Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Terrorists’ Digital Messages Target of Southeast Asia-Australia Pact

  • Asean countries agree in Sydney to boost intelligence sharing
  • Concern grows as ISIS fighters return from Middle East

Terrorists operating in Southeast Asia will be targeted in a pan-regional pact designed to enhance intelligence sharing and disrupt potential attackers’ ability to communicate through digital messaging.

“Terrorism is a truly global threat, as digital as it is dangerous,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Saturday at the signing of a counter-terrorism memorandum of understanding at his country’s special summit with Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Sydney. “The use of social media and encrypted messaging applications is a challenge for us all, and one we must tackle together.”

The nations committed to improve legislative and enforcement tools to combat the cross-border movement of extremists, including obtaining and using electronic communications evidence for prosecutions. They also pledged to increase legislative efforts to boost counter-terrorism financing and information-sharing between members.

Read more on what’s next for ISIS

The move comes as concern in Southeast Asia grows about the influence of ISIS-inspired terrorists returning from the Middle East, with Indonesia and Philippines seen by some experts as vulnerable to further attacks. Australia, a key ally of the U.S., is also on high alert with the likelihood of an attack deemed probable. Intelligence services there have disrupted or stopped at least a dozen major terrorism plots since 2014.

The Summit’s counter-terrorism conference is designed to bring regional intelligence agencies and policy-makers together to strengthen cross-border efforts to crack down on terrorism financing and planning.

“The use of encrypted messaging apps by terrorists and criminals is potentially the most significant degradation of intelligence capability in modern times,” Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told the meeting on Saturday.

Dutton is leading attempts to pass legislation in Australia’s parliament that he says will make communications companies pass on potential terrorism-related messages to intelligence agencies, and boost authorities’ ability to use surveillance devices.

“We all have a vested interest in each other defeating terrorist movements wherever they arise,” Turnbull said. “Just as the terrorists’ networks are transnational, so must be our collaboration, and nowhere more so than in the sharing of intelligence.”

The pact is one of the core objectives of the special summit between Asean and Australia, which has been organized at Turnbull’s behest to enhance regional economic and security ties. Leaders of the nations will meet on Sunday.

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