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Mounting challenge to identify radicalised persons who plot in secret: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — Singapore faces an increasing challenge in identifying radicals who plot in secret, as well as those who are radicalised in a short span of time — as quickly as around three weeks — after becoming enraged by something they see online, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (March 10).

Mounting challenge to identify radicalised persons who plot in secret: Shanmugam

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam (centre) is seen at Maghain Aboth Synagogue on March 10, 2021.

  • People who are self-radicalised within weeks and do so in secret present a serious challenge to the authorities, Mr K Shanmugam said
  • The minister spoke to the media during a visit with Jewish and Muslim community leaders at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue
  • The case of Amirull Ali, who planned twice to attack and kill Jews, follows another recent discovery of a failed plan to attack religious sites
  • Since 2015, there have been 32 people picked up by the Internal Security Department
  • Security measures at some religious sites will need to be stepped up in the wake of such incidents


SINGAPORE — Singapore faces an increasing challenge in identifying radicals who plot in secret, as well as those who are radicalised in a short span of time — as quickly as around three weeks — after becoming enraged by something they see online, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Wednesday (March 10).

The Republic has been lucky that terrorist plans have not succeeded here so far, as the authorities had been alerted by the radicalised person’s family members, friends and other people around them, he added.

“It can be a very quick self-radicalisation… Someone (could) wake up one morning, take out a knife, go there and do something. It is an ever-present risk,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a visit to Maghain Aboth Synagogue at Rochor, where he met community and religious leaders from the Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The Waterloo Street synagogue was the intended target of a 20-year-old man who had planned to kill Jews with a knife in 2019 and on Christmas Day last year.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) revealed on Wednesday that it had arrested the man, Amirull Ali, a former full-time national serviceman, in February after discovering that he had been self-radicalised and was sympathetic to Palestinians in Israel. 

In this case, it was the Defence Ministry that had tipped off the department. His immediate family members and friends had not been aware of his plans.

The news follows the detention of a 16-year-old teen in January who intended to attack mosques after he was radicalised by far-right extremist ideology. Last month, the ISD also arrested and deported a 33-year-old Malaysian who had intended to join the terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Addressing questions about the challenge of detecting self-radicalised persons who plan to conduct armed violence, Mr Shanmugam said that since 2015, the ISD has picked up 32 individuals under the Internal Security Act.

“A small minority, they go on the internet, they keep it to themselves like Amirull, who didn't give any indication of violent tendencies. He practised his stabbing techniques in private. He didn't tell his family. He talked about the Palestinian cause but he never talked about using violence. He never talked about coming out to kill Jews,” said the minister.

“So when you get a person like that…That presents a serious challenge. It does present a challenge. I'll be blunt about it.”

Mr Shanmugam clarified that this is not a trend that exclusively concerns youths, noting that the ISD has picked up a number of people in their 30s to 50s as well.

But the recent cases do reveal a concerning trend that radicalisation is reaching out to younger people through the internet, he said.

“It causes them to go astray not because of any fault of the religious authorities, but (because) they are not exposed enough to the real teachings of the religion, whether it's Islam or Christianity or any other religion. None of the religions tell you to go out there and kill people.

“It's a very small minority, but that small minority can create deep divisions within society.”

On the foiled attack on the synagogue, Mr Shanmugam said that if Amirull had succeeded in his plans, the consequences would have gone beyond the Jewish men whose lives he had intended to take.

“It would probably incite a greater animosity and distrust between different races and religions in Singapore,” said Mr Shanmugam.

Speaking to the media, chief rabbi Abergel Mordechai from the Jewish Welfare Board said he was overwhelmed with gratitude that the attacks had been averted.

“But I'm very well aware that we're standing right now together in a test of faith. At the centre of it is a test of us having to overcome our differences to try to unite together for the common good and the good of Singapore,” said the rabbi.

He said the right way his community should respond to this incident is through positivity, emphasising the importance of inter-religious friendship at the grassroots level.

Mr Esa Masood, chief executive of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), said there is no place here for extremist and radical beliefs which “seek quick and misguided answers for every plight that justifies violence and killing of the innocent”.

“Certainly as human beings, we are affected by injustices and conflicts that arise in various parts of the world. As we seek to do our part, as we sympathise and empathise with these situations, we need to look at long-term and peaceful solutions and not fall for the deceit of radical groups with their own political agendas,” said Mr Esa.

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Asked whether more security measures were needed, in light of recent revelations of planned attacks on religious sites, Mr Shanmugam said the Government has “clear ideas” of how to step up security at these areas, but will not spell out the specifics to deny would-be attackers.

According to the ISD, Amirull had managed to identify a potential site at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue where he could carry out his ambush on Jewish men. He had also avoided detection by the synagogue’s security when he conducted his reconnaissance of the area.

However, security measures should be balanced against the undesirable outcome of turning synagogues, churches, temples and mosques into “fortresses”, said the minister.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “The broad approach has got to be that different religious sites have different threat levels, and based on that, there may have to be differences in the way they are protected.

“There may have to be more hardware, there may also have to be some guards, but perhaps in a more discreet way.”

Rabbi Mordechai said the Maghain Aboth Synagogue — the largest synagogue in South-east Asia — is in the midst of upgrading its security facilities, including its guard house. Significant resources have been poured into ensuring that security personnel and surveillance equipment meet the right standard, he added.

“That is definitely something that's going to be needed to send a message of calm to our communities,” he said.

Mr Esa added that mosques have been training volunteers to look out for threats, noting that there is a continuing review on whether security plans need to be refreshed in light of the recent incidents.

He said: “It's an ongoing exercise and we will definitely not remain static in our measures to keep our mosques and community safe. But at the same time, as the Minister said, we don't want to overreact and (convert) our mosques into fortresses as well.”

Related topics

Internal Security Act Internal Security Department synagogue attack crime K Shanmugam

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