Friday 18 March 2016

4 Singaporeans arrested under ISA for links to armed conflicts abroad (2016)

One sought to fight for Kurds against ISIS, while three were involved in Yemen conflict
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2016

Four Singaporeans have been arrested under the Internal Security Act for engaging or intending to take part in violence abroad.

But in a departure from the script of previous terror-related arrests, none of the four had planned to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and one had actually hoped to fight against it.

Wang Yuandongyi, 23, was detained for his efforts to join a Kurdish militia that is battling ISIS.

The other three were involved in Yemen's armed sectarian conflict.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said Mohammad Razif Yahya, 27, and Amiruddin Sawir, 53, were detained in August last year for voluntarily fighting in Yemen while at a religious institution there.

Mohamed Mohideen Mohamed Jais, 25, had done armed sentry duties in Yemen and was placed under a Restriction Order (RO) this month, which limits his activities.

Wang's case, meanwhile, is the first known one of its kind. He left Singapore in January for a third country, and intended to make his way to Turkey and Syria to join a Kurdish militia fighting ISIS.

Wang is a naturalised Singaporean of China origin. He came here as a child and went to school here. He also completed national service and became a citizen in 2014.

He took along Singapore Armed Forces-issued military gear, such as his uniform and boots, which he planned to use on the battlefield.

The ministry said yesterday that Wang began to empathise with the plight of the Kurds in Syria and started detesting ISIS late last year.

He was also looking to escape personal setbacks such as his debt from a failed business venture.

Last December, he got in touch with a Kurdish militia group online and discussed possible travel routes.

Wang's plans were thwarted when someone reported him to the authorities. At Singapore's request, he was located by the third country's officials and sent back. He was placed on an RO this month.

"The Government takes a stern view against anyone who supports, promotes, undertakes or makes preparations to undertake armed violence, regardless of how they rationalise such violence ideologically, or where the violence takes place," said the ministry.

It noted that even though Wang was not driven by ideology, the fact remains that he intended to engage in an armed conflict overseas.

"Geography does not mask the fact that such individuals would have demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support the use of violence," the ministry added.

"Their involvement in overseas conflicts can also jeopardise Singapore's national interests."

The ministry noted that Razif had begun studying at a religious institution in Yemen in January 2010, and Amiruddin went there in July 2013.

The two signed up for armed sentry duties against possible attacks by Houthi rebels, who are Shi'ites.

Razif went through sniper training, and was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and a Dragunov sniper rifle. Amiruddin was equipped with an AK-47 rifle. Both of them were involved in fighting the Houthis.

"They demonstrated a readiness to use violence to pursue their religious cause. As such, they are assessed to pose a security threat to Singapore," the ministry added.

As for Mohideen, he did armed sentry duties while studying in Yemen from 2009 to early 2011.

While he did not use his arms, he "understood that he had to return fire using the AK-47 assigned to him, with the aim to kill if there was an incursion by the Houthis".

While some might question the need to stop people who take up arms against rebels and ISIS, security analyst Susan Sim said the Government's stand is clear.

"You cannot take up arms on behalf of any group, for any cause," she said. "Once a person gets used to the idea of killing to achieve objectives he has decided for himself, what's to stop him from doing the same thing in Singapore?"

ISA arrest: Clear stance on taking up armed causes, say experts
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2016

The arrest of a Singaporean travelling overseas to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) shows the Government's unambiguous stance against its citizens engaging in armed conflicts, security experts said yesterday.

Ms Susan Sim, vice-president for Asia at New York-based The Soufan Group, a strategic security consultancy, said: "If you are not a soldier obeying lawful orders, then the Singapore Government's stance is clear - you cannot take up arms on behalf of any group, for any cause.

"If an exception is made for any one cause, then where does it stop? Who is to say one cause is more righteous than another?"

The Ministry of Home Affairs announced yesterday that Wang Yuandongyi, 23, was arrested under the Internal Security Act and placed on a Restriction Order, which limits his movements and activities.

He had left Singapore in January and was on his way to Turkey and Syria to join a Kurdish militia that was fighting ISIS.

He had travelled to a third country, which the ministry did not name. On the request of the Singapore Government, he was located by that country's officials and sent back here.

Analysts noted that although Wang seemed to have no ethnic or religious links to the Kurds, there could have been numerous other reasons for him to take up their cause. "There may be those who believe that they can help a community by fighting on its behalf. They may believe they are being altruistic," said Ms Sim.

