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Mekong countries strengthen protection against foreign terrorist fighters

Bangkok (Thailand), 9 September 2016
- Senior officials from across the Mekong region have convened in Bangkok this week to address the continuing movement of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) in Southeast Asia, and the increasing prospect of their return from the Middle East. The three-day Workshop employed a unique hybrid of policy dialogue and practical training to mitigate potential FTF threats, and brought together officials directly responsible for counter-terrorism, immigration, customs, and border security.

The FTF threat for member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a palpable one - at least 1,000 citizens from the region have travelled to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2014, and most are with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

"FTF have already used multiple ASEAN member states as transit points to disguise their true destination in the Middle East, as part of their broken travel pattern." said Mr. Rido Rolly Maruli Pursaoran, a counter-terrorism officer from Indonesia's Detachment 88 and member of the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Task Force. "Close cooperation between counter-terrorism investigators and frontline officers is the best way to achieve breakthroughs in FTF cases. It is also vital that frontline officers have good knowledge of FTF profiles and characteristics, to prevent false accusations and human rights violations."

Accordingly, the workshop - Strengthening Frontline Protection against Foreign Terrorist Fighters in the Mekong Sub-region - sought to enhance frontline officers' abilities to make sound judgements and take appropriate actions against FTF and potential suspects at border checkpoints.

It was initiated as part of UNODC's broader technical assistance to assist ASEAN member states in identifying and deterring FTF travel, particularly in line with the requirements of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178.

Officers from across five countries - Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam - received training from experts from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, the Philippines, the US and INTERPOL. Apart from threat analysis and discussions on FTF in Southeast Asia, participants took part in practical training sessions to enhance their abilities to analyze fraudulent traveling documents, recognize imposters, question FTF suspects, collect data, draft reports, and communicate to other relevant agencies in a prompt and effective manner.

"Preventing FTF from reaching the conflict zones and - if they manage to do so - detecting them upon return are extremely vital in mitigating terrorist threats", said Mr. Olivier Lermet, Officer-in-Charge of the UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. "Frontline officers can make a significant difference because they are in the position to encounter FTF in person and subsequently disrupt their traveling plans or operations early on".

The training sessions were accommodated by UNODC's newly launched 'Field Guide for Frontline Officers to Counter Terrorism and Foreign Terrorist Fighters'. The field guide will also be translated into local languages.

Experts, including Federal Agent Peter William Southwell, Police Liaison of the Australian Embassy to Thailand, and Mr. Jean Cormier, Regional Manager for Asia Pacific Royal Canadian Mounted Police, also shared best practices on FTF responses in Australia and Canada respectively.

"A whole-of-nation approach and inter-agency collaboration are indispensable in addressing the FTF situation", said Mr. Cormier. "Frontline officers should also look to capitalize on financial data such as cross-border cash couriers and spending patterns in analyzing FTF suspects."