Blunting the knife-edge of ISIS terrorism

Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam (centre), disembarking from a boat after watching a demonstration by the PCG Special Task Squadron the outskirts of the PCG Brani Base on March 18, 2016.
Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law K Shanmugam (centre), disembarking from a boat after watching a demonstration by the PCG Special Task Squadron the outskirts of the PCG Brani Base on March 18, 2016. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The recent unveiling of major upgrade plans to Singapore's counter-terrorism efforts by the Ministry of Home Affairs has provided much substance for Singaporeans to think about, as societies around the world gear themselves up to manage the terror threat the best way they can.

As Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's speech at the Home Team Leaders' Forum last month reminded Singaporeans, the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group is indeed monstrous and "qualitatively different" from that posed by groups such as Al-Qaeda.

Unlike for the Al-Qaeda terrorist, the lowest-common-denominator weapon for the ISIS perpetrator, when stripped of other means, is actually a knife. As Mr Shanmugam said: "(Terrorists) have begun to use knives, machetes - items that are easily accessible to people."

Indeed, one of the two self-radicalised Singaporean youths inspired by ISIS propaganda and arrested under the Internal Security Act for terrorism-related activities last May planned to carry out attacks in public places with knives.

Knives have become emblematic of ISIS fighters. They were sanctioned by the group as a weapon of choice when the shocking video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded with a 15cm-long knife was uploaded to the Internet in August 2014.

The image of the knife-wielding lone wolf was etched into the global mind during an attack at a London railway station last December that saw a number of people wounded. The incident raised fears that Britain could face more of such "low-grade attacks" by lone actors.

Beefed-up security patrols and the deployment of more closed-circuit television cameras across the island cannot be expected to future-proof Singapore from knife-wielding terrorists, even though they help improve monitoring and response. There are simply too many people to track.

Closer to home, Malaysia in January saw its first ISIS-related "lone cub" attack when a 16-year-old schoolboy held a sales assistant at knifepoint in a shopping complex before he was apprehended by the police.

The precedent for a group-level incident was set by the terrorist attack in the Chinese city of Kunming in March 2014. A group of eight individuals, suspected to be Xinjiang militants, rushed into a railway station and started slashing and stabbing people indiscriminately with knives and cleavers. The attackers killed 29 people and injured 143 others.

In Taiwan last week, the decapitation of a four-year-old girl - nicknamed Little Light Bulb - by a deranged individual with a cleaver also sent a psychological shock wave around the world, although the incident was not related to terrorism.

IMPLICATIONS FOR SINGAPORE

Singapore's extremely stringent border policing and control measures significantly mitigate the risk of contraband explosives and firearms entering the country that can be used in an ISIS attack similar to those that happened in Paris and Brussels recently.

However, beefed-up security patrols and the deployment of more closed-circuit television cameras across the island cannot be expected to future-proof Singapore from knife-wielding terrorists, even though they help improve monitoring and response. There are simply too many people to track.

When push comes to shove in the face of terrorism, it will be members of society who must serve as first responders by backing one another.

This is a mindset that has been firmly established in most citizens in Israel, a country besieged by waves of terrorism since its national independence in 1948. Israel has been dealing with a spate of attacks since last year which observers have described as the "knife intifada".

It has led the country's domestic security agency to conclude that these types of terrorist attacks cannot be detected ahead of time. Citizens must therefore be the first line of defence. Indeed, on top of recognising civilian contributions to opposing attacks, Israelis share tips in open forums on how to blunt a knife charge by improvising with surrounding objects. Discussions are tempered by a sense of prudence and responsibility. The Israeli authorities provide self-defence principles to the public and tips on exercising good judgment.

Here, the story of Little Light Bulb is also instructive. Although she was killed, her mother fought off her daughter's attacker as best as she could. While it was a mother's natural response to protect her child, this act of bravery must resonate at the societal level with all peoples.

This is why upcoming national programmes such as SG Secure, designed to organise, train and empower people to stand firm and put down a terror attack when needed, are necessary.

But such programmes are complete only if they are extended to provide basic self-defence training to able-bodied citizens. All physically able national servicemen already receive such training. There is no good reason all Singaporeans cannot receive such instruction as well.

To be sure, the best response for all civilians in the face of an attack is to help one another get away from harm. Yet, there are tactical situations where the social responsibility to disrupt an attack is required. In strategic terms, it telegraphs the message to groups such as ISIS that humanity will not be daunted.

At the end of the day, such training programmes must continue to complement long-existing initiatives to bolster social harmony. Should a member of society still be attacked, it will be a moment for other individuals not just to respond but also to draw upon the national wellspring of cohesion - built through prior efforts at community-building - to heal and prevail.

Again, we can learn from the mother of Little Light Bulb in her resilient belief that society is fundamentally good and that we must not lose trust in one another.

• The writer is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Blunting the knife-edge of ISIS terrorism'. Print Edition | Subscribe