The evolv­ing threat mod­ern ter­ror­ism poses for Sin­ga­pore

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY ZAKIR HUS­SAIN

A few weeks af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001 ter­ror at­tacks on the United States, two al-Qaida op­er­a­tives ar­rived separately in Sin­ga­pore to start scout­ing for tar­gets.

A plan was formed to det­o­nate six truck bombs across the is­land.

The men, code named Mike and Sammy, met mem­bers of a clan­des­tine rad­i­cal net­work, surveilled tar­gets and made plans to buy am­mo­nium ni­trate for the bombs.

Tar­gets in­cluded em­bassies, an MRT sta­tion, wa­ter pipe­lines and the de­fense and ed­u­ca­tion min­istries.

For­tu­nately, the gov­ern­ment was tipped off and, by De­cem­ber, the first group of 13 Je­maah Is­lamiah (JI) mem­bers had been ar­rested, which averted a ter­ror attack and its painful con­se­quences.

By then, Mike and Sammy had left the coun­try. Mike was ac­tu­ally In­done­sian bomb- maker Fathur Rah­man al-Ghozi, who was killed in a shootout in the Philip­pines in 2003.

Sammy is a Canadian called Mo­hammed Man­sour Jabarah, who is now serv­ing a life sen­tence in the U.S.

Since the 2001 ar­rests, 66 in­di­vid­u­als have been de­tained here un­der the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Act for ter­ror-re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties.

This wave of global ter­ror­ism has posed the most sig­nif­i­cant threat to Sin­ga­pore in re­cent decades.

The threat has grown, and is un­likely to go away any­time soon in this glob­al­ized world.

Ter­ror­ism in Sin­ga­pore

To­day, ter­ror­ism is broadly de­fined as the use of vi­o­lence against civil­ians, with the aim of in­tim­i­dat­ing peo­ple and gov­ern­ments, of­ten to fur­ther a po­lit­i­cal agenda.

Cities have been key tar­gets for ter­ror at­tacks. One of the mostcited ex­am­ples of ter­ror­ism is the as­sas­si­na­tion of Aus­tro-Hungarian Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand and his wife in Sara­jevo in 1914 by a Ser­bian na­tion­al­ist, which sparked World War I.

Af­ter World War II, ter­ror­ists struck this re­gion in the late 1940s and 1950s, when the Com­mu­nist Party of Malaya (CPM) em­barked on at­tacks through­out the penin­sula.

Its goal was to dam­age in­fra­struc­ture and ter­rify civil­ians while striv­ing to cre­ate a com­mu­nist state.

The CPM had mem­bers as well as an un­der­ground net­work in Sin­ga­pore, and sought to in­fil­trate schools, unions and po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

While it was part of Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore was at­tacked by In­done­sian sabo­teurs dur­ing Kon­frontasi, a pe­riod of heavy con­flict when In­done­sia op­posed the for­ma­tion of Malaysia.

In March 1965, two sabo­teurs planted a bomb at MacDon­ald House in Or­chard Road. The blast not only dam­aged the build­ing, but also killed and in­jured peo­ple.

Af­ter Sin­ga­pore gained in­de­pen­dence, it saw its first ma­jor attack in Jan­uary 1974, when four men bombed petroleum tanks on Pu­lau Bukom. They hi­jacked a ferry, the Laju, tak­ing five crew mem­bers hostage.

Sin­ga­pore’s role as a trans­port hub con­nected to the wider re­gion has prompted ter­ror­ist groups to use it to raise funds or pro­cure equip­ment for their strug­gles else­where.

In 1985, the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Depart­ment ar­rested and ex­pelled key lead­ers of a Sin­ga­pore net­work of the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE), which sought to cre­ate a sep­a­rate state in Sri Lanka.

The net­work was headed by Sri Lankans work­ing here. An­other lo­cal LTTE net­work was dis­rupted in 2000.

In the 1990s, Le­banese group Hezbol­lah cul­ti­vated five Sin­ga­por- eans, who later with­drew when asked to pho­to­graph the Amer­i­can and Is­raeli em­bassies.

But Hezbol­lah con­tin­ued to con­duct sur­veil­lance of the Sin­ga­pore coast­line, with the aim of launch­ing at­tacks on ves­sels.

The JI net­work, formed in the early 1990s by rad­i­cal cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, was de­tected only in 2001. He is now in detention at a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son in Cen­tral Java.

For decades, he per­verted Is­lamic teach­ings with the aim of set­ting up a caliphate in Southeast Asia.

Many of the Sin­ga­pore JI mem­bers stud­ied with him at the school he set up in Ulu Ti­ram, Jo­hor, a 30-minute drive from the Cause­way.

Sev­eral of th­ese Sin­ga­pore­ans went to Afghanistan and Pak­istan to train along­side sea­soned mil­i­tants in the early 1990s.

Af­ter the first wave of JI ar­rests in 2001, an­other 18 men were de­tained in sub­se­quent months in 2002.

Th­ese ar­rests neu­tral­ized the Sin­ga­pore JI cell, but led to dis­clo­sures that sev­eral mem­bers had fled abroad. About 10 were found and brought back in later years.

While on the run, they plot­ted fresh at­tacks. One plot tar­geted sev­eral em­bassies and the Sin­ga­pore am­bas­sador in Bangkok. Their leader, Mas Se­la­mat Kas­tari, sought to hi­jack a plane and crash it into Changi Air­port.

In Malaysia, the au­thor­i­ties were also clamp­ing down on the JI net­work, so sev­eral of the lead­ers living there fled and fo­cused their at­ten­tion on In­done­sia.

The JI was be­hind 20 bombs that went off out­side churches across In­done­sia on Christ­mas Eve in 2000, in­clud­ing in Batam.

