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Looking Ahead to 2018: Even as IS weakens, evolving terror threat looms for S’pore

SINGAPORE – The stranglehold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) in the Middle East is on the brink of collapse, and its leadership in disarray. But although IS has been dealt one blow after another by an international military coalition this year, it is still holding fort online, with Singaporeans among those swayed over to its cause.

Looking Ahead to 2018: Even as IS weakens, evolving terror threat looms for S’pore

A Philippine Marine walks past graffiti during a patrol along a deserted street at the frontline in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on July 22, 2017. Photo:AFP

As the year draws to a close, TODAY kicks off a series looking at key issues on the local and foreign front in the next 12 months. In Singapore, we look at what lies ahead in areas ranging from political succession and public transportation, to electronic payment, the property market and sports. Beyond our shores, the focus will be on the Malaysian general election and Singapore’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In the seventh instalment of the series, we look at the terrorism threat.

 

SINGAPORE – The stranglehold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) in the Middle East is on the brink of collapse, and its leadership in disarray.

But although IS has been dealt one blow after another by an international military coalition this year, it is still holding fort online, with Singaporeans among those swayed over to its cause.

The threat of radicalisation is set to persist in the year ahead, and terrorism experts said Singapore must also keep on its radar the return of IS foreign fighters to their homelands in Southeast Asia, as well as the resurgence of a familiar enemy – the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

“Ending IS’ physical caliphate does not mean the end of ISIS per se. Singapore should still be concerned,” said Mr Jasminder Singh, a senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

The terror threat level here remains at its highest in recent years, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)’s first-ever national terrorism threat assessment report released in June this year.

This meant the emphasis on anti-terrorism measures reached new heights.

Laws were passed this year requiring building owners and developers to reinforce security in iconic buildings and those that house essential services, as part of the Infrastructure Protection Bill.

And under the amended Public Order Act, which took effect in October, organisers of events with large crowds have to beef up security measures, such as deploying armed security officers and putting up vehicle barricades.

Security agencies as well as the military have ramped up efforts. New quick-reaction police teams have been deployed to patrol public areas with high footfall such as the Orchard Road shopping belt.

The police also announced recently that all security guards must undergo counter-terrorism training by 2020. There are about 34,000 security officers employed by more than 240 security agencies here.

Aside from ratcheting up its air defences and other assets, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will train about 18,000 soldiers from both active and operationally ready National Service (NS) units annually in homeland-security operations.

In the community, schools for the first time are conducting “lockdown” drills in the event that an intruder with heinous intentions enters the premises, marking a shift from what used to be a focus on fire drills.

While these measures would deter and prepare Singapore in the event of an attack, RSIS religious extremism expert Dr Mohamed Ali noted that such efforts, including laws, require “some tweaking now and then”.

“Terrorism trends, including how attacks are conducted, constantly changes. Now we’re seeing vehicular attacks but it might be something else tomorrow,” he said.

THE BATTLE FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS ONLINE CONTINUES

The IS may have been dislodged from key territorial bases in the Middle East, but it can persist as a “virtual caliphate”, where online and mobile platforms are used to spread its ideology, said Mr Jasminder.

While there is no evidence IS is ramping up its efforts online, platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are still its go-to sites to recruit followers and disseminate propaganda, he added.

“Even though YouTube will take the videos down shortly, by then (they) would have been downloaded into phones of sympathisers and shared,” said Mr Jasminder. In Singapore, the pace of individuals radicalised by extremist propaganda is accelerating.

In October, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen warned of a long counter-terrorism battle and said seven times more Singaporeans were radicalised in the past year than the period before that.

According to the Home Affairs Ministry, between 2007 and 2014 – a span of eight years – six restriction and five detention orders under the Internal Security Act were issued. But since 2015, seven restriction and 12 detention orders have been handed out.

This year, authorities had apprehended a diverse range of individuals, including the first woman to be radicalised – a 22-year-old pre-school assistant who wanted to be a martyr’s widow – as well as a 34-year-old managing director of a logistics firm who tried to join the IS twice.

“But the difficulty in removing online terrorist propaganda that will likely persist after IS’ military defeat means that we need to continue guarding against homegrown extremists and radicalised foreign residents,” said Mr Muhd Faizal Abdul Rahman, a research fellow at RSIS’ Centre of Excellence for National Security.

The issue of online radicalisation is further compounded by exclusivist views propagated by religious preachers.

This year, Singapore denied entry to foreign preachers including American Muslim preacher Yusuf Estes, Zimbabwean Ismail Menk or Mufti Menk – who has a large following here – as well as two foreign Christian preachers because of their divisive views.

On views propounded by the Muslim preachers, Dr Mohamed said they could create the perception that Singaporean Muslims “cannot live under non-secular system”.

He added: “It might be entrenched if a person then stumbles on IS propaganda which reinforces that idea.”

Islamic religious teachers, or asatizah, are crucial in combating extremist narratives, said RSIS’ associate research fellow Remy Mahzam.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has set up a network where asatizah, among others, receive training by the likes of Google to come up with appealing content to rebut misconstrued concepts of jihad (armed struggle) and establishment of an Islamic caliphate, among others.

“Asatizah’s social media presence need to be enhanced to reach out especially to youth, who have minimal understanding of Islam and are in doubt about what’s true and what’s not,” said Mr Remy.

