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More joining the fight overseas as Middle East conflict grows

As deadly conflicts rage across the Middle East, more potential fighters from Southeast Asia are being drawn to the battlefield. Governments throughout the region are slowly responding to the threat of radicalisation, bred far across the globe, but with serious local implications.

SINGAPORE: The Middle East in the midst of a violent storm from Baghad to Damascus, and in the centre of the conflict - hundreds of emerging militants from Asia.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said: "It's a regional problem - it is imperative for us to understand the numbers are incrementally increasing. We must do everything possible to stem the tide."

Analysts said the reasons for joining the fight are diverse - the conflict is divided down religious and racial lines, and the motivations are often ideologically disparate. But the notion of jihad is increasingly gaining currency in Southeast Asia.

Zurairi Ar, a columnist with the Malay Mail Online, said: "Dying for your religion is seen as the most exalted form of death... (The people who join up) feel helpless, they don't know how to help out their brothers in other parts of the world and at the same time, locally they feel their faith is under threat."

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has taken a brutal turn in recent months as militant group the Islamic State, previously known as ISIS, declared a caliphate and looks to enforce its religious doctrine across the region with deadly effect.

It is a cause for concern for Asian governments - Indonesia continues to contend with a number of groups looking to establish an Islamic state in the archipelago. By attempting to ban ISIS, Jakarta has moved to stop its seeds from taking root.

But the ban does not criminalise foreign fighting and it is believed there are some 200 Indonesians fighting in the Syrian conflict alone. The problem is not isolated to Indonesia and underground networks continue to harvest more waves of militants throughout the region. There are believed to be more than 100 Malaysians, a small number of Singaporeans and an increasing contingent of Australians taking up arms.

The Australian government is leading the fight back by sharpening its counter-terror tools. A raft of new measures will strengthen its legal powers to identify and eradicate local terror cells as well as suspend passports and block the return of those who have joined foreign conflicts.

Blocking the repatriation of extremists is a key challenge - historically, terror attacks in Asia have been committed by locals radicalised and trained overseas. Prof Gunaratna said: "Those who survive will return back with the motivation, the networks and the skills to stage terrorist attacks."

Identifying the risk is one thing, taking the right steps to maintain community peace and religious harmony is another.

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