Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Singapore 'not immune' from online extremism

But its experience in tackling threats can help keep danger at bay: Experts
By Maryam Mokhtar And Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

RELIGIOUS leaders and academics have cautioned that Singapore is not immune from extremists using the Internet to influence and recruit foreign fighters to join conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

But they said Singapore's experiences in tackling the threat of radicalisation and extremist ideologies should help stave off the danger of some Muslims in Singapore being influenced to join the causes in the Middle East.

Research fellow Fanar Haddad, at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, said: "It is worrying that sectarian entrenchment and sectarian hate emanating from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have had an echo as far away as South-east Asia, though thankfully not in Singapore."

Dr Haddad also said it was important to note that differences in beliefs are not what fuelled the tensions in Iraq. "The real drivers of sectarian tensions in Iraq are issues of power, politics and representation," he pointed out.

The conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East have reportedly attracted several thousands of foreigners to join the fighting, giving rise to concerns that it could impact nations in this part of the world.

In Iraq, an extremist Sunni group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is trying to carve out a purist Islamic state on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

When asked about the situation, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last Friday that Singapore was carefully watching it.

"You may think it's a long way away, but things in the Middle East have a way of sending out long-distance vibrations and reverberations which can affect us in South-east Asia," he added.

With reports of Malaysians and Indonesians joining the fight in Syria, PM Lee cautioned that there was a chance Singaporeans might also be led astray.

He said the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, has issued statements to guide Muslims on the right path.

Mufti Fatris Bakaram has also stressed the importance of education in preventing religious misinterpretation. In an April interview, he said it was crucial for Singapore Muslims to be able to discern what is being said online about the conflicts.

Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Ministry is investigating a 37- year-old Singaporean, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, for allegedly going to Syria to take part in armed violence there. A former Indian national, he became a Singapore citizen in 2008.

Self-radicalisation, however, is a real possibility, said Dr Haddad.

"The twisted jihadi ideology has proven attractive to young Muslims from just about every walk of life and every part of the world, so there are no hard and fast rules about who is liable to become radicalised and who is not."

Still, Singapore's economic situation, social cohesion and levels of tolerance help reduce the risk of violent extremism, he added.

Agreeing with the Mufti, Dr Mohamed Ali, secretary of the Religious Rehabilitation Group which counsels extremists, said the best way to prevent self-radicalisation is through education.

The group's work has given the community valuable experience in dealing with extremist ideology, he said.

The Singapore Muslim community understands the threat well, "but we must to continue to prevent the occurrence of religious misinterpretation and self-radicalisation", added Dr Mohamed, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Worries that the political strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims could raise tensions among Muslim groups in Singapore are also unwarranted, the experts said.

Most of Singapore's 700,000 or so Muslims are Sunni. About 5,000 are Shia Muslims.

Ba'alwi Mosque's Imam Habib Hassan, a Sunni, said the two groups have prayed, lived and inter-married without fuss or fanfare in Singapore for more than 100 years, he said. "We identify ourselves as one," he added.

Agreeing, Ustaz Mohammad Rosli Hassan, president of Shia organisation Jaafari Muslim Association Singapore, said "people living here are more educated, peaceful, harmonious and civilised".

More importantly, he added, the Government is secular and "we trust it is capable of tackling any extremist group or individual".

Jihadists in Iraq declare new 'Islamic caliphate'
Islamic State also declares that its chief is leader of world's Muslims
The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

BAGHDAD - Ruthless jihadists spearheading a Sunni militant offensive in Iraq have declared an "Islamic caliphate" and ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief, in a spectacular bid to extend their authority.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria renamed itself simply as the Islamic State (IS) and declared its shadowy frontman the leader of the world's Muslims, in a clear challenge to Al-Qaeda for control of the global jihadist movement.

The declaration on Sunday coincided with the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

The IS said the "caliphate" - an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire - now extends from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala province in eastern Iraq, which have come under its control.

In an audio recording distributed online, the group declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi "the caliph" and "leader for Muslims everywhere".

Henceforth, it said, he is to be known as "Caliph Ibrahim" - a reference to his real name.

Though the move may not have an immediate significant impact on the ground, it is an indicator of the group's confidence and marks a move against Al-Qaeda, from which it broke away, in particular, analysts say.

The caliphate is "the biggest development in international jihad since Sept 11", said Mr Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution in Doha, referring to the Al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in 2001.

