Sunday 29 December 2013

Keeping an eye on terrorism overseas

By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2013

BEARING boxes of local delicacies from Yogyakarta, security expert Bilveer Singh walked into the sparsely furnished home of radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in Solo, Indonesia.

It was a difficult meeting to arrange as the cleric did not want any visitors from Singapore, considered by Islamic militants as anti-Islam because of its ties with the United States and its allies.

But when the two men met, their meeting lasted for more than three hours.

Bashir told his Singapore visitor: "The next time you want to see me, just call."

They met on three other occasions at Bashir's house. Dr Singh, 57, questioned him on his role in inciting terrorism and suicide bombings in the region.

Speaking softly, Bashir defended his violent ideology, while treating his guest to generous offerings of cake and fruit juice.

He argued that he only preached militant Islam but did not instigate or mastermind terror attacks.

He told his visitor: "God gives everyone a brain. What and how he uses it, is up to him."

Pointing to a knife that was being used to cut an apple for his granddaughter, Bashir purred: "There is a knife. I sharpen the knife. Whether you use it to cut an apple or somebody's throat, it is your decision. Not mine."

Spillover effect

DR SINGH, who has studied Indonesian terrorism for more than 32 years, experienced up-close the charismatic appeal of the spiritual leader of militant Islam in his home in Solo. His interviews with the cleric took place between 2007 and 2009.

Bashir is now in jail and, though frail, he still holds sway over his followers. He was sentenced in 2011 for his role in organising a terrorist training camp in Aceh and is now serving a nine-year term in Nusakambangan prison in Indonesia.

Bashir sent shivers down the spine of Singapore authorities when the plot of the terror group he founded, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), was uncovered in Singapore.

The JI's sinister scheme in 2001 to blow up several important locations in Singapore was thwarted that year when its key leaders were nabbed and jailed.

Dr Singh has fixed a hawk-eyed gaze on security developments in Indonesia. What happens there will have a spillover effect on Singapore.

"I'm not worried about our captured Singapore terrorists. In the planned JI attacks in 2001 and 2002, the Singaporeans were just the foot soldiers.

"More worrying are the terrorists from overseas who buy Bashir's ready-made narratives and are prepared to be suicide bombers in attacks," Dr Singh says.

New militant Islamic groups are also popping up, some of them without known names. Not much is known, for example, about the group involved in a plot this year to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Indonesia.

But they are involved in a growing Salafi jihadist movement which aims to purify Islam through jihad, or a struggle to defend Islam through violence.

Some younger jihadists even look down on former jihadists and say they are not violent enough, Dr Singh reveals.

Another worry is the threat posed by a lone wolf. The term refers to a loner who radicalises himself. He also carries out the attacks personally, making it more difficult to identify him in advance, says Dr Singh.

Singapore is not immune to this problem. It has detained five self-radicalised men since 2007.

Exploiting loopholes

A GENIAL father of two married to a school principal, Dr Singh wears two hats.

At the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department, he is an associate professor of international relations.

Since 2010, he has also been a senior adjunct fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, focusing on terrorism in Indonesia. He has written 20 books on security issues in Indonesia.

He is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, a language he picked up from his Indonesian friends when he did his master's and PhD in international relations at the Australian National University between 1982 and 1986. He has a Bachelor of Social Science (Honours) degree in political science from NUS.

Treat the disease

ACCORDING to Bashir, the best gift the terrorists received in Indonesia was when the country made the transition from military to democratic rule in 1998.

Mr Solahudin, an Indonesian expert on Islamic extremism in Indonesia, agrees. He said at a security seminar on countering violent extremism in Singapore in September this year that Indonesian terror groups are taking advantage of the democratic space.

"When some groups demand that jihadists websites be closed, terrorists reject the demands on the grounds that their freedom of expression would be violated.

"The government has not taken this issue seriously. The Minister of Information and Communication has been far more interested in closing down pornography sites than jihadi ones," he said.

Dr Singh adds that some progress has been made by Indonesian law enforcement agencies and civil society to counter the terrorists' propaganda. He gives credit to Indonesia's elite anti-terrorism agency Densus 88 which has fought "fire with fire". So far, over 80 terrorists have been killed and 800 captured.

Talks given to the public by mainstream Islamic groups like the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama are also useful in countering violent ideology.

But if Indonesia is to win its war on terror, it must strengthen its prison management system. Convicted terrorists need to be isolated so that they do not convert other prisoners to their cause, he suggests.

