Tuesday, 25 April 2017

What does the terror threat mean for Singapore?

By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2017

There has been a shake-up in the world of terror.

In the past four years, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has surpassed Al-Qaeda as the prime terror threat. Lone wolf attacks are on the rise, and soft targets - from Christmas markets to concert halls - have become fresh grounds for bloodshed.

What does the evolution of the terror threat mean for Singapore, and why should it matter to Singaporeans, oceans away from the epicentre of conflict in the Middle East?


Broadly speaking, terrorism is the use of violence to intimidate people and governments, often to push a political agenda.

Acts of terror have ranged from the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 by a member of a Serbian nationalist movement, which set off a series of events that erupted into World War I, to the serial mail bombings of "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski in the 1970s, in a manic bid to further his anti-technology ideology.

But these days, terrorism carried out under the guise of religion has borne the brunt of the spotlight.

Extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS have seized on religion as a tool to divide people and incite hatred.

They dispense distorted interpretations of Islam, preaching violence and exclusivism.

The spread of this radical ideology, therefore, has become a key threat which many parties - from religious leaders to governments - are working to counter.


The face of terror has changed, for one. More than 10 years ago, Al-Qaeda - which on Sept 11, 2001 sent two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre in New York City - was the militant group that dominated headlines.

Now, ISIS has claimed that spot.

Singapore's Minister for Home Affairs and Law, Mr K. Shanmugam, declared last year that the group poses a far graver threat than Al-Qaeda ever did.

ISIS, which caught international attention in 2013, has been waging a bloody war in the Middle East to carve out territories in Iraq and Syria for its self-declared caliphate.

But its shadow extends beyond the Middle East: ISIS wants to establish "wilayat", or provinces, around the world. And thanks to the Internet, its twisted ideology has gone global, infecting individuals even in Singapore.

Another development is the rise of the lone wolf terrorist. Tragedies in recent years have shone the spotlight on these individuals who, despite acting alone, have sown much fear and chaos.

Anders Breivik, who in 2011 launched attacks in Norway that left 77 people dead, was one, as was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who drove a cargo truck last year into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in France, killing 84 people instantly.

These lone wolves present a grave nightmare, because their lack of formal links to established terror organisations make it difficult to detect and monitor them.

Their rise illustrates how terror tactics are shifting. Perpetrators have changed and, likewise, the methods, targets and frequency of attacks.

The International Security and Defence Policy Centre, a United States think tank, estimates that in some months last year, almost 400 attacks were carried out around the world in the name of ISIS, compared with 150 to 200 a month in 2014.

Attacks in the past two years increasingly took aim not at hard targets armed with considerable security, like embassies, but at softer targets, transforming unassuming venues such as Christmas markets, places of worship, and concert halls into sites of violence.

Such attacks have been praised by ISIS, which - thwarted by coalition forces in Iraq and Syria - has called for its supporters to strike, wherever they are and using whatever they have.


Singapore sits in a region that ISIS considers prime territory. South-east Asia appears ripe for the taking because of the region's sizeable Muslim population, the success the group has enjoyed so far in winning over sympathisers, and the presence of established radical leaders and militant groups like Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

ISIS has ambitions of establishing a caliphate in the region, and is taking targeted steps to court supporters.

It has set up a South-east Asian unit, Katibah Nusantara, which, besides fighting in the frontlines, has produced propaganda videos in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia - featuring Malaysian, Indonesian and Filipino fighters.

A media agency linked to ISIS last year published a Bahasa Indonesia newspaper called Al Fatihin. This was banned in Singapore, with the Ministry for Communications and Information citing the publication's "clear intention to radicalise and recruit South-east Asians to join ISIS".

ISIS has also rallied various militant groups in the region. More than 30 such groups from South-east Asia, mostly from Indonesia, have pledged allegiance or expressed their support for ISIS.

In addition, the return of battle-hardened South-east Asian fighters has raised concerns that they will tap on their experience in Iraq and Syria to mount attacks on home soil.

