Religious extremism has been an issue in Southeast Asia for decades.

Even before the September 11 attacks, when religious extremism started becoming a buzzword in security circles, Southeast Asia has been grappling with such violent extremist (and undoubtedly skewed) takes on religion in forms like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.

However, the siege of Marawi City under the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has shown that the face of religious extremism in Southeast Asia is rapidly changing.

Marawi crisis

The five-month-long crisis began in May 2017, with the objective of declaring a provincial ISIL territory, or wilayat, in the Provincial Capitol of Lanao del Sur. Clashes between Philippine government security forces and militants affiliated with ISIL resulted in over 103 deaths, making it Southeast Asia’s deadliest jihadist assault.

While the Philippines has declared the end of the Marawi crisis following the military’s capture of the pro-IS militants’ final stronghold, the significance of the siege reverberates through ASEAN security circles.

What was most apparent about the Marawi crisis was the transnational nature of the militants joining the ‘fight’. Traditionally, Southeast Asian extremist groups have typically been carried out by their local citizens, with little more than loose affiliations to overseas organisations. However, the siege of Marawi presented a new scenario of a coordinated attack involving both local and foreign militants—an unprecedented level of transnational coordination.

Read also: Sidelined? Evaluating The Issue of Terrorism in Southeast Asia

These militant soldiers poured into Marawi City following calls from Abu-Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, dubbed the “Emir of the Southeast Asian wilaya”, for reinforcements in the battle. These militants ranged from members of existing Filipino militant groups Abu Sayyah and the Maute Group, to foreign fighters from the Middle East and Chechnya provided by IS, and radicalised militants from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. In addition, a report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) showed that the militants received direct funding from IS, and were under a chain of command originating from Syria.

Separately, trends have been observed over recent years of radicalised Southeast Asian citizens going to Syria to be trained, and returning to conduct attacks in their home country in the name of ISIL.

This situation presents a growing concern for both ASEAN and Southeast Asia. While previously religious extremist groups functioned within sovereign boundaries, their operations are becoming increasingly transnational. Resultantly, the old methods of national governments being able to tackle religious extremism unilaterally would no longer be effective. Increased collaboration and cooperation between countries and governments is required if the threat is to be targeted effectively. However, for ASEAN, requiring such transnational collaboration this is a taller order than it seems, due to the ‘ASEAN Way’.

‘The ASEAN Way’ and countering religious extremism

ASEAN has its foundations on a principle of ‘non-interference’ in member countries—otherwise known as the ‘ASEAN Way’. Critics have long criticized the ‘ASEAN Way’ as a hindrance to the effectiveness of ASEAN as a regional body. The case of countering the increasingly transnational threat of religious extremism in Southeast Asia is no exception.

ASEAN has undertaken a number of efforts in countering terrorism and prevent radicalisation. The ‘ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism’ (2001), ‘ASEAN Declaration on Terrorism’ (2002) and the ‘ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism’ (ACCT) (2007) are several declarations made by the regional body to increase cooperation in this realm. In addition, terrorism and countering violent extremism has been a key priority in recent ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meetings.

While the above measures have shown efforts being taken on an ASEAN level to legislate a collaborative effort to counter religious extremism, the principle of non-interference has resulted in such efforts being rather superficial. In the case of the ACCT, for instance, ASEAN’s lack of institutional mandate resulted in the Convention taking almost six years to be ratified, only being accomplished in 2013. The creation of counter-terrorism bodies on a regional level is also in preliminary stages of discussions, with no indication of being completed anytime soon.

Read also: Australia Uses ASEAN To Poke At US, China

A contrast of these problems within ASEAN due to the non-interference principle can be drawn to the European Union. As an independent, centralised body, the EU Council has adopted a Counter-Terrorism Strategy since 2005, and has a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator who works to coordinate these counter-terrorism efforts across member states. These sweeping measures applied across member states have allowed for changes to improve counter-terrorism efforts to be adopted quickly—such as the 2016 directive to harmonise the use of passenger name record data in the EU for travellers.