Investigations showed that Wang was looking to escape personal setbacks such as his debts from a failed business venture.

The bid to join the Kurds could have been his way of avoiding his financial issues, said senior analyst Jasminder Singh of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

"He does not fit the profile of a mercenary. This could be just a form of adventure," he added.

Had Wang succeeded, his actions could have had negative repercussions on Singapore, analysts said.

For instance, Wang could have been conditioned to use violence here to solve his problems.

"There is nothing romantic about volunteering for someone else's war. Once a person gets used to the idea of killing to achieve his objectives - the objectives he has decided for himself - what's to stop him from doing the same thing in Singapore?" said Ms Sim.

Mr Singh noted that Wang had taken his Singapore Armed Forces uniform and boots with him. This could have conveyed the wrong impression that the Singapore military had been sent to the Middle East, causing ISIS to make Singapore a target. "It would have been the perfect excuse for ISIS to launch an attack here or go after our facilities overseas such as our embassies," he said.

Wang is not alone in wanting to take on ISIS in the Middle East, with reports of scores of Americans and Europeans - some of them military veterans - taking up arms against the terrorist group.

The Ministry of Home Affairs said Wang will undergo psychological counselling to steer him away from resorting to violence. He will also be closely monitored by the authorities.


The arrests show that there are institutions abroad that may masquerade as centres of Islamic learning, but which are actually involved in armed conflict and militant activities, or propagate extremist ideologies. These foreign schools prey on the vulnerable, especially those who approach them with the intent of deepening their religious belief.



We strongly urge Muslims in Singapore who wish to study Islam to approach only recognised religious teachers for guidance and advice. For those who wish to study in foreign institutions, please consult Muis and we will provide guidance and the necessary support on the appropriate overseas institutions for Islamic studies. We would also like to encourage parents and family members to play a more active role in guiding their loved ones to proper sources of Islamic learning.

- DR NAZIRUDIN MOHD NASIR, deputy director, Office of the Mufti, Muis.

Muslims urged to pick religious schools overseas with care
Militant institutions passing themselves off as centres of Islamic learning: Muis
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 17 Mar 2016

Mohammad Razif Yahya began studying at a religious school in Yemen six years ago, but as the security situation deteriorated, he volunteered to do armed sentry duties.

He also signed up for sniper training, which he put to use fighting the Houthis, a Shi'ite rebel group.

Razif, 27, and fellow student Amiruddin Sawir, 53, who was also involved in a firefight, were "prepared to kill and be killed as 'martyrs' in sectarian conflict", the Home Affairs Ministry said in announcing their detention.

News of their cases, as well as that of Mohamed Mohideen Mohamed Jais, 25, was greeted with dismay by Muslim community leaders yesterday.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said the arrests show that "there are institutions abroad that may masquerade as centres of Islamic learning, but which are actually involved in armed conflict and militant activities".

The Straits Times understands that Razif, Amiruddin and Mohideen all studied at Dar al-Hadith in Dammaj, Yemen. The school had a sizeable number of foreign students, many of whom were displaced by sectarian conflict.

Razif and Amiruddin returned home separately between April and June last year, and were arrested under the Internal Security Act in July. They were each issued a two-year order of detention in August.

Ustaz Muhammad Zahid Mohd Zin, vice-president of Islamic scholars and religious teachers association Pergas, said Yemen was one of the more popular destinations for Muslims who want to learn more about their religion abroad, alongside Egypt and Jordan.

While many enrol in recognised institutions, the three who fell foul of the law enrolled in a school that subscribed to a more puritanical interpretation of Islam, he said.

"They were not enrolled in the two institutions we have accredited and work with in Yemen," he added.

Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, deputy director at the Office of the Mufti, urged Muslims in Singapore who wish to study Islam to approach only recognised teachers.

"For those who wish to study in foreign institutions, please consult Muis and we will provide guidance and the necessary support on the appropriate overseas institutions for Islamic studies," he said.

He also encouraged parents and family members to play a more active role in guiding loved ones to proper sources of Islamic learning.

"As a community, we must continue to be vigilant against extremist elements in our society," he said.

Ustaz Zahid noted that Pergas organises an annual voluntary pre-departure programme for madrasah graduates about to pursue higher Islamic education overseas.

The programme covers topics such as the security situation in the Middle East and steering clear of political activity and armed conflict.

"We know there are a few who go overseas by themselves to learn, but we can't know their exact number because they are not obliged to register with us," he said.