JEMAAH ISLAMIYAH RISING FROM THE ASHES

After making its presence felt in Southeast Asia through the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed over 200 people, Jemaah Islamiyah’s (JI) influence began to fade.

In the aftermath of constant crackdowns by Indonesian authorities and internal splinters, the group was mired in dire financial straits by 2005, according to a report by the Indonesian-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in April.

But there has been renewed scrutiny of JI following the arrest in August of 25-year-old Singaporean Abu Thalha Samad, who had been studying and undergoing paramilitary training in JI-linked schools in the region and subsequently pledged his allegiance to the group. He was issued a two-year detention order in September.

The JI is a familiar enemy to Singapore.

In 2002, the authorities revealed that 13 JI members had plotted to plant bombs near Yishun MRT Station, with other commercial centres similarly targeted. The group’s leader here, Mas Selamat Kastari, had planned to hijack a plane and crash it into Changi Airport.

Singaporeans with past connections to JI may attempt to reconnect with the group, said Mr Jasminder.

Remnants of the old JI network continue to pose a threat, said Mr Remy, with the arrest of Abu Thalha raising concerns on the “possibility of the group consolidating support or being affiliated to ISIS since they share to a certain extent, similar ideological beliefs”.

JI might be in a “low-key mode but appears to be rebuilding support”, said Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at RSIS’ National Security Studies Programme. This is affirmed by the IPAC report, which noted a shift in the group’s strategy in recent years.

With less emphasis on violence, more attention is placed on garnering community support through religious preaching in mosques and some 40 JI-linked Islamic schools in Indonesia, said the IPAC report.

But this does not mean the group has “totally abandoned violence”, said Dr Mohamed, citing the fact that JI has created a new military wing capable of producing weapons.

“They will still wage jihad, but the issue is, we don’t know when,” he said.

Mr Ali Fauzi, a reformed terrorist who was once a JI bombmaker and whose brothers executed the Bali bombings, told TODAY that JI might justify a strike if it perceived that corruption within the Indonesian government might render it ineffective in creating social justice and running the country as a whole.

The threat JI posed to Singapore still exists, he said.

“Simply because it is still viewed as one of America’s henchmen. So, it is still a target,” said Mr Ali, who now runs the Peace Circle foundation to help reformed jihadists re-integrate into society.

“Do remember that JI does not like the secular governance and systems in place. Its mission then and now is to form an Islamic caliphate.”

ISLAMIC STATE SHIFTING ITS FOCUS TO ASIA?

In July, IS lost its foothold in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Three months later, American-backed forces seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of IS’ self-declared caliphate.

The group is left with a handful of outposts in both countries – and the return of foreign fighters to their homelands has raised concerns among various governments.

The New York Times had quoted American officials as saying that some 40,000 fighters from over 120 countries – including Singapore – had joined the fights in Syria and Iraq in the last four years.

But experts here said that the number of fighters from Southeast Asia might be smaller than anticipated. Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington DC, who estimated there could be just be over 1,000 Southeast Asian fighters, noted they are a threat because of their military training and combat experience.

IS may also shift its focus to Asia and target the region’s troubled spots as it attempts to “revive its brand and rebuild its influence,” said RSIS’ Mr Muhd Faizal.

The areas include Mindanao in southern Philippines, which has been home to insurgencies since the 1970s, said Prof Abuza. Current militants of the Abu Sayyaf group have “control over the territory in which they can train, regroup, plan and execute attacks”.

On May 23, pro-IS militants – comprising a faction of the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute militant groups – launched a siege in the southern Philippine city of Marawi in a bid to establish it as an Islamic caliphate. The battle between the militants and the country’s military forces ended five months later.

Experts said the security situation in the Philippines is unlikely to improve in the coming years, and warned that the Rohingya crisis – where fear of persecution has triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Bangladesh – is a potential security flashpoint. Both IS and Al-Qaeda have made calls to take up arms against the Myanmar government.

This could have security implications for countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, where some refugees are housed, said Mr Jasminder.

The United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital this month – which had triggered backlash in most Islamic countries – could also pose security threats.

As with the Rohingya crisis, IS could capitalise on the Jerusalem controversy to lure individuals to join its cause, said experts.

Dr Mohamed noted that the group has been effective in using the “persecuted Muslims narrative” and it would not be surprising if some Singaporeans take the bait.

This and other new developments could again alter the landscape of violence, said Mr Remy, who stressed that Singapore needs to watch out for “greater interplay of online radicalisation”.

“Extremist groups facing setbacks can easily exploit victimhood feelings amongst their supporters. Singapore cannot let its guard down offline or online,” he said.

 

*On Sunday (Dec 31), look out for our report on the Malaysian general election.

Missed the earlier reports from our Looking Ahead to 2018 series? 

  1. Looking Ahead to 2018: Ringing in a busy year for Singapore sports
  2. Looking Ahead to 2018: A year of reckoning for S’pore’s cashless ambitions
  3. Looking Ahead to 2018: Property market poised to roar back to life
  4. Looking Ahead to 2018: S’pore’s political succession to pick up pace
  5. a) Looking Ahead to 2018: Restoring public confidence in MRT vital for car-lite goal
    b) Looking Ahead to 2018: More disruptions in store for taxi industry
  6. Looking Ahead to 2018: To tackle climate change, all hands needed on deck

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