A network of terror events unfolded across Spain this mid-August weekend, when a white van was driven more than 1,700 feet along a crowded pedestrian walkway in one of Barcelona’s busiest tourist spots. Hours later, the same perpetrators plowed into crowds in a coastal Catalan town. A total of fourteen civilians died, and hundreds more were injured. Spanish officials discovered the group’s thwarted plans for a larger-scale terrorist plot involving improvised explosive devices, which would have seen dozens more fatalities.
In the shadow of these events, half a world away in Ho Chi Minh City, APEC counterterrorism officials met to tackle a strategy of cooperation against the threat of terrorism in the region, of which the Asia-Pacific has had its share.
Last May, for example, Jakarta fell victim to a suicide bombing, and the Philippine city of Marawi became the site of a months-long protracted battle between the military and jihadists, which prompted the government to declare martial law in the archipelago’s southernmost island region. Last July, Sydney suffered a bomb threat at the hands of four suspected terrorists who plotted and failed to blow up a passenger plane with a device fashioned out of a meat mincer.
The APEC Counter-Terrorism Working Group (CTWG) was created in recognition of terrorism’s threat to secure, open and prosperous economies—and has sought to provide APEC members support in assessing and improving counter-terrorism strategies.
“APEC members cooperate in areas such as blocking the source and flow of terrorist funding, and preventing suspects from crossing borders,” says Director James Nachipo of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who chairs the CTWG.
“We are also aware of the potential online spread of ideas that may lead to radicalization conductive to terrorism,” he said. “These are matters that go beyond borders and can only be dealt with through seamless cooperation between regional neighbors, international bodies, allies and trade partners.”
APEC is, by definition, an economic forum, founded to promote free trade and foster prosperity in its 21 member economies.
But over the decades, adapting with the times, the forum has expanded its scope beyond this original mission to trade agendas related to issues such as environmental protection and gender equality.
Counterterrorism is one such area that has an indirect but significant effect on economic growth.
In addition to destroying lives and property, terrorism discourages business activity, production and investment. It diverts government resources away from the economy to security services.
“APEC Leaders recognize how vital it is to create a secure environment for economic activity,” Nachipo noted. “It is the Counter-Terrorism Working Group’s mission to assist member economies in building their capacity to protect their supply chains, systems of travel, financial institutions and infrastructure.”
“We also want to strengthen their capacity to recover immediately from acts of terrorism, and to minimize the disruption to legitimate trade and travel,” he said.
One area where this kind of capacity building would be important is the tourism sector. According to the 2016 Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the contribution of the tourism industry to GDP is twice as large in an economy that does not get attacked by terrorists. The APEC Policy Support Unit has produced research linking tourism to poverty reduction such that every 1 per cent increase in annual tourist arrivals reduce the number of poor people by 0.12 per cent.
This can be partially ascribed to tourism’s relationship with small and medium enterprises—the kinds of businesses that provide those in the low-income bracket with more job opportunities and entrepreneurial options.
“The success of the tourism industry, and its benefits to business and growth, is strongly related to safety and security issues,” said Dionnisius Swasono, Deputy Director of Regional Cooperation of the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency.
“Safety is now a top priority for travelers when choosing their destinations,” said Swasono, who took the lead in organizing a workshop last May in Bali aimed at strengthening tourism business resilience against the impact of terrorism.
The workshop was the culmination of years of coordination conducted by APEC’s Counter-Terrorism Working Group and Tourism Working Group. It brought together more than a hundred government officials, security experts and tourism industry leaders from APEC economies.
In two days they compiled a comprehensive list of recommendations that serve as a checklist for officials and businesses of what to do in anticipation of, during and in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, to be distributed to member economies.
“One example of a recommendation for policymakers is for APEC member economies to disseminate travel safety advice for in-bound travelers,” Swasono said, “and for governments to learn best practices for social media, for rebuilding a tourism brand in the aftermath of an attack.”
“It is our hope that the recommendations of the workshop could be taken into consideration and followed up by all APEC member economies’ stakeholders,” Swasono added.
The CTWG’s next major workshops will tackle terrorist finance, and will be spearheaded by Chile.