Pergas is now looking at making the programme compulsory, and will also urge students to keep a lookout for private Singaporean students so it can keep track of them.

Mr Abdul Halim Kader, president of community group Taman Bacaan, said it may be timely for the community to consider distance learning tie-ups with reputable Middle East institutions so students can obtain certification from such schools while studying here.

"Two decades ago, there was no problem sending your children to an Islamic university in the Middle East because it was peaceful, but the situation is very different today," he said. "Perhaps Muis should consider working with foreign universities to bring them here."

The Religious Rehabilitation Group urged people to call its helpline on 1800-774-7747 if they have questions about radicalisation.

The curious case of Wang Yuandongyi
By Shashi Jayakumar, Published The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2016

The arrest last month of a Singapore citizen, Wang Yuandongyi, for attempting to travel to Syria to fight with a Kurdish militia against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises questions about the psychological processes at play with individuals attempting to fight with anti-ISIS groups, as well as the options available to the authorities in dealing with such cases.

Should these individuals be treated in the same manner as those attempting to fight for ISIS?

The balance of probability is that Wang was on his way to northern Syria to fight with the YPG (People's Protection Units), the major Kurdish opposition to ISIS in that region.

Analysis from the Centre of Excellence for National Security, which I head, of the background, motivations and nationalities of over 200 "lone wolves" (out of an estimated total number of 400 to 500 actually on the ground) who have made the journey to fight ISIS suggests that about half fight with the YPG. A smaller number fight with the Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and an even smaller number have joined Assyrian Christian militia in Syria. At least 12 individuals from these groups have been killed.

Americans, especially military veterans, make up about 50 per cent of the total number of anti-ISIS fighters. Apart from a small number of fighters (particularly from Europe) who are second- generation members of the Kurdish diaspora, very few have a direct connection with the conflict.

A recurring theme with these fighters, as gleaned from their social media posts, is giving meaningful help to peoples who are oppressed, and not wanting to sit by while people suffer under the ISIS yoke.

A significant proportion of anti-ISIS fighters combine these pull factors with "push" factors. These include unsettled domestic circumstances, or a sense of "drift" or dislocation from the orthodox dictates of society.

Should there be commonality in treatment of would-be fighters and returning fighters on both sides?

Some countries such as the United States strongly discourage its citizens from fighting against ISIS, but have not criminalised such actions, choosing in effect to turn a blind eye.

In Australia, there is specific legislation introduced in 2014 that criminalises fighting on any side of the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

In the West, where these issues have more public traction, supporters and family members of anti-ISIS fighters (in countries ranging from Britain to Australia) have initiated petitions calling on their governments to reconsider their treatment of those who have returned home after fighting ISIS, observing that there is no moral equivalence between fighting for and against ISIS, and that the two should be considered quite separately.

In Singapore, the Government has made it clear in connection with Wang that it takes a stern view against anyone who undertakes or makes preparations to undertake armed violence, regardless of how they rationalise violence or where the violence in question takes place.

But should the authorities go further and make this legally explicit, banning any Singaporean (or even foreigners based here) from fighting abroad in any armed conflict, regardless of which side he or she supports?

There may be long-term advantages to this approach. In some cases, issues of right and wrong might be clear - at least in the minds of some would-be fighters. But many other situations like insurgency, civil war and rebellion may be less clear-cut. The authorities would also presumably not want a situation where Singaporeans find themselves face to face against each other in a foreign battleground.

This scenario (which is one the United States and several European nations are already confronting in Syria and Iraq) could lead to blow-back and tensions between groups within Singapore.

The authorities should also consider what to do with individuals considering going to help the Kurds in auxiliary or humanitarian roles that do not involve fighting but which might conceivably draw such individuals into violence downstream. Should this be criminalised too? There are some provisions in the law (the Internal Security Act) which are relevant to the possibilities above, but these may need updating.


Anti-ISIS lone wolves have different motivations for taking up their cause. Some cite an altruistic need to help the Kurds, but it is also clear that some seek the same form of adventure that impelled ISIS fighters. And similar to ISIS foreign fighters, many seek a sense of meaning, perhaps alienated from their home culture and suffering from rootlessness, anomie or mental dislocation. Studying these individuals might yield insights into those who join ISIS, as there may be common ground in their motivations.

