itself on someone’s list.”
“The attacks are orchestrated, the attacks are targeted, they want to steal specific information, there are minds behind this orchestration,” he said, without giving details of attacks or their potential origin. Such hacks create back doors that others may then use.
“We take it very seriously, it has the same impact as a terrorist’s physical attack and it can have physical consequences.”