"It could mark the birth of a new era of transnational jihadism... and that poses a real danger to Al-Qaeda and its leadership," he said, adding that IS, with members in many countries, is the richest jihadist group.

The IS has drawn thousands of foreign fighters, attracted by a combination of Baghdadi's own appeal, IS' efforts to establish what it believes is an ideal Islamic state, and the group's sophisticated propaganda apparatus, which publishes magazines and videos in English and a host of European languages. The group is known for its brutality, summarily executing its opponents and this week, crucifying eight rival rebel fighters in Syria, leaving their bodies in a town square in Aleppo as a warning to others.

The IS is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar al-Assad inside Syria.

The term "caliph" indicates a successor to Prophet Muhammad, with temporal authority over all Muslims. Rival claims to the succession lie at the root of the 7th-century schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Following Turkey's defeat in World War I and the carving up of its Middle East empire by Britain and France, new Turkish nationalist rulers in 1924 formally abolished the caliphate that Ottoman sultans had held for nearly five centuries.

For many militant Islamists, who see a decline in religious observance and divisions among Muslims as causing many problems, restoring the caliphate has been an important goal.

On Sunday, IS fighters held a parade in Syria's northern Raqa province to celebrate the setting up of the caliphate and photos posted online showed people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, said the Site monitoring service, which tracks militant websites.


Four new terrorist groups 'operating in Malaysia now'
Their aim is to create 'super Islamic caliphate' in region, say authorities
The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian security authorities have identified four new terror groups bent on creating a "super" Islamic caliphate to rule parts of South-east Asia, including secular Singapore.

The four organisations, identified only by their acronyms BKAW, BAJ, Dimzia and ADI, are believed to be operating from states such as Selangor and Perak, the New Straits Times (NST) reported yesterday.

Intelligence sources cited by the NST said the groups are permutations of earlier terror cells such as Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia, and are responsible for sending a number of Malaysians to join jihadist groups in Syria after some basic training in southern Thailand and with the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf group.

The four outfits currently operate independently of one another but sources said they subscribe to the same "salafi" Jihadi ideology, similar to extremist groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has been gaining swathes of territory in northern and western Iraq in its quest to set up a mediaeval-style Islamic caliphate.

The ambitious Islamic state that the four Malaysian groups envision is called the Daulah Islamiah Nusantara and covers Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, southern Thailand and southern Philippines.

At the main Abu Sayyaf training facility, Camp Hudaibiyah, recruits from these groups learn about urban warfare and pick up skills in making explosive devices, among other things.

According to sources, leaders and senior members of these groups have strong links with similar groups that are active in areas such as southern Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, as well as the Abu Sayyaf and ISIS.

The authorities fear these groups may eventually cooperate to achieve their dream state.

"We are also looking at Syria and Iraq as a petri dish for local militants to establish international contacts and propagate their goals, not only in their respective countries but in the region as a whole," said a high-ranking intelligence officer, according to the NST.

"Those countries (Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) are real battlegrounds, unlike the basic training they went for in the southern Philippines or in other training camps," the officer added.

The new Malaysian cells are financially sustained by strong local backers, including businessmen and professionals.

The BKAW was reportedly recruiting members through Facebook and rallies. One of its members is said to be ISIS-linked Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, a 26-year-old factory worker who killed 25 soldiers in a suicide attack in Iraq on May 26.

The Dimzia, said to have been established earlier this year, is a splinter group of the BAJ. The NST's sources said that while the leader of Dimzia has been taken by the authorities, its members have kept the group active.

The ADI may be barely a year old, but it is said to have strong links with foreign militant groups, including Indonesia's Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, checkpoints placed strategically across Metro Manila has gone up from nearly 40 checkpoints to over 100 for fear of a spillover of a security threat in southern island Mindanao's Davao City that placed security officials on full alert last weekend, the GMA News reported.

Philippine Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said yesterday that the threat in Mindanao is a plot hatched by one or two extremists to bomb a crowded target.

"It's a bomb, terrorism. This is not a conventional threat posed by several men in uniforms, firing with their long firearms," Mr Roxas said in a hastily called news briefing.

Radicalism abhors a vacuum
By Farish A. Noor, Published The Straits Times 16 Jul 2014

WITH the diminishing influence of Al-Qaeda, it now appears that a new, even more violent and radical group has emerged to plug the gap: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - which now calls itself the Islamic State - under the leadership of the self-proclaimed new "caliph" of the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Its origins date back to Musab al-Zarqawi's Jama'at al-Tauhid wa'l-Jihad (Community of Monotheists and Jihad) in early 2004, but it has now emerged as the strongest, and certainly the best known, among the radical militant groups in the Middle East.