For ASEAN, however, the awareness of the long process that engaging the regional body entails has led to ASEAN members engaging in bilateral/trilateral cooperation, or even extra-regional cooperation, over regional cooperation within ASEAN. One instance in the case of countering terrorism can be seen in the cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to conduct joint maritime patrols to ward off potential terrorist threats. While this is one way to get around the challenge of working within the regional body, multilateral cooperations are only going to get more complicated as the face of religious extremism within Southeast Asia becomes more transnational and complex. The obvious solution would be to leverage on the existing platform offered by ASEAN in order to engage more effectively with this security threat, as long as ASEAN is able to offer concrete actions.

What then does ASEAN need to do in order to tackle the increasingly transnational problem of religious extremism within its region effectively?

The ASEAN way forward

The way forward for ASEAN requires a fundamental shift in the manner in which ASEAN conducts its operations as a regional bloc.

Firstly and fundamentally, the principle of ‘non-interference’ needs to be reconsidered in this context. This is not to mean that it should be thrown out of the window—the diversity within ASEAN member countries mandates that such a principle remains to ensure a peaceful working relationship within the bloc. However, within the context of countering a significant threat such as religious extremism, clear rules and boundaries need to be set between member states to outline the extent to which collaborative security can be exercised within sovereign boundaries. This is especially necessary as the threat of religious extremism is embedded within civilian populations. The sharing of resources through intelligence gathering (such as through surveillance means of drones, for instance), patrolling of borders, and other forms of collaborative security would greatly enhance the efforts to tackle religious extremism, but can only be leveraged on with clearly established boundaries of collaboration.

Read also: The Biggest Challenges For ASEAN In 2018

For instance, with regards to the Marawi crisis, Philippines’ Defence Secretary highlighted that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) required intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities such as long-range surveillance drones in their efforts to liberate Marawi. While he raised the AFP’s solution to be to request for more funding to acquire these capabilities, fellow ASEAN neighbour Singapore has been noted to utilise these capabilities widely within its Armed Forces. An increased collaboration within ASEAN could see the sharing of such resources in this way to better neutralise threats of religious extremist groups.

Also, the region’s efforts to counter religious extremism would benefit greatly from the creation of a regional body focused on this purpose. An overarching regulating body would be a critical step towards aligning the different national approaches to tackling religious extremism. This has been raised as being an area that is critically lacking in ASEAN’s terrorism efforts. For instance, the job of combating terrorism in the Philippines is done through the Army, whereas in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, it is done through the police force, resulting in very different approaches towards tackling the problem. Such varying approaches would undermine any collaborative efforts. The ability to align these methods would better facilitate the sharing of resources to tackle the operational aspect of targeting extremist networks.


As mentioned previously, religious extremism has been a long-standing issue within ASEAN. Even the engagement of transnational elements, such as in the case of Marawi, leverages on the existence of local religious extremist groups. Given the unique nature of extremism in the region, the approach to countering it would require a contextualised approach specific to each ASEAN country, and to ASEAN as a whole, rather than one adopted from other regions in the world. ASEAN as a regional bloc is hence well-placed to engage in this task of enforcing a regionally-aligned approach to countering religious extremism, and should be leveraged on to this end.

Successful steps taken to tackling religious extremism as a regional body would also be an avenue through which ASEAN itself can progress. Unified efforts taken by ASEAN to counter religious extremism would signal the ability of the regional bloc to bypass the challenges of the non-interference principle, to engage on a deeper level than economic partnerships. This would greatly enhance ASEAN’s credibility as an effective, united regional bloc. Relooking at ASEAN’s methods and operations through a critical engagement with the looming threat of religious extremism in the region, would also make for a stronger ASEAN that is better able to protect its member’s interests in the future.


Joelle is currently an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield, pursuing a Double Major in Politics and Sociology. She believes that more focus needs to be put on youth engagement and empowerment in social and political issues, and passionately involves herself in such efforts. She can be contacted at

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.