On Oct 12, 2002, it launched the largest ter­ror attack this re­gion had seen, in Bali, where two sui­cide bombers det­o­nated bombs that killed 202 peo­ple and in­jured dozens of oth­ers.

The attack, the largest since Sept. 11, gal­va­nized the au­thor­i­ties into mov­ing against the group.

The Bali bomb­ings — as well as fol­low-up at­tacks on the Mar­riott Ho­tel in Jakarta in 2003 and the Aus­tralian Em­bassy in 2004, and a sec­ond se­ries of blasts in Bali in 2005 — served as a re­minder of the ever-present threat.

They were also a re­minder of the dev­as­ta­tion and dam­age that a ter­ror attack could wreak if it were to hap­pen in Sin­ga­pore.

An Evolv­ing Threat

The JI in this re­gion, like alQaida in the Mid­dle East, has been se­verely weak­ened as a re­sult of se­cu­rity ini­tia­tives.

Its ap­peal in Sin­ga­pore has been dented by the ef­forts of the Re­li­gious Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Group — Is­lamic schol­ars who coun­sel de­tainees and ed­u­cate the com­mu­nity about the dan­gers of rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy, and who stress that the ter­ror­ists are mis­us­ing Is­lamic teach­ings for their own ends.

A group of com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions that came to­gether af­ter the ar­rests, called the Af­ter­care Group, has also worked qui­etly with de­tainees and their fam­i­lies, help­ing them to rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety af­ter their re­lease, in a bid to en­sure that the next gen­er­a­tion does not get rad­i­cal­ized.

Th­ese ef­forts have seen 57 of those de­tained re­leased to date, with only one re­cidi­vist who went back to his old ways.

But the JI has now been sup­planted by newer and equally, if not more, ne­far­i­ous groups. In Southeast Asia, the Je­maah An­sharut Tauhid, led by Bashir, be­came the JI’s new front.

Other mil­i­tants be­gan pur­su­ing a more hard-line path as well.

The Mu­jahidin in Eastern In­done­sia, led by wanted mil­i­tant San­toso, has been tar­get­ing sol­diers and po­lice­men in re­cent years for de­fend­ing a regime that it deems in­fi­del.

The In­done­sian au­thor­i­ties have thwarted plots at home. They also dis­cov­ered that some mil­i­tants were set­ting their sights on Sin­ga­pore tar­gets.

In 2010, a map of Sin­ga­pore with Or­chard MRT sta­tion cir­cled on it was re­cov­ered from a ter­ror sus­pect killed by the In­done­sian po­lice dur­ing a Jakarta raid.

In 2011, the po­lice broke up a cell led by mil­i­tant Abu Umar, which wanted to tar­get Sin­ga­pore­ans leav­ing the em­bassy in Jakarta.

New Dan­ger in IS

The threat has height­ened with the on­go­ing con­flict in Iraq and Syria, which has seen the rise of the mil­i­tant group Is­lamic State (IS).

The con­flict saw the only re­cidi­vist in Sin­ga­pore — self-rad­i­cal­ized lawyer Ab­dul Basheer Ab­dul Kader — de­tained again in Oc­to­ber 2012 as he tried to travel to Syria to fight.

He was first ar­rested abroad in 2007 as he was about to travel to Afghanistan, and was re­leased con­di­tion­ally in 2010.

Sev­eral other in­di­vid­u­als were coun­seled or given re­stric­tion or­ders, which limited their move­ments, af­ter they were found to have been mak­ing con­tact with rad­i­cal ide­o­logues or mil­i­tant groups abroad.

Even so, at least two Sin­ga­pore­ans have trav­eled to Syria.

A Sin­ga­pore woman, whose name has not been made public, her Pe­nang-born hus­band and two chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage went to Syria in Novem­ber 2013.

While the men fought, she worked as a cook, and her daugh­ter taught English to chil­dren of for­eign fighters in Syria.

A new Sin­ga­pore cit­i­zen orig­i­nally from In­dia, Haja Fakku­rudeen Us­man Ali, joined IS in Jan­uary last year. He took his wife and three chil­dren with him, and re­cruited two col­lege stu­dents from Tamil Nadu in In­dia.

Ob­servers warn that the threat is set to grow.

Last year, IS mem­bers from this re­gion started a Malay-speak­ing unit that has been boasting on so­cial me­dia about its ex­ploits.

To date, at least 500 Southeast Asians are known to be fight­ing in Syria. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber have re­turned as well.

The fear is that just as JI mem­bers put into prac­tice the knowhow they gained in Afghanistan, a new crop of re­turn­ing for­eign fighters could use the skills that they picked up to plan and carry out ter­ror at­tacks in the re­gion.

Of­fi­cials have warned that Sin­ga­pore re­mains a prime — and sym­bolic — tar­get. So far, it has been spared at­tacks like those suf­fered by ma­jor cities such as Syd­ney, Paris and Lon­don.

Thus, many won­der not just about whether an attack will hit Sin­ga­pore, but also about what will hap­pen when it does.

The rea­son is that the key threat posed by ter­ror­ism is not the first blast, but the af­ter­math: Will the so­cial fab­ric hold? Will Mus­lims and non-Mus­lims be driven apart by anger and mis­trust?

Speak­ing at an East Asia Sum­mit sym­po­sium on ter­ror­ist re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and so­cial rein­te­gra­tion this month, Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong said Sin­ga­pore had con­sciously sought to build trust and un­der­stand­ing across racial and re­li­gious lines.

“Should a ter­ror­ist attack ever oc­cur, our so­ci­ety will hold to­gether, and peo­ple will stand united,” he said.

In th­ese trou­bled times, even as se­cu­rity is stepped up, re­new­ing and build­ing on this trust could be Sin­ga­pore’s best de­fense against the ter­ror threat.

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