Wednesday 4 January 2012

Singapore's Counterterror Success

The city-state has played to its strengths as a multi-ethnic melting pot

Ten years ago today the world learned that a major terrorist attack on Singapore had been thwarted. The anniversary of what would have been Southeast Asia's 9/11 is notable not only because of how Singapore foiled it, but also because of the lesson it taught neighboring countries.

The Singapore cell of Jemaah Islamiyah, a pan-Southeast Asian terrorist group and al Qaeda affiliate, planned to crash a hijacked plane into Singapore's Changi International Airport. They came up with the idea after a previous plot—to attack the U.S., British, Israeli and Australian embassies, along with U.S. naval bases and other U.S. targets—was thwarted by the Internal Security Department, Singapore's domestic intelligence service. The ISD also stopped the airport plot.

Singapore was targeted because of its close relations with the U.S., Israel and the West, and because of its multiethnic society. Like the U.S., Singapore is a melting pot, where people of different ethnicities are equal citizens, hold high positions and are proud of their Singaporean identity. The fact that the Muslim community could be so successful and have good relations with other religious groups was a powerful counterexample to the rhetoric of JI and al Qaeda.

The way that the ISD uncovered the attacks was instructive to those battling al Qaeda around the region. The White Paper the Singaporean government published in 2003 corrected the benign notion that many governments previously had of JI and its intentions.

Just as important was the way the Singaporean authorities reacted to the fact that the JI cell included Muslim Singaporeans. What the authorities didn't do was to turn on the local Muslim community, hold public hearings about the threat from them, and send officers to mosques and homes. They understood that doing so would play into JI's and al Qaeda's hands. If the government made the community into outsiders who felt unwelcome in Singapore, it might create more converts to violent extremism.

So instead the Singaporeans worked with the local Muslim community as a partner in developing a program aimed at countering extremism. They turned to local religious leaders and formed a leadership council, and also brought in social services, mental health professionals, and psychologists to develop a comprehensive program.

The Singaporean government understood that developing programs to counter terrorist recruitment efforts is a crucial part of any counterterrorism strategy. Otherwise law enforcement and intelligence operatives can be drawn into a never ending "cat and mouse" game if terrorists are allowed to continue hijacking local grievances for support and recruits. While in some countries investing money and effort on rehabilitation programs is seen as being soft, the Singaporeans see it as an important weapon. They understand that it goes hand-in-hand with intelligence and law enforcement work, and is an important (if forgotten) tool.

The impact of the program on the community has been positive. The Muslim community feels it is part of the effort to protect Singapore from outside terrorists and corrupters. The threat from JI has diminished. Together with colleagues, as part of a study sponsored by the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies, we looked at Countering Violent Extremism programs around the world and found Singapore's to be very effective.

Singapore is a small country with a unique set of legal and cultural principles, and its program would be difficult to replicate wholesale elsewhere. Nevertheless, countries need to develop regional and local strategies (rather than just national ones) to counter the efforts of terrorist groups. The groups themselves adjust their strategies to factor in local grievances and mindsets, and so the size of the Singapore model is more relevant than is at first assumed.

Today countries across the world are beginning to appreciate the value of such programs in countering al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The U.S. State Department is doing very important work in this area through the office of Ambassador Dan Benjamin, as is the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other allied governments. Today more and more countries are looking to learn the lessons from countries with a successful track record countering extremism, and for good reason Singapore is an important model to study.

Mr. Soufan, an FBI supervisory special agent from 1997 to 2005, is chairman of the Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence consultancy. He is the author of "The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al Qaeda" (W.W. Norton, 2011).

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