There is also the tricky issue of "rehabilitation". In Singapore, the authorities recognise that Wang's attempt to help the Kurds was not "ideologically driven", yet have suggested that he will undergo psychological counselling to steer him away from resorting to violence. It is not, however, clear that Wang was in the first place predisposed to violent acts. Would established processes, such as counselling by the Religious Rehabilitation Group or by others, work in these cases? Should new ways be considered?

The media has reported the conflict with ISIS as an existential one - almost as a Manichean struggle between good and evil. This inevitably has had an impact on a millennial generation in search of experience and meaning.

What might therefore be needed in various countries is not only official injunction or punitive warnings against fighting with the YPG or other militia, but a broader effort. In countries where there is a rising commitment to social or civic activism, other outlets for expressing such activism need to be found : outlets that could divert restless individuals and allow them to find expression for their altruistic energies.

Trusted and credible sources - not necessarily simply government sources - should be used to disseminate the messages that individuals should not get involved in foreign conflicts (not just the ones in Iraq and Syria), and that one runs the very real risk of being killed, or else being drawn into wider conflicts which they have not signed up for.

The overall message should be this: There are other ways to help the people at risk, and these conflicts are not their fight.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Contemporary terrorism's cross-border threat
Terrorist networks overwhelm national security agencies. Foreign universities offering dubious Islamic studies lure our students. It's time to develop a local university degree programme in Islamic studies.
By Barry Desker, Published The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2016

The recent spate of terrorist attacks and the diverse extremist Muslim groups involved have highlighted the changing nature of the terrorist threat. The reality is that these terrorist groups are unlikely to take over governments, whether in Asia, Africa or Europe.

They pose a threat in ungoverned zones like those held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria and Taleban-controlled areas in Afghanistan, where they provide a semblance of order under duress while providing support to far-flung supporters.

But the fear of attacks forces governments around the world to divert resources to combat possible threats. It also fosters a climate of suspicion, as seen in the negative European reaction to the current flood of Muslim refugees from the Middle East and the anti-Muslim tone of the campaign by the front runners in the American Republican presidential campaign.

The March 22 morning rush-hour attacks in Brussels, involving two explosions at its main international airport and a third in a subway station, have shaken the complacency of the European public.

Thirty-five people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The mood was already darkened by the after-effects of a series of coordinated attacks in Paris on Nov 13, which killed 130 persons, including 89 at the Bataclan theatre, with another 368 injured.

What is now emerging is that the Brussels and Paris attacks are related. A super-cell with its command centre in Syria was involved in plotting and executing both attacks. The attacks have highlighted the lack of coordination and information exchanges among European security agencies and even within Belgium itself.


The terrorist network operated seamlessly across national borders, communicated through encrypted messages and received broad directives from ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The national security agencies and police forces were stymied by laws and rules promulgated in a more genteel era. Belgium security agencies and police forces are divided along linguistic lines, with at least six different police jurisdictions within Brussels, a city of one million people.

In Brussels, the police were prohibited from staging raids from 9pm to 5am, even on apartments and houses housing suspected terrorists. The weaknesses of existing laws were already apparent after the Paris raid, when one of the suspected attackers Salah Abdeslam may have initially escaped because of this loophole preventing late-night raids, intended to protect family privacy.

Information has often not been exchanged between security agencies. In the Brussels attack, one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, had been deported by Turkey as he arrived in transit to Syria to fight for ISIS but was cleared by the Belgian authorities of terrorist affiliations and was repatriated to the Netherlands at his request. With Europe's open borders, he soon made his way back to Brussels.

The Muslim immigrant- dominated, working-class Molenbeek neighbourhood in Brussels is now seen as the cradle of the super-cell. Marginalised, alienated and with roots in petty crime, children of immigrants from the Maghreb were radicalised in mosques, over the Internet and in prisons and have become cannon fodder for ISIS' determination to take the conflicts in Iraq and Syria to European shores. ISIS now has a second front in Europe.

Turning to Asia, on March 27, as the minority Christian community in Lahore celebrated Easter Sunday, with many families visiting one of the largest parks in the city, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in his vest, killing at least 72 and injuring more than 300 persons. Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Pakistan Taleban, took responsibility for the attack. It claimed that it was targeting Christians, although most of those killed or wounded are Muslims.

The atrocity reminds us that although the international focus on acts of terrorism has shifted to Europe, lethal attacks continue in Asia and Africa, usually attracting less attention, as demonstrated by the failure to garner any sustained attention when Boko Haram attacks take place, for example, in Mali, north-east Nigeria and Chad.

