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Getting S’poreans to report radicalisation of loved ones

Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, a 22-year-old Singaporean contract infant-care assistant with People’s Action Party Community Foundation Sparkletots, was detained this month under the Internal Security Act for extremist leanings, having been radicalised four years ago by online Islamic State (IS) propaganda.

Getting S’poreans to report radicalisation of loved ones

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Hee Hean speaking at the annual Iftar organised by Khadijah Mosque and Religious Rehabilitation Group. Photo: Nadarajan Rajendran/TODAY

Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, a 22-year-old Singaporean contract infant-care assistant with People’s Action Party Community Foundation Sparkletots, was detained this month under the Internal Security Act for extremist leanings, having been radicalised four years ago by online Islamic State (IS) propaganda.

That Izzah happens to be the first Singaporean female to be detained for subscribing to violent extremist ideology is of note, but not particularly surprising.

Izzah follows in the footsteps of women from Malaysia and Indonesia seeking to decamp to Syria as an “IS bride” since the declaration by the terror group of its so-called caliphate three years ago.

What is more worrying is that her family, even when faced with mounting evidence of her radicalisation, failed to alert the authorities.

The IS targets young people for recruitment precisely because they are generally emotionally immature, impulsive and tend to lack strong critical thinking skills — a combination that renders them particularly susceptible to the slick and simplistic propaganda appeals of the skilled IS online ideologues.

It is not for nothing that the scholar Fawaz Gerges calls the IS a youth movement.

Both Izzah’s parents, who are freelance Quranic teachers, and sister knew of her extremist social media postings in 2015 and her plans to join the IS in Syria. However, rather than alert the authorities, they tried dissuading her themselves.

As the Ministry of Home Affairs pointed out in its comments on the case, had Izzah’s family raised the alarm with the authorities when she was younger, early intervention could have possibly stopped her radicalisation process.

Worse, it appears that after Izzah was placed under investigation, important evidence was destroyed by a family member to conceal her plans to join the terrorist group.

This raises what is really the key issue: What is the responsibility of family members who know that a close relative is becoming radicalised? There are two approaches — a hard option and a softer one.

 

THE HARD AND SOFT OPTIONS

 

The first option would be hard law enforcement: Criminalising non-reporting by immediate family members who know that a close relative is becoming radicalised, but fail to alert the authorities.

Family members are often best-placed to notice the sudden changes in attitude and behaviour that are tell-tale signs of self-radicalisation: For instance, emotional and physical withdrawal from friends and family; a sharp spike in time spent alone online on extremist websites; development of judgmental attitudes towards family and friends for not being “religious” enough; positive comments about extremist groups such as the IS, and discussions about going abroad to join terror groups or even to carry out operations on home soil.

Countries such as the United Kingdom have explored this route.

For instance, the Conservative government in July 2015 introduced legislation making it a statutory requirement for teachers to report pupils they feel are being radicalised, so that early intervention can prevent further radicalisation of their charges.

However, this legal requirement has its challenges. Some teachers feared that the new law stifled the very debate needed for young people to develop the critical skills to challenge extremist ideology.

Others felt uneasy about what they interpreted as a legal obligation to “police” students and found it very stressful.

Moreover, there have been cases in which students and their families were unfortunately stigmatised by mistakes — as in the case in December 2015, when the police were called to visit a student who had apparently misspelled “terrace house” and gave the impression he was living in a “terrorist house”.

Needless to say, such policy missteps only enhanced community grievances that it was being unfairly targeted by British authorities for merely being Muslim — as the IS would have it believe.

Ultimately, it seems that more public education on the increasing threat to Singapore and our region would be a better way forward, in two ways.

First, regular updates and more information released on the ways in which the IS threat is growing can further strengthen the government’s oft-repeated mantra that it is no longer “a matter of if, but when”.

For instance, more details on the apparently foiled plot against Singapore in the first half of last year that was mentioned in the recent Threat Assessment report by the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as more details about other thwarted plots in recent times, would enhance public awareness that the threat is indeed real and not some abstract, far-off thing.

Second, a better-informed public with a heightened sense of urgency would mean that within the wider family circle of individuals who, like Izzah, are in the throes of self-radicalisation, there is more likely to be some who would exert moral pressure on the immediate family members to report rather than conceal the problem.

The authorities have indicated that radicalised individuals who are reported by family members need not be automatically incarcerated, but rather be assessed by trained counsellors as to the extent of their radicalisation.

Rehabilitation via early-enough intervention, rather than automatic incarceration, is therefore a real possibility.

In the final analysis, what is really going on is that the IS and the states in South-east Asia (and beyond) are engaged in a twilight struggle for the hearts and minds of their respective Muslim communities.

The IS wants Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims to firstly renounce their respective national allegiances and instead redirect them to its so-called caliphate; and secondly to violently incorporate their national states within that caliphate.

This is precisely why it is so important, among other things, to calibrate policy stances in potentially sensitive cases involving the embattled family members of radicalised individuals — as exemplified by the Izzah episode.

As the great 6 BC Chinese strategic sage Sun Tzu put it: “We must fight with wisdom, not just force alone.”

 

 

Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Professor, Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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