Thursday 26 December 2013

Staying one step ahead of terrorists

By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2013

IF THE 2001 plot by Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorists to attack Singapore had succeeded, the carnage could have been five times that of the horrendous Bali nightclub bomb blast a year later.

Painting this chilling scenario, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna says that over 1,000 people in Singapore might have been killed because of the sheer quantity of the explosives.

The terrorists planned to use six trucks, each loaded with three tonnes of ammonium nitrate, and simultaneously ram them into different targets in Singapore, according to a 2003 Singapore Government White Paper on the JI arrests and the threat of terrorism.

In comparison, the terrorists who killed 202 civilians in Bali used a single Mitsubishi van packed with just over one tonne of potassium chlorate.

Potassium chlorate burns faster and is easier to turn into an explosive than ammonium nitrate.

Since the first wave of arrests of JI militants in Singapore in 2001, more than 60 men have been jailed for their involvement in planning terror attacks against Singapore. Of these, more than two-thirds have been released under orders restricting their movements.

The swift response of the Singapore authorities in using the country's tough anti-terrorism laws is one reason there has been no resurgence of the JI network in Singapore, says Dr Gunaratna, who has studied global terrorism threats for more than 25 years.

Other measures include the rehabilitation of JI detainees by Muslim clerics, and the forging of strong partnerships between the Government and the community.

But Singapore cannot afford to become complacent. Even with the best security measures in place, the United States and Britain have suffered terrorist attacks. Singapore's security system must be dynamic, retaining an element of unpredictability. "Terrorists are like pickpockets, always looking for gaps and loopholes in security systems to exploit," says Dr Gunaratna.

Security vacuums

TERRORISTS are attempting to exploit weaknesses in security measures in many countries. In 2011, Malaysia repealed its Internal Security Act, a strict security law that let the government detain people without trial. The aim was to encourage the development of a modern and functioning democracy. But the authorities quickly realised that without this law, Malaysia's security was endangered.

To fill the vacuum, the Malaysian government last year introduced the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or Sosma.

But, the law has a downside. Malaysian terrorists who mount an attack outside the country cannot be prosecuted under the new legislation.

Dr Gunaratna cites the example of Yazid Sufaat, the alleged leader of Al-Qaeda in Malaysia. He could not be prosecuted for sending two operatives to fight in Syria with Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda-associated group.

Over in Indonesia, Densus 88, the country's elite anti-terrorism unit, has an effective strategy to catch, kill or otherwise disrupt terrorists and their activities. But Dr Gunaratna believes that Indonesia must also implement laws to ban terrorist groups and dismantle its infrastructure.

Unrepentant terrorists in jail must also be kept in isolation. This is currently not the case with Indonesian radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Though locked up in a high-security prison in Nusakambangan in Indonesia, he can make phone calls, receive members of terrorist organisations and provide directions to his supporters. Dr Gunaratna also believes that jailed terrorists must be made to work. Each prisoner, he notes, costs countries around the world, about US$100 (S$126) a day.

Hot lead

HOLDING the title of Professor of Security Studies, the security expert heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research here. It was set up in 2002. Part of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), the centre generates data on the changing security landscape. It also advises security agencies on ways of crafting appropriate security responses.

Dr Gunaratna, 52, who obtained his PhD from St Andrews University, Scotland, became a much-sought-after expert after the 9/11 attacks. He also led a specialist team that built the United Nations database on Al-Qaeda.

The author and editor of 18 books on terrorism, he is a member of Israel's international advisory board for the International Institute of Counter-Terrorism.

The next phase in counter-terrorism work, says Dr Gunaratna, is to strengthen community engagement. "The public are the eyes and the ears of the government", he argues, noting that more than 80 per cent of counter-terrorism work is achieved through such efforts.

It was a hot lead from a Singaporean Muslim on the JI operations here in 2001 that alerted the Singapore authorities to terrorist plans. The informant revealed that, after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the US, Mohammad Aslam Yar Ali Khan, a Singaporean Muslim, boasted of his links with Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Aslam also reportedly said he had been to battle in Afghanistan.

This tip-off started an intensive investigation by the Internal Security Department that led the authorities to uncover the JI clandestine network in Singapore.

Capacity builders

TO FURTHER reduce terrorist threats, Dr Gunaratna's terrorism research centre in RSIS is also helping security agencies in Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan to build rehabilitation capabilities.

More significantly, the centre is mentoring younger officers to be "capacity builders and thought leaders". This year, three counter-terrorism officers received their PhDs while on attachment to RSIS.

One of them is the current Papua police chief Tito Karnavian. He was the former commander of Indonesia's Densus 88. The others are Muslim clerics in RSIS, Dr Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Dr Mohamed Ali.

Having interviewed dozens of terrorists detained in the US, Iraq and Asia, Dr Gunaratna says he understands the terrorist way of thinking.

"On the surface, they look just like us, normal. But it is very difficult to read their minds. They are very determined to use violence to achieve their political goals," he adds.

And, he warns, "they will give their lives for their cause".


Terrorists are like pickpockets, always looking for gaps and loopholes in security systems to exploit.

- Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna


The public are the eyes and the ears of the government.

- Dr Gunaratna, on the need to strengthen community engagement to bolster counter-terrorism work

Like father, like son
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 19 Dec 2013

SECURITY expert Rohan Gunaratna firmly believes that cutting off the "blood" supply to a terrorist network is critical if the terror threat is to be crippled.

Security agencies can do this by rehabilitating not just the jailed terrorist but his family members, as well, he says.

Fresh blood is pumped into the veins of terror groups when angry family members of detainees become terrorists themselves and carry on the work of those jailed.

One example is the son of Mas Selamat Kastari, who was arrested in Indonesia in October. Muhammad Hanif, 24, was deported to Singapore the following month. He is being investigated for allegedly planning terrorist acts in Singapore.

His father, a key Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader now jailed in Singapore, had once planned to hijack a plane from Bangkok and crash it into Changi Airport. "Sometimes the younger family members of jailed terrorists can be even more dangerous than their elders," he says.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in an interview two years ago that second-generation extremists were trying to rebuild the disrupted terrorist network in Singapore.

"Some of them are sons of hardcore first-generation JI members, and they are trying to establish links back in Singapore," he added.

One key figure being watched is Abdul Rohim Bashir, the son of Abu Bakar Bashir, JI's jailed Indonesian spiritual leader.

Dr Gunaratna says Abdul Rohim, dubbed the crown prince of JI, runs Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), the latest incarnation of JI.

JAT operates openly in Jakarta, even though it has been classified as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, he says.


No comments:

Post a Comment