While ISIS has attracted attention because it has conquered large tracts of Iraq and Syria, it is now coming under increasing pressure from a resurgent Bashir Assad regime backed by sustained Russian air operations. As much as 60 per cent of ISIS-held territories in Syria may have fallen to Mr Assad's forces.

But most commentators have missed the critical point - the idea of ISIS has captured the imaginations of its supporters, who dream of returning to an imagined pristine way of life in the seventh century.

Even if ISIS is bombed out of existence, the threat will emerge elsewhere, for example, in ungoverned post-Gaddafi Libya or in a resurgent Taleban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. Acts of terrorism by Muslim extremists will be a critical concern of policymakers in the next decade.


A second area of concern is the rising tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite adherents of Islam. This has contributed to the image of a region in ferment.

In part, this reflects the competition for regional dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are seen as leaders of Sunni and Shi'ite Islamists respectively. The sharp division between Sunni and Shi'ite reminds us that conflicts among religious believers of the same faith community are more deeply felt and are more difficult to resolve because of the sharp ideological and theological differences, an echo of the Catholic-Protestant Thirty Years War in Europe from 1618 to 1648, which was the longest-lasting and most bitter conflict in Europe.

Although attention is usually focused on the revolutionary threats posed by Sunni through Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and their global networks, Shi'ite Islamists have established a crescent of influence in the Middle East linking Mr Assad's military and intelligence services, Iraq's Shi'ite militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Although Shi'ites are a majority in Iraq, Bahrain and equal in numbers to Sunnis in Yemen, political power has traditionally been vested in Sunni political leaders. In the Middle East, the intra-Muslim conflict is today more significant than the threat posed to non-Muslims and has lessened the pressure for Israel to seek an accommodation with the Palestinians.


The conflict in Yemen is complex and deserves some discussion because of recent revelations in Singapore. Houthi rebels from the Zaidi Shi'ite community are allied with soldiers linked to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, backed by Iran.

The Houthis have effectively challenged Sunni tribes and military forces loyal to the incumbent President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which have been supported by a large-scale Saudi military intervention.

To add to the complexity, Mr Hadi and the Houthis are opposed by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with its strongholds in the south and south-east of the country. A Yemeni affiliate of ISIS also operates in the country and carried out a series of suicide bombings in the capital Sanaa last year.

On March 16, Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs revealed that Mohammad Razif Yahya (aged 27 years) and Amiruddin Sawir (aged 53) were detained for taking up arms in Yemen. They had begun religious studies in a Yemeni religious institution in January 2010 and July 2013 respectively and volunteered for armed sentry duties against any incursion by the Houthis. They were "prepared to kill and be killed as 'martyrs' in the sectarian conflict in Yemen".

Mohamed Mohideen Mohamed Jais (aged 25) had performed sentry duties while pursuing religious studies in Yemen from 2009 to early 2011. Although armed with an AK-47, he did not encounter any situation that required him to open fire. He has been placed on a Restriction Order since last month, which curtails his movements.

The involvement of these three individuals draws attention to the challenge posed by Singaporeans proceeding for further education in religious affairs in Middle Eastern institutions without any reputation for quality and the risk that they may be drawn into the local sectarian conflicts.

While Singapore Muslims historically viewed conflicts in the Middle East as separate from their own concerns as South-east Asian nationals, a trend towards greater commitment to their religious identity could result in some individuals placing their loyalties as Muslims above their commitment to Singapore as a nation-state.

In the same way, Wang Yuandongyi (aged 23) was placed under a Restriction Order because he intended to travel to Syria to join a Kurdish militia group fighting against ISIS.

Participation in foreign military conflicts could undermine Singapore's national interests and the Government needs to act immediately on such cases as well.


The increasingly volatile situation in Middle Eastern countries, such as Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to which Singapore students have headed for higher education in Islamic studies, may result in these students being influenced by their new environment and by the political conflicts in those countries.

The education is also very traditional, focusing on literal interpretations and regurgitation of subject matter. Right now, there are individual courses in various departments at the local universities, but there is no degree programme in Islamic studies or theology, driving many of our Muslim religious teachers to go to the Middle East for their undergraduate degrees in Islamic studies.

It is time to consider developing a programme of undergraduate and graduate education in Islamic studies and comparative religion in Singapore which would train a new generation of asatizah (Muslim religious teachers) that would meet the needs of a rapidly evolving and dynamic Muslim community in Singapore.

The writer, a former diplomat, is Distinguished Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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