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ISD adjusts rehab approach to evolving threat landscape as more youths, women among terror suspects

SINGAPORE — For the first time, the Internal Security Department (ISD) has shed light on how it rehabilitates terrorism suspects, detailing how it has adjusted its approach to the evolving threat landscape with more youths and women among those arrested for terrorism-related activities.

A 16-year-old Singaporean boy was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in December last year after he hatched a plan to attack the Assyafaah Mosque along Admiralty Lane and Yusof Ishak Mosque (pictured) in Woodlands.

A 16-year-old Singaporean boy was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in December last year after he hatched a plan to attack the Assyafaah Mosque along Admiralty Lane and Yusof Ishak Mosque (pictured) in Woodlands.

  • ISD has arrested seven radicalised youths aged 16 to 19 since 2015 
  • The youngest person dealt with before that was a 20-year-old
  • It has also apprehended six Singaporean women when there were none before 2016
  • ISD said it has had to adjust its rehab programme to meet the needs of this more diverse group
  • For youths, the department pays extra attention to areas such as critical thinking, mental resilience

 

SINGAPORE — For the first time, the Internal Security Department (ISD) has shed light on how it rehabilitates terrorism suspects, detailing how it has adjusted its approach to the evolving threat landscape with more youths and women among those arrested for terrorism-related activities.

The department issued a fact sheet on its rehabilitation programme on Wednesday (Feb 3), a week after news emerged that a 16-year-old Singaporean boy became the youngest person to be detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for terrorism-related activities.

ISD revealed that up until 2014, the youngest radicalised individual dealt with under the ISA was 20 years old. Since 2015, however, it has dealt with seven radicalised youths between 16 and 19 years old.

ISD received its first terrorism-related case involving a Singaporean woman in 2016. Since then, it has dealt with six women suspects.

Youth and women now form a more sizeable group among the 129 Singaporeans who were issued orders under the ISA for terrorism-related conduct since 2002. 

ISD has thus adjusted its rehabilitation programme, first formulated in the 2000s in the aftermath of a series of arrests involving the Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). This is to meet the needs of this more diverse group of detainees and supervisees in recent years, it said.

“While priority continues to be given to address the ideological misconceptions that underpin their radical mindsets, we have also taken care to address non-ideological factors that played a role in their radicalisation,” the department added.

‘SUCCESS STORIES’

In dealing with youths, ISD said it has paid extra attention to their sense of belonging and identity, critical-thinking skills that would help them discern radical rhetoric online and mental resilience to cope with life stressors.

Efforts were also made to allow the young detainees to continue with their education where practicable, as this was assessed to be critical in keeping them motivated and focused.

A youth-centric mentoring programme was also introduced in 2016 so that detainees can remain in touch with the mentor involved in their rehabilitation even after their release. 

This ensures that they “stay focused on pro-social goals”, ISD said. “The mentor functions as a positive influence and provides additional social support to mitigate their risk of re-engagement in terrorism-related activities.”

Such efforts have allowed four out of the seven youths dealt with since 2015 to rejoin society — one has been released on a restriction order, one has stayed on a restriction order, and the orders for the other two have lapsed.

Restriction orders impose conditions such as restricting detainees from moving without the approval of ISD’s director. 

The restriction order imposed on one of the youths was allowed to lapse two years later, after he won an award for being the top student in his course at the Institute of Technical Education. He is studying at a polytechnic now.

Another youth detainee went from scraping through his Secondary 3 examinations in 2019, when he was arrested, to scoring distinctions for four out of five subjects in the GCE N Level examinations last year.

ISD stressed, however, that rehabilitation efforts can work only if a detainee or supervisee is open to change, pointing out that there had been cases where rehabilitation has not yielded results.

“The same facilities are availed to them, but they have chosen not to cooperate with the rehabilitation stakeholders and continue to see them as the ‘enemy’.” 

REHAB STRATEGY

Among the 129 Singaporeans who were issued orders for terrorism-related conduct since 2002, 88 were given detention orders and 41 were served restriction orders. Of the 88 who were detained, 68 have been released on restriction orders.

Giving an overview of its rehabilitation strategy, ISD said it takes a holistic, intensive and long-term approach customised to individual cases. 

It involves three components:

Religious

  • At least once a month, all detainees and supervisees under restriction orders must attend religious counselling sessions aimed at imparting proper religious teachings and interpretations to counter radical ideology from online and other sources 

  • Detainees are also given access to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s Friday prayer sermons as well as supplementary material such as video lectures and books that deal with radical teachings propagated by extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis)

Psychological

  • Throughout their detention and even after they are released on restriction orders, detainees work with psychologists to address their propensity for hatred and violence, and vulnerability to radical influence

  • The psychologists also regularly assess behavioural and cognitive aspects of their progress, and help them reframe the faulty reasoning that underlies their radical beliefs 

Social

  • Detainees are granted weekly family visits to preserve their familial connections as much as possible

  • An after-care officer is assigned to each family to provide social and other forms of support, where relevant

  • ISD case officers also regularly interact with detainees to offer an extra source of social interaction and support, and continue to supervise them through the restriction-order regime to help them reintegrate smoothly into society, thereby reducing their risk of re-offending

  • The Inter-Agency After-Care Group, set up in 2002, also provides those dealt with under the ISA with emotional, social and financial support through its network of community welfare organisations

TWO RE-OFFENDED IN PAST 2 DECADES

ISD said that most of the suspects who were released or issued restriction orders are gainfully employed. The younger ones are pursuing their studies.

These individuals remain resilient to radical influences and enjoy good social support, it added. 

Nevertheless, there were two cases of recidivism over the past two decades. 

Those released are, therefore, still subject to a rigorous supervisory regime that allows for early intervention, should they show signs of reverting to radical ideologies or re-engaging in terrorism-related activities. 

“We are mindful that there is no foolproof system,” ISD said.

As for the detainees, most of them have made progress in their rehabilitation, are receptive to engagement by those involved in the programme and have shown effort in correcting their radical ideologies, ISD said.

Their family members are also supportive of their rehabilitation and many continue to visit them weekly.

Still, there are a handful of detainees who remain resistant to rehabilitation despite persistent efforts to engage them, ISD said.

They include a youth detained in 2015 who continues to firmly believe in Isis ideology despite being assigned four religious counsellors.

There are also several JI detainees who continue to subscribe firmly to their violent radical beliefs, with one regularly threatening to destroy Singapore and claiming that the city-state would burn in hellfire because it is a secular society.

ISD said it would continue exploring ways to reach out to these detainees. 

“In our minds, our rehabilitation programme, which is a joint effort with community stakeholders, will remain a constant work-in-progress.” 

G

iving an update on the 16-year-old boy whose detention was revealed last week, ISD said it will apply some of the "best practices" from the rehabilitation of previous youth cases.

"For example, in consultation with his parents and former school, ISD has made arrangements to facilitate his continued education while in detention. This includes arranging for tutors to assist him in preparing for his national examinations this year," the department said.

"A mentor has also been identified for him. In addition, ISD is working with the National Council of Churches of Singapore, which is keen to be involved in the youth’s rehabilitation, to identify a suitable Christian counsellor for him."

ISD said that based on its assessment, violent Islamist extremism continues to pose the "dominant terrorism threat" in Singapore.

"This is fuelled by the continued spread of jihadist propaganda online and the active presence of Islamist terrorist groups and supporters in the region, such as ISIS-affiliated elements," ISD said.

"Apart from the case of the 16-year-old youth, we have thus far not seen any signs that far-right extremism has gained significant traction in Singapore."

Related topics

terrorism teenager rehabilitation Internal Security Department Internal Security Act crime

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