Friday 11 July 2014

Handful of S'poreans taking part in Syrian conflict

DPM Teo warns that some could return with terrorist skills, pose security threat
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2014

SEVERAL Singaporeans are among 12,000 foreigners taking part in the armed conflict in Syria, including a couple of parents who had taken along their children.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean disclosed this in Parliament yesterday, when he warned that such fighters could return proficient in terrorist skills and pose a security threat.

Among the "handful" of Singaporeans is said to be a woman who went with her foreign husband and their two teenage children. "The whole family is taking part in the conflict in various ways, either joining the terrorist groups to fight, or providing aid and support to the fighters," said Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.

Another man, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, 37, took with him his wife and three children between the ages of two and 11. He is a Singapore citizen who was an Indian national, the Home Affairs Ministry had said in March when announcing that he was under investigation. Several other Singaporeans had planned to join the conflict but were detained before they could set off, and some others are under investigation, said Mr Teo.

He is the third minister here, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who have spoken recently about the security threat posed by foreigners travelling to Syria to fight alongside rebels against the Syrian regime.

Their remarks come amid growing concern that foreign involvement could encourage the spread of violent extremism worldwide.

Mr Teo said social media had been a "game- changer" in the conflict, letting extremists market their cause and recruit fighters. "The presence of former foreign fighters in our region - whether they originate from South-east Asia or elsewhere - is a security threat to us. This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans."

He also noted that Singaporeans who have helped militant organisations had "demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause". They pose a national security threat, he added.

Drawing parallels with the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s which drew scores of foreign fighters, he said Al-Qaeda had spawned from there. In 2001, the terrorist organisation had planned to attack Singapore through its regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiah, after the Sept 11 attacks in the US. Foreign fighters returning from Syria may similarly "undertake terrorist activities in their home countries or overseas or... provide logistical and operational help to terrorists whom they befriended in Syria", he added.

Mr Teo urged Singaporeans to keep a lookout and alert the authorities if their family members and friends show signs of becoming radicalised. Those who want to help Syrian victims of the violence should check with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, that the humanitarian organisations they are donating to are bona fide and not fronts for extremists to raise funds, he added.

Another worry he highlighted is that if support for the fighting in Syria grows more widespread, it could cause "disquiet on the ground" in Singapore and breed mistrust between communities. He said the Government will work with religious leaders and community groups to counter the radical propaganda used by terrorists and will investigate those who intend to "engage in violence overseas".

Explaining Syrian conflict to Muslims in S'pore
Malay-Muslim leaders help spread message to guard against extremism
By Tham Yuen-C, The Straits Times, 11 Jul 2014

LEADERS of the Malay-Muslim community are taking steps to put across the right message about the Syrian crisis, which has drawn fighters from around the world to take up arms.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, has roped in mosques, religious teachers and madrasahs to explain the conflict to Muslims here and to put things in perspective.

The Government has also started working with the Malay media, like the Berita Harian newspaper, to put out explanatory articles, and is looking into cyberwellness programmes that will guard against young people being radicalised via the Internet.

Some Malay-Muslim groups have also sourced for bona fide channels for Singaporeans to provide humanitarian aid and donations to victims of the conflict.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said of the efforts: "It shows the community is taking ownership of the challenge and we want to do something about it."

Dr Yaacob was speaking to reporters after a closed-door dialogue with 60 community and religious leaders, at which he and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean spoke of the Syrian crisis.

The conflict has claimed 150,000 lives and drawn foreigners, including Singaporeans, to join what some see as a jihad. This has sparked fears of the spread of extremism around the world.

Yesterday, Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, reiterated concerns about the conflict's impact on security and social cohesion here, saying it has the potential to be worse than the Jemaah Islamiah threat. In 2001, Singapore arrested members of the terror group after the authorities discovered its plot to attack targets in the country, leading to worries it could affect community relations.

But radical ideology today, Mr Teo said, can spread more quickly than in 2001 because of the Internet and social media. The ease of air travel to Syria has also made it easier for people to join the fight.

And the scale of violence in the sectarian war in Syria and Iraq has "caused emotions to run high", drawing some to the fight.

Pergas president and co-chair of the Religious Rehabilitation Group, Ustaz Hasbi Hassan, said the rebels' calls for jihad "do not fulfil the teachings of Islam".

"This can lead to misunderstanding among Singaporean Muslims and also with non-Muslims. It can threaten the safety and harmony of our multi-racial and multi-religious society," he added.

Mr Teo stressed the actions of a small group should not be seen as representative of the Malay-Muslim community: "We need to understand that in Singapore all our communities believe in peace and harmony."

Dr Yaacob said the non-Muslim community can help spread the message that the conflict is not one Singaporeans should be involved in. Dr Wee Boon Hup, president of the National Council of Churches and bishop of the Methodist Church, said non-Muslims may be "concerned" about the developments, but noted "both the authorities and Muslim community leaders have a hold on the problem".

Resource centre set up to counter extremism
Islamic counselling group's centre also offers training, workshop facilities
By Amelia Teng and Maryam Mokhtar, The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2014

A GROUP formed by Islamic scholars and teachers to counsel radical jihadists yesterday launched a resource centre to share information on its work in countering religious extremism and terrorism threats in Singapore.