Agreeing, Singapore terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna says that the problem of prison management is not unique to Indonesia. He adds that Indonesian prisons must also improve their rehabilitation capabilities.

Dr Singh, a Sikh, adds that it is going to be difficult for moderate Indonesians to counter-balance the voice of militant Islam. Often, the moderates are drowned out by the rhetoric from radicals.

He comes back to his meetings with Bashir.

"He told me his mission in life is to convert all non-Muslims, including me, into a Muslim."


I'm not worried about our captured Singapore terrorists. In the planned JI attacks in 2001 and 2002, the Singaporeans were just the foot soldiers. More worrying are the terrorists from overseas who buy Bashir's ready-made narratives and are prepared to be suicide bombers in attacks.

- Dr Bilveer Singh

Terror threats to Singapore persist
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2013

TERRORISM expert Bilveer Singh, a Singaporean, is an expert on terrorism in Indonesia. He has studied the terrorism scene there for more than 30 years. His fluency in Bahasa Indonesia helps him gain access to policy makers and security officials, as well as terrorist leaders. He believes that the events unfolding in Indonesia give cause for concern in Singapore because the Republic is still on the main hit list of terrorists.

Indonesian terrorist groups are still fixated on establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia through the use of violence. Instead of a large central militant organisation like Jemaah Islamiah (JI), several small, three- to five-men cells are being formed. These new groups carry out small-scale attacks, making it difficult for the Indonesian security forces to spot threats in advance.

Dr Singh adds that salafi jihadists, who want to return to the golden age of Islamic greatness, are telling their followers that it is all right for Muslims to kill Muslims.

"Terrorists have changed their stand in attacking Western targets, seen as "far away" enemies, to the "near enemy", meaning locals," he says.

Terrorists are going all out to kill Indonesian policemen who are labelled thaghut, or an evil enemy of Islam. Last year, he reveals, terrorists killed 28 policemen.

The security problem is going to get worse as more than 300 of the 830 jailed Indonesian terrorists are due to be released next year. Many are expected to join the ranks of newer jihadist groups planning terror attacks.

Dr Singh also adds a warning: "New faces of terrorism are going to appear. They will operate beneath the radar and strike when the security authorities least expect an attack."

Dousing the JI fire with water
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2014

THE month of December in 2001 is etched in the mind of Muslim cleric Mohamed Ali.

Filled with shock, dismay and pain, it was a period when Singapore learnt that Al-Qaeda's terror tentacles had gripped Singapore.

He had just started work as the manager of the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang Road after returning with an arts degree in Islamic jurisprudence from Egypt's Al-Azhar University.

One day in late December that year, his father, Ustaz Ali Mohamed, stumbled into the mosque, looking visibly distraught.

Ustaz Ali, a respected Muslim leader and chairman of the Khadijah Mosque, told his son what he had just learnt from the Internal Security Department (ISD): Between Dec 9 and 24, it had arrested 15 people under the Internal Security Act for their involvement in terrorism-related activities. They belonged to a militant group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), linked to Al-Qaeda.

The JI planned to bomb several targets in Singapore. Some among its members had trained in Al-Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

"My father kept repeating: 'This has happened to our country. We must do something.'

"It was a challenging time for us. We knew we had to be at the forefront. But we did not know what or how we were going to do the job," recalls the soft-spoken Dr Mohamed, 40.

What the father and son, and another Muslim cleric, Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan, knew then was not known to the public. It was much later on Jan 5, 2002, that the Government released details of the arrests to the public.

The ISD had consulted the two Muslim clerics first because Singapore leaders realised early the need for a different approach in tackling the terrorism problem.

The ISD could detain the men and prevent them from carrying out terrorist attacks. But its officers lacked the deep Islamic knowledge needed to debunk the deviant beliefs of the JI prisoners.

Security officers were stumped when the captives gave blase replies to the "why" question.

Why did they want to attack the water pipeline that links Singapore and Malaysia, or bomb the United States Embassy in the Republic?

Dr Mohamed says: "The men simply replied, "What's wrong with that? That's my jihad.'"

Extricating JI ideology

THE disquieting news galvanised Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi into action. Before they could rebut the JI ideology, they had to first prise it out of the detainees' minds.

The two men, joined by a few other clerics, took a year to construct this knowledge. Dr Mohamed joined this pioneer team.

