SYDNEY – Southeast Asian leaders will sign an agreement on regional cooperation against violent extremism as the risk to the region grows due to militants fleeing Islamic State group losses in the Middle East, an official said on Saturday.
The memorandum of understanding on cooperation to counter international terrorism will be signed by the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and Australia, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said.
It includes a package of joint initiatives and programs that will enhance regional security and contribute to building counterterrorism capability throughout Southeast Asia, he said.
"We must recognize that national security cannot be achieved in isolation from regional security," Dutton told a counterterrorism conference that coincides with a special ASEAN leaders' summit in Sydney.
"A nation cannot be assured of its own safety while there are threats at its doorstep," he added.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last month urged reluctant allied nations to address a growing crisis by taking responsibility for their citizens who have been detained as foreign fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are currently holding thousands of IS detainees, including hundreds of foreign fighters from a number of nations.
Dutton said 220 Australians went to Syria and Iraq to fight with militants before the Islamic State movement's self-proclaimed caliphate collapsed. He did not say how many had been captured, but at least one is in custody in Turkey.
"One of the greatest challenges to Australia and the Southeast Asia region is posed by these individuals returning to our shores," Dutton said.
"There are now more individuals within our communities who wish to do us harm than ever before," he added.
Australia had suffered six extremist attacks since 2014 and authorities had disrupted another 14 plots, Dutton said.
The disrupted plots include an alleged attempt to smuggle an improvised explosive device aboard an Etihad Airways airliner at Sydney Airport last July. Four Sydney men were charged in relation to the plot allegedly directed by the Islamic State movement.
Dutton also pointed out that international cooperation had helped government troops recapture the southern Philippine city of Marawi from militants last year.
"While most extremists were killed or captured, some are understood to have gone into hiding, posing an ongoing threat to Philippines and regional countries," Dutton said.
At the height of the Marawi fighting, about 40 foreign militants traveled to the southern Philippines to join hundreds of Filipino militants in the lakeside city. Fourteen of the foreigners are known to have been killed by troops. It's unclear what happened to the others, Philippine officials said.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to skip the ASEAN weekend summit which is meeting for the first time in Australia, a dialogue partner but not a member nation.
Hundreds of demonstrators protested in downtown Sydney on Friday night and Saturday against Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc over the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority and other human rights issues.
Associated Press reporter Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report