Singapore, with its status as a financial hub and its participation in the US-led global coalition against ISIS, is a valuable target.

Terror attacks have already rocked Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and "sooner or later, somebody will break through", said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year.

Singapore has had its close shaves. In 2001, a Jemaah Islamiah plot to attack key installations, such as water pipelines and foreign embassies, was disrupted.

And last August, news broke that a Batam terror cell's plot to fire a rocket at Marina Bay had been foiled. This failed plot, said PM Lee last year, "is not the only definite plan by terrorists to attack targets in Singapore that we know of".

"We know there have been others, we've quietly acted on the information, we've taken precautions," he added.

Although he did not give more details, he said the authorities have shifted and rescheduled certain events because of these threats.

His words are a sobering reminder that while a successful attack has yet to be carried out in Singapore, terrorists have been taking aim.

Their failure so far can be credited to an attitude of constant vigilance.

In fact, when radicalised individuals looking to join the fight in Syria tried to use Singapore as a transit point, or to get stamps in their passport to appear like regular travellers, they were detected and turned away by the authorities, who found their travel patterns and behaviour suspicious.

Last December, two Indonesians trying to use Singapore as a transit point for travel to Syria were deported to Batam.

Earlier last year, four Indonesians who wanted to go to the Middle East to join ISIS were also sent back by Singapore.


Such ideology has managed to find a foothold even in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore.

In fact, the threat of radicalisation has heightened. The number of terror-linked arrests reached new peaks in the past few years, with 58 people nabbed under the Internal Security Act since January 2015. Out of this, 18 were Singaporeans - a rise from the 11 nabbed between 2007 and 2014.

Most were self-radicalised, having fallen victim to radical teachings found on the Internet and other channels.

Car washer Rosli Hamzah and truck driver Mohamed Omar Mahadi, for instance, were listeners of Radio Hang FM, a Batam-based religious station that features extreme preachers. The duo, who planned to fight in Syria, were detained in August last year.

Foreigners in Singapore too have fallen prey to extremist teachings.

In the past two years, 40 Bangladesh nationals working in Singapore, who were plotting attacks on their home country or owned and spread radical materials, were rounded up under the Internal Security Act.

In January this year, Mr Shanmugam told Parliament seven foreign maids had been radicalised through the Internet in the past two years. They were repatriated.


From rolling out emergency response teams trained and armed to handle terrorism threats to teaching Singaporeans how to respond to crises, Singapore is fighting back on various fronts.

For instance, new laws are on the way to better protect the country and its people. Changes to the Public Order Act will boost security at events that draw large crowds - which have proven prime targets for terrorists. Organisers of public events attended by more than 5,000 people will have to consult the police on security measures.

A new Infrastructure Protection Act will also be introduced to ensure certain buildings have sufficient protection.

Meanwhile, the SGSecure movement, which aims to increase the public's preparedness and resilience in the fight against terror, is gathering steam.

Since its launch last September, community volunteers and Home Team officers have visited more than 50,000 households to engage residents.

This year, the programme will extend its reach to workplaces, engaging businesses and unions through events like customised Emergency Preparedness Days.

A new SGSecure Community Network will also connect all religious organisations in Singapore and help places of worship get ready for any prospective attack.

There are also many ground-up efforts to strengthen social bonds and promote inter-faith understanding, as well as counter radical teachings. Among them is the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a 14-year-old group of Islamic teachers and academics that counsels radicalised individuals.

Over the years, trust and goodwill have been built up between the different communities in Singapore, but this harmony cannot be taken for granted.

It is an anomaly in an increasingly polarised world, as divisive and exclusivist views gain ground.

Fault lines can easily erupt if such views are allowed to fester, so the strong bonds between various communities can be Singapore's best weapon against the threat of terrorism, which seeks to divide.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam earlier this year said Singapore must continue to promote harmony and understanding among the different races, religions and cultures. He said: "We have to make sure we are alert and that we have all these ways to combat this menace which threatens our very existence. Because racial and religious harmony is the cornerstone of Singapore's existence, survival and prosperity."

This is the fifth of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

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