ASEAN and Australia signed an agreement to cooperate on fighting violent extremism and terrorism financing on Saturday, as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that terrorists are using digital technology in innovative ways to finance, plan and conduct their attacks.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), ASEAN and Australia will work together to develop and implement counter-terrorism legislation consistent with international standards and best practices.
They will also start a workshop on using electronic evidence in investigations and prosecutions of terrorism and transnational crime.
The agreement also paves the way for multilateral exchange programmes for financial intelligence analysts and regional dialogues and forums for ASEAN and Australian law enforcement partners.
The MOU comes at a time when terrorists increasingly use non-conventional funding methods, including digital currencies, stored value cards and crowdfunding platforms, making it harder to detect terrorism financing, Turnbull noted.
It has also become more critical than ever for countries to work together to counter terrorism, as the frontline in the battle against this scourge is – in an interconnected world – everywhere, he added.
“We have seen that very, very graphically, where detailed instructions about the preparation of a weapon was transmitted over encrypted applications from Syria to an individual here in Australia,” Turnbull said. “So we have to be constantly alert, constantly working with our neighbours in the region.”
He was speaking at a counter-terrorism conference, where the MOU was signed by Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi. The conference took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.
Turnbull and ASEAN leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, witnessed the signing.
Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak underscored the importance of taking the fight to the terrorists on social media.
“This is our new main battleground – to win the hearts and minds of our youth through social media so that they do not easily succumb to the warped, perverse and evil ideology of Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Earlier in the day, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton warned the conference that the use of encrypted messaging apps to plan terrorist attacks was the greatest threat faced by intelligence agencies in modern times.
The use of the “dark web” by extremists and other criminals was a spiralling problem, he said, referring to the murky back alleys of the Internet, including messaging apps, where criminals sell weapons and drugs.
“While our nations are focused on countering the ongoing threat of terrorism domestically, it would be a mistake to approach the problem from a purely national perspective,” he said, as he urged a “united and cohesive” response.
Australian ministers announced various other plans on Saturday aimed at strengthening ties with Asean, including a new Asean-Australia Infrastructure Skills Dialogue that will bring together industry, government, vocational education and training representatives to discuss ways to address the skills challenges facing the region.
On Saturday morning, Turnbull also announced during a CEO Forum on the sidelines of the special summit a A$30-million investment fund to support smart cities.
The initiative will set up a knowledge bank of sustainable urban planning ideas to be shared between Asean and Australia.
Separately, Lee attended a reception for overseas Singaporeans on Saturday morning with his wife Mrs Lee and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. Lee said the Singapore-Australia relationship is a very “intense engagement and connection”.
“There are a lot of things we are doing together. We cooperate economically, we do a lot of business… We have people exchanges, cultural exchanges, defence cooperation,” he said.
Some 300 Singaporeans, who included professionals working in Sydney and their families, as well as students, packed the Grand Ballroom of the Shangri-La Hotel to meet them.