Set up by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), it is the first of its kind here and offers a reference centre for religious teachers, researchers and the community.

Based at Khadijah Mosque in Geylang, it has a gallery showcasing the group's work since it was formed in 2003, training and workshop facilities as well as counselling rooms.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was guest of honour at the centre's opening, said it is an "important step towards providing a persuasive countervailing voice against the extremist narratives" in the public domain.

It will help the group document and further disseminate its research in violent extremism and radicalisation, he added.

"It will upgrade the competencies and reinforce the knowledge of RRG members in the fields of terrorist rehabilitation and counter-ideology and provide a platform for RRG to collaborate with other academics and professionals around the world to build a global network of moderate Islamic scholars and practitioners."

Yesterday's event, which was also attended by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Communications and Information Minister Yaccob Ibrahim, coincided with the annual iftar, or breaking of fast, organised by the RRG and the Khadijah Mosque.

The centre was proposed last year during RRG's ninth annual retreat, at which the group realised there was no centralised place for academics and religious leaders to examine the threat of violent terrorism in an in-depth and rigorous manner, said RRG's co-chairman, Ustaz Ali Mohamed.

He told The Straits Times there was a need to build on the moderate network of Islamic scholars and practitioners here and in the region.

RRG has widened its outreach in the fight against terrorism. Last year, it organised its first global conference on terrorist rehabilitation and community resilience. It was attended by global counter- terrorism experts and community leaders here.

"Moderation impacts all aspects of our lives, whether in our understanding of our religion or in our interactions with family members or friends of different races and religions," Ustaz Ali said. "This is something we must continually work on to protect the peaceful and harmonious relations of our country."

France unveils law to stop volunteer fighters
It will be used against those who join radical groups, as well as "lone wolf" terrorists
By Jonathan Eyal Europe Correspondent In London, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2014

THE French government has introduced legislation that will ban its citizens from travelling to fight with terrorist groups in the Middle East and gives the government powers to block websites used to recruit militant fighters.

"The law is a response to the development of the threat, to the growing intensity of the Syrian crisis," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told lawmakers in Paris yesterday.

The French move comes amid growing worry in other European countries over the rising number of young Muslims being recruited by jihadist groups to fight in places like Iraq and Syria.

France alone is believed to have hundreds of its citizens fighting among jihadists in Syria.

In May, a Frenchman who had spent a year among militants in the Middle Eastern country was arrested on suspicion of shooting dead four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum.

In a recently released report, the Netherlands' security service said at least 130 Dutch citizens had joined jihadist groups in Syria and more were likely to join them.

A similar trend has been observed in Germany, where the government told lawmakers this week that "hundreds" of its citizens may have volunteered to fight in Middle East war zones.

Meanwhile, several Norwegian citizens have been identified by security officials as being leading members of ISIS, the terrorist group that now controls large chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The French measures introduced yesterday are designed to stem the flow of volunteer fighters. It follows legislation already in force in Britain, where the authorities can cancel the passports of those planning to travel for violent purposes.

But the French government has also introduced a new twist, applying the law against not only those who join radical groups but also those who operate as individuals, the so-called "lone wolf" terrorists. If these people do manage to make their way abroad, they will be the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Under the new measures, airlines will be banned from carrying those who are deemed terror suspects and must notify the French authorities the moment one of them makes a reservation.

The proposed Bill also sanctions investigators to use fake identities to enter militant websites. Internet service providers can also be ordered to block access to sites "that provoke acts of terrorism or praise them".

Until recently, Europe's terrorist threat seems to have been receding. Radical groups in Britain, France and the Netherlands were tracked and dismantled.

But now all European intelligence services are flagging a rapid rise in the number of new terrorist volunteers.

They no longer group themselves in networks; instead, as the recent report from Dutch intelligence officials points out, today's terrorists operate more in the manner of "a flock of birds" - there is no fixed leadership, they gather in disparate hot spots and then move on elsewhere.

This new generation of fighters seeks instant action.

"It has no regard for religious or other leaders in the Muslim community and it's a fast-growing, horizontal, decentralised movement," Mr Hans Wansink, the editor of Volkskrant, one of the Netherlands' top daily newspapers, wrote this week.

One of the key factors behind their growth is social media and Islamic websites known for their virulent anti-Western propaganda.

But the key driver may just be generational change: Most of the new recruits are teenagers, people who dismiss Al-Qaeda as something their fathers supported, and are attracted to new radical Islamic movements with snazzy titles such as Sharia4Belgium or Islam4UK, which use the language of instant messaging to assert their modern image.

The potential for further radicalisation remains huge in Europe. The Netherlands, with 900,000 Muslim citizens, has produced about 130 fresh recruits to terrorism. Neighbouring Belgium, with a Muslim population of only 630,000, is estimated to be responsible for over 300 volunteer fighters. Meanwhile, France, home to 4.7 million Muslims, has about 900 volunteers fighting in Syria alone.

