SINGAPORE – Shortly after Sept 11, 2001, a man’s support for Al-Qaeda aroused the suspicions of a Singaporean Muslim who tipped off the Internal Security Department (ISD).
But the man, Mohammad Aslam Yar Ali Khan, left abruptly for Pakistan and then Afghanistan, where Northern Alliance forces arrested him in November that year.
The ISD, which had been watching those around him, stepped in to arrest 15 people a month later, disrupting their plans to mount attacks here and uncovering clandestine terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which sought to establish a regional caliphate through violence.
Aslam was repatriated to Singapore. He remains in detention, with a small number of hardened JI members. But several dozen others have been released after undergoing rehabilitation and turning their backs on extremism.
Plots to attack Changi Airport, Marina Bay Sands and soft targets have also been foiled.
Two decades after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on America, violent Islamist extremism remains Singapore’s primary security concern, but other forms of violent extremism have broadened the terrorism threat here, the ISD says.
A spokesman for the department says a spike in self-radicalisation cases since 2015 means that “softer” approaches, beyond beefing up security responses, have become even more important. These include improving digital literacy and critical thinking skills among youth, as well as growing an awareness of online radicalisation. Strengthening social resilience remains key.
The Sept 11 attacks heralded a new wave of transnational terrorism, with direct security implications for Singapore, says ISD.
While it saw foreign terrorists hijack the ferry Laju in 1974 and Singapore Airlines Flight 117 in 1991, plots by JI against foreign embassies and key installations uncovered in 2001 marked the first time “a small, isolated group of misguided fellow Singaporeans were willing to resort to violence within Singapore to advance their extremist beliefs”, the agency adds.
Decisive security action here and in the region meant that over the years, lone actors took on greater prominence compared with organised groups. In 2007, the first self-radicalised Singaporean was dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
In the mid-2010s, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its savvy use of social media saw a spike in radicalisation cases.
ISD’s Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report, released in June, notes that 54 people have been dealt with under the ISA for terror-linked conduct since 2015, and 44 of them – 32 Singaporeans and 12 foreigners – were self-radicalised.
The threat to Singapore remains shaped by global developments such as tensions or attacks abroad.
Dr Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that technology has enabled the shift towards self-radicalised individuals.
“There are more traps for a lost individual spending time doom-scrolling down the Internet, accidentally finding ideas that are very negative, very poisonous and how these reflect their own personal grievances,” he says, referring to the act of spending an excessive amount of time online.
Deviant ideologies that attract such individuals – in online forums, social media and the Dark Web – have expanded to include those espoused by far-right movements elsewhere.
Last December, a 16-year-old Protestant Christian became the first ISD detainee to be influenced by far-right ideology. He was planning to attack two mosques here, on the second anniversary of the Christchurch terror attack that killed 51 worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019.
Experts say that far-right extremism, with its origins in white supremacist thinking, holds little traction in this part of the world, but its broader messages of ethno-religious chauvinism and anti-immigration sentiment can still appeal to hardline groups, says Dr Puri.
“There might be people who take a very negative, very oppositional, possibly even violent view towards having a multi-ethnic country.”
Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), notes that in South-east Asia, the key issue might be Islamophobia, layered with troubled individual youth psychology and motivations.
RSIS senior fellow Raffaello Pantucci argues that these factors could be more vital than narratives around ideology and identity.
The ISD says that should the threat of far-right extremism escalate, the Government is confident that it can count on religious and community organisations to step forward and work together in the same way the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has.
The group was formed by Islamic teachers in 2003 to counsel JI detainees and has expanded its ambit to steer those influenced by radical teachings away from such teachings.
The Sept 11 attacks inspired the inclusion of various strategies to counter terrorism, notes Dr Jolene Jerard, the executive director at public safety and management consultancy Centinel.
These include starting the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles to foster better understanding and goodwill among communities, and the Community Engagement Programme (CEP) to build resilience and ensure that a flashpoint like a terror attack does not rupture the social fabric.
The CEP, started in 2006 to build social cohesion and resilience against terrorism, was revamped as SGSecure a decade later to sensitise, train and mobilise the community. It has held workshops on life-saving skills, conducted exercises simulating terror attacks, and developed a smartphone app for reporting suspicious activities.
The Ministry of Home Affairs says it has seen positive results from the CEP and SGSecure, with most people agreeing that they have a role to play in preventing and dealing with a terror attack.
But one area that needs work is the early reporting of suspected cases of radicalisation. A 2019 survey found that only about half of respondents said they would contact the authorities if they believed their relative or friend was displaying signs of radicalisation.
Counter-terrorism efforts must address radicalisation upstream, says the ISD, highlighting how the fight against terror has remained, at its core, an ideological battle against violent extremist beliefs.
Prof Ramakrishna says there has been a recognition that there must be a “softer” dimension in these efforts. This includes countering extremist ideology online and detainee rehabilitation, involving psychologists and moderate scholars, he says, citing the RRG as an example.
Online threats and youth
Irrespective of the form of extremism, the Internet and social media have remained the primary, prevalent means of radicalisation.
The online space facilitates the process, from the introduction to radical ideas, to further “research” to affirm one’s beliefs, to groups and platforms clustering the like-minded together, says the ISD.
Professor Andrew Tan from the department of security studies at Sydney’s Macquarie University says that amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the online spread of misinformation and extremist ideas makes them easily available to “legions of disaffected searching for answers to the troubling conundrums and uncertainties in today’s world”.
Officials and experts agree that policing the Internet by blocking access to content is not the most effective or sustainable way. Banning undesirables from platforms would drive them to new, less-regulated alternatives, in an unending game of whack-a-mole.
ISD says the onus is on social media and technology companies to step up and disrupt terrorist exploitation of their platforms.
“They have also been working with religious and community organisations to guide users in navigating the digital space, and positively influence the online discourse,” the department adds.
Impressionable youth are among the prime targets for recruitment and radicalisation.
Since 2015, at least seven of the people ISD picked up for terror-related conduct were aged between 16 and 19. By comparison, the youngest people dealt with following the JI terror plots in 2001 were 20 and 21.
Prof Ramakrishna is not surprised about this. He says: “They are still emotionally maturing, looking for black-and-white certainty in a world of many shades of grey. Extremist ideologies purveyed by charismatic figures… meet this need for absolutist, psychological security.”
Factors like the effectiveness of social structures are worth examining too, says Mr Pantucci.
He and Prof Tan highlight how more efforts relating to mental health could help prevent people, including youth, from being radicalised.
Prof Tan says: “There is also growing awareness… of the need to pay greater attention to mental health, which could lead some to embrace extremist ideologies.”
Singapore’s model of rehabilitating would-be terrorists is well regarded internationally and is studied by other countries as a “humane and considered” way for dealing with terrorism, he adds.
Experts say that Singapore has worked hard to keep the terrorist threat at bay here post-9/11 by developing both security and social structures in tandem.
“There has been a strong focus on community engagement and dialogue to maintain racial and religious harmony and mitigate the effects of any terrorist attack,” says Prof Tan.
MHA says that while the terrorism threat or risk could change over time, SGSecure’s call to action for the community to “stay alert, stay united and stay strong” remains consistent, and a vigilant, prepared and cohesive community is Singapore’s best defence.
“It will never be possible to completely shield society from all these ideas,” says Prof Tan.
“However, Singapore’s approach in community engagement, education and rehabilitation would work to minimise the risk, so long as there is awareness that violent extremism can emanate from a variety of sources.”