MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed Thursday to closely cooperate to halt the flow of militants, weapons, funds and extremist propaganda across their borders, as they expressed alarm over recent attacks in the region including a monthlong siege of a southern Philippine city.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts met in Manila with top security officials to discuss a joint plan of action amid the siege of Marawi city by militants aligned with the Islamic State group that has left at least 369 combatants and civilians dead.
As the Islamic State group loses territory in Syria and Iraq, Southeast Asian governments worry that battle-hardened Asian fighters, including ones from Indonesia and Malaysia, may return to exploit social restiveness, weak law enforcement, a surfeit of illegal arms and raging insurgencies to establish a foothold in the region.
Many worry that the siege in Marawi could draw in the returning jihadis.
"We expect that those who will be displaced there will go to Asia and because of the Marawi uprising, the Philippines is like a magnet," said Philippine military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano, who took part in the security conference.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi condemned the attack in Marawi and said her government is ready to help.
"Your challenges are Indonesia's challenges and your challenges are also the challenges of the region," she said, adding that the threat of terrorism is imminent and that "no action is not an option."
Malaysia's top diplomat, Anifah Aman, said it's more difficult now for governments to fight militants, who are willing to die and are harnessing technology and social media to spread their messages faster and recruit followers across the world.
"Motivated by a perverse ideology, terrorists today welcome death for others and also for themselves," Anifah said.
Cayetano said the three countries agreed to go beyond a military solution in dealing with extremists who breed in dismal social conditions. "We take note that drugs, crime, poverty, injustice play a big role in making the ground fertile for recruitment or for radicalizing, especially young people," Cayetano said.
In a joint statement, the three governments expressed "concern over the recent incidents of terrorism and violent extremism in their countries" and said they would plan strategies together to combat them.
They pledged to improve intelligence-sharing about potential threats, stop the flow of militants, funds and weapons, and contain the spread of propaganda on social media.
The countries will also discuss how to cooperate in enhancing military and law enforcement training and help each other promote religious tolerance and moderation, the statement said.
"What is important is the help of religious leaders so we can bring them back to moderate, mainstream Islam," Ano said.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers will meet later this year to discuss rising radicalization and violent extremism.
On May 23, about 500 militants, including several Indonesian, Malaysian and other foreigners, stormed the business district of Marawi, a lakeside center of the Islamic faith in the south of the largely Roman Catholic Philippines, taking a priest and others hostage, occupying buildings and installing Islamic State-style black flags.
Of the 276 militants who have been killed, at least three were Malaysians and one came from Indonesia, Ano said. He said the arrest in Malaysia last week of some militants suspected to be bound for Marawi illustrated the kind of cross-border cooperation needed to protect the region.