The assumption among counter-terrorism analysts is that at least half of these volunteers would either be killed in the fighting or choose to stay in the Middle East. But there will be plenty of battle-hardened veterans who could return home and spawn a new wave of violence, very much like a previous generation of Afghanistan veterans did.

Malaysia's terrorist recruits
By Salim Osman, The Straits Times, 10 Jul 2014

MANY Malaysians were stunned to learn that one of their own killed himself in a suicide bombing in Iraq last month and that 15 others died fighting in Syria.

Worse was to come, with news that some Malaysians consider themselves "freelance" jihadists in their war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. They bear no allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or to any Islamist militant group in Malaysia. Their cause, they say, is simply to fight against "injustice to Muslims".

How did it come to this? Malaysia has long had a reputation as a moderate Muslim country, not a hotbed of young religious extremists who think nothing of bearing arms in a far-away conflict.

Unlike some jihadist fighters from the West, the Malaysians face none of that sense of alienation that comes from being a religious minority.

So what is it that propels young Malaysians to leave the comfort of home for Middle East battle zones?

There is no definitive answer but the problem has at least three root causes.

The first has to do with the radicalising influence of Wahhabism, the puritan brand of Sunni Islam that has been blamed for encouraging greater intolerance among Malaysian Muslims.

Dr Faizal Musa of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia believes that what we are seeing now is the result of the influence Wahhabism has gained over the years as its adherents gradually take control of religious affairs departments, mosques and other religious institutions and right-wing groups.

Writing in the Malay Mail Online news site recently, he said that many of these hardline preachers were first influenced by Wahhabi teachings taught by Saudi-funded charities and had gone on to propagate those views as they provided religious guidance to the masses.

Apart from demanding greater rigour in keeping to religious injunctions, Wahhabists also preach a message of internal purity of the Muslim community, one that excludes Shi'ites.

"The Wahhabist movement has been exporting hatred towards Shi'ism," wrote Dr Faizal in the commentary on Theofascism And The Myths Of Moderate Malaysia.

The anti-Shi'ite teachings are reinforced by the war waging in Iraq and Syria, which pits Sunni militants against Syria's President Assad and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Iraqi leader is a Shi'ite and Mr Assad is an Alawite, a Shi'ite offshoot.

Other analysts point to a second root cause: a growing religiosity among young Malays who aspire to become better Muslims. In their zeal to do good deeds in the name of Islam, they are drawn to its call to struggle against injustice.

And the vivid videos available on social media on the plight of Muslims in war-torn Syria find ready volunteers among them.

Former Perlis Mufti and now university academic, Dr Asri Zainal Abidin, said that he had been approached "many times" by young Malays expressing an interest in taking part in the Syrian conflict.

"There is unhappiness over what is happening, a sense of injustice... many of these youths have good intentions because they see Muslims in Syria being bombed and killed so they feel that they want to help out whatever way they can," he told the Malay Mail Online last month.

Dr Asri said he would attempt to dissuade these misguided young men but feared they were prime targets for jihadi recruiters.

For some, no active recruitment is required. In self-radicalisation, the glamorisation of war, as portrayed in "selfies" posted by jihadists posing with their weapons, combined with an inchoate need to fight for justice and fulfil a religious duty can be just enough to push one over the edge.

A third factor behind the growing number of young Malaysian men joining the fight in the Levant is the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; these help militant groups to spread their message and to win recruits.

It is telling that while there was international outrage over the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the Bosnian war in the mid-90s, there was none of the large-scale surge of foreign fighters as is happening now in Syria and Iraq.

YouTube came into existence 10 years after the Bosnian conflict ended. It has since allowed ISIS to post its triumphant war videos and for assorted extremist Sunni clerics to justify war on Shi'ites based on their own interpretation of the Apocalypse. Al-Qaeda's Anwar al-Awlaki is dead but the American-born militant still sings praises of jihad in videos on YouTube to recruit fighters.

What's to be done to counter their messages?

Sadly, the response so far from Malaysian Islamic scholars has been largely confined to relatively tame expressions of disapproval about misguided thinking and the lack of proper religious education.

Far punchier were recent cutting comments by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on his blog: "If the opinion revolves around killing others and oneself to go to heaven, perhaps more Malays will wrap themselves in bombs and detonate them in order to kill other Muslims who are not known and are not hostile to them."

Islamic scholars need to take a leaf from Tun Dr Mahathir's book, at least in terms of making an attention-grabbing statement.

Polite entreaties to pay closer attention to what is in the holy book will cut no ice with confused young men who get bombarded with images of strutting jihadists brandishing firearms and calling on others to join them in the name of religion. Some plain speaking is needed, aided by equally vivid video images of destroyed neighbourhoods, shell-shocked refugees, orphaned children and grieving parents of bombing victims.

The message to be driven home is that being a terrorist fighter is not "cool" and it is naive to think that jihad in its proper sense of a religious struggle amounts to simply shooting off some bullets and even blowing up oneself.

More needs to be done to point to the consequences of their actions.

It may not work with the hardcore militants but just might be enough to save those who want to do right but fail to see the dangerous path on which they are about to embark.

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