Over the past few weeks, observers have reacted with consternation at the rate of advance of the group, as ISIS forces moved deep into the heart of Iraq and defeated the troops of the Iraqi army.There have been reports of Iraqi troops abandoning their posts and surrendering, only to be summarily slaughtered by ISIS militants who videotaped the executions and then posted them on the Internet for all to see.

Putting aside questions of military strategy, we need to ask the following questions: How and why do such groups choose to broadcast their acts of slaughter to the world in such a brazen manner? What could be the intention of publicly demonstrating their capacity and willingness to engage in violence, including the killing of unarmed prisoners? What is being communicated by these actions, and what is the group trying to do?

Predictable tactics

THE ISIS has certainly shocked its adversaries. But sadly, its adroit use of violent imagery is neither new nor unique. For analysts who work in the domain of political religion and religio-political militancy, such tactics seem ordinary by most standards, even predictable.

As a relatively new and unknown entity on the geopolitical map, the ISIS needs to announce its arrival in no uncertain terms.

The calculations are political rather than religious. Any scholar of Islamic theology would note that the killing of unarmed prisoners is wrong and unacceptable in Islam. But such summary executions have been performed by many other militant groups apart from the ISIS in the past, despite their claims to holiness.

In South-east Asia, we have witnessed similar deeds by radical separatist groups in southern Thailand, southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia. And the catalogue of gruesome deeds does not stop at public executions, with unarmed victims being shot in the back. It also includes public hangings, torture, recorded beheadings and the like.

That groups like ISIS and their counterparts in other parts of the world choose to broadcast these acts via television or the Internet shows they are well aware of the power of the modern media.

These groups are also raising the stakes by exceeding the limits of violence set by their predecessors. Scaring their opponents witless by displaying a relish for violence also sends the message that it is more hardline, hardcore and determined compared with Al-Qaeda. The ISIS regards the latter as having "sold out" for entering into negotiations with states and for settling down to the more mundane business of local governance.

Again, this shift towards a more violent register is neither new nor unique to the ISIS-Al-Qaeda dynamic. When the Moro National Liberation Front entered into negotiations for peace and settlement of the conflict in southern Philippines, it was later overtaken by other groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and later by the more uncompromising Abu Sayyaf. The same dynamics were in evidence in southern Thailand and also Pakistan.

Radicalism abhors a vacuum. Once radical groups begin to moderate - as they have to do if they are to secure a peaceful settlement and begin to govern the areas they claim - they will be superseded by other groups that are bent on maintaining a state of perpetual chaos.

Here is the trap that lies in store for all those movements - religiously inspired or secular in orientation - that wish to take the path of militant radical politics to achieve their goals. The day will come when they will eventually have to adjust to the realities of delivering more than empty slogans and sweet rhetoric, and show that they can deliver services and governance instead.

Many of these groups emerged with the breakdown of the state and the weakening of governmental institutions. However, as their ambitions are fundamentally political, they will eventually be forced to deal with real demands and expectations that go beyond pious homilies. But by the time they are ready to make the transition from radical militancy to mundane government, the rule of the gun and the reign of violence they themselves have initiated make such administration almost impossible.

No endgame

IN THE weeks and months to come, the battle against the ISIS is bound to intensify further until some semblance of order and normality can be restored. It is too early to tell if the ISIS can be totally eliminated, or even discredited, by its opponents. But it is also likely that it will undergo the same process of transformation that has been experienced by Al-Qaeda and other groups.

If the ISIS consolidates its hold on a part of the region, it will eventually have to put in place some form of local government. It may also have to enter into negotiations with other states and non-state bodies. At that point, as it settles down to the real task of humdrum management, other radical groups may well emerge.

Should this come to pass, it will be another sad episode in the long and painful litany of radical groups that have risen and fallen by the sword or the gun.

It will also prove two things: First, that despite their liberal use of religious vocabulary and symbols, these groups are fundamentally modern political anti-state movements that are driven by the desire for political gain and state capture. Second, that such groups can never truly succeed because they have created the conditions where state capture becomes impossible.

To adapt an old saying: "One can gain a throne with automatic rifles, but one can never sit on it."

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.


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