Soon after they had compiled a blueprint of the JI ideology, they were ready to start rebutting JI's radical ideology.

Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi realised that a new organisation was needed for the work. In early 2003, the two men set up the Religious Rehabilitation Group, or RRG.

Made up of volunteer Muslim religious teachers, the RRG in January 2004 had 16 men to counsel the detainees, all of whom were male. Five female counsellors worked with the wives and children of the men behind bars.

Since then, the RRG has grown in size. Last year, it had 37 members. Twenty-four were men and nine were women. The remaining four men, who are not Muslim clerics, helped out with secretariat work.

For Dr Mohamed, destroying the JI clandestine network in Singapore proved to be an important turning point.

"My life changed after the JI arrests," he says.

Building capabilities

IN 2004, two years after the JI arrests, he left the Khadijah Mosque and joined the think-tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The institute, which set up the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in 2002, was looking for Islamic experts to help build its counter-terrorism capabilities.

Dr Mohamed fitted the bill. As an associate research fellow in the centre, he delved deeper into the JI ideology.

He did research on the JI's ideological concepts of Al-wala (allegiance to God) and Al-bara (disassociation from all that displeases God). These concepts were used in a way that encouraged the detainees to reject and show hatred towards non-believers.

He discovered that these concepts were found only in Salafism, an ultra-conservative Islamic movement which aims to bring Muslims back to the true faith practised by Prophet Muhammad. The JI used the concepts of Al-wala and Al-bara to promote violence.

Dr Mohamed's painstaking research in this field became material for his doctorate, which he obtained from the University of Exeter in Britain last year. His master's degree in International Relations from the Nanyang Technological University came earlier in 2005.

He is married to a scientist and has two children. A playful student in Bedok North Primary and Bartley Secondary, he did poorly in school. He became more studious only after his father enrolled him in Aljunied Madrasah, an Islamic school.

Art of listening

IN HIS work with the JI detainees, he picked up a new skill - how to listen. The initial meetings were frosty, with inmates chastising the Muslim leaders as "hypocrites working with the Government", says Dr Mohamed.

If the clerics had argued against the deviant belief system at this hostile stage, they would have failed, he says. "We had to first diagnose the problems and issues, just like a doctor. We did this by listening to them."

When tempers cooled, the RRG members began the counselling sessions, speaking in a slow and gentle manner. "We cannot play fire with fire. When there is a fire, we have to use water," he says.

The RRG's work in Singapore, done jointly with ISD officers, psychologists and security experts, has shown results. Of the more than 60 JI members detained since 2001, more than two-thirds have been released.

RRG representatives have also travelled to the Netherlands and Britain to talk about their work.

However, Dr Mohamed says the RRG's work is still not done as key JI leaders, such as Mas Selamat Kastari and Ibrahim Maidin, are still in jail and unrepentant.

He warns: "Many of the JI followers in Singapore were foot soldiers with a shallow knowledge of Islam. But the JI leaders have been deeply indoctrinated with the JI ideology.

"As long as this violent ideology is present, terrorists will pose a serious threat to Singapore."

Turning the corner
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 3 Jan 2014

HOW does one know if a jailed terrorist has been reformed?

Dr Mohamed Ali, who has counselled Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees in Singapore and overseas, says it is based on a gut feeling. "You begin to notice changes in the way he speaks, the way he looks at you when you speak. And when he starts to apologise, you know it's a breakthrough," he said.

The real test, he said, is to see what a detainee does after he is released. If he goes back to his old ways, he will be re-arrested.

A released detainee on a Restriction Order has to receive religious education from the Muslim clerics in the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Set up in 2003, the RRG has a team of Muslim religious teachers who counsel JI detainees.

The RRG members volunteer their time for counselling, lasting between one and two hours. Some volunteers hold weekly sessions while others meet detainees fortnightly.

According to a confession by an anonymous JI detainee in the 2013 book Winning Hearts And Minds, Promoting Harmony, the compassion shown by his Internal Security Department case officer, psychologists and RRG counsellors helped him shed his belief in the JI ideology.

He turned the corner during the trial of JI radical leader Abu Bakar Bashir in 2003 in Indonesia. Three JI detainees in Singapore testified, via video conferencing. "He remained silent without even giving the JI members testifying against him the courtesy of looking at them. It disappointed me as I know that he was familiar with the JI members.

"From that moment, I knew JI had lied to me," said the former detainee.

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