Very real threat of radicalism

The anarchy wreaked on Iraq by a self-appointed caliph might appear distant to many in Singapore, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, especially after the crippling of erstwhile terror networks in the region. But it would be unwise to dismiss the possibility of a viral return of jihadist stirrings.

Exuberant support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - with radicals from Indonesia, Malaysia and even Singapore heeding the call to arms in the Middle East - provides stark warning that nascent steps by Islamic revivalists to restore the caliphate have greater potential to take hold in highly unstable times.

The recruitment of foreigners, inspired by online propaganda to join the battle in Syria, reflects the cross-border nature of the contagion. And examples of self-radicalisation and "freelance jihadists" suggest that the informal set-up of the ISIS, unlike that of traditional terror networks, makes it much harder to counter through conventional anti-terror strategies. The far-reaching impact of the conflict in Iraq and Syria has prompted global warnings that the ISIS could well surpass Al-Qaeda as the biggest terror threat today.

The real danger lies in battle-hardened radicals returning home with the fanatical desire to replicate the bid to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. Along with a propensity for violence - an ISIS trait - and practical military skills, they could be an engine of greater intolerance at a time of growing religiosity. Such fears are not overblown: Radicals have started an ISIS Indonesian chapter, while regional terror groups have been quick to express support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In the light of such developments, it would be prudent to double efforts to put the events in Syria and Iraq in the correct perspective. The ISIS is a sectarian group whose ambitions are largely political, and whose tools are brutality, persecution of minorities, executions and suicide attacks - hallmarks of a terrorist group. Moderate Muslim leaders in the region ought to take pains to show up the fighting for what it is - a civil and not religious war, with the ISIS bent on achieving its political goals through terrorist means.

The Net, social media and ease of travel have contributed to make the viral threat of extremism more potent than before. Hence, moves to explain the conflict to the community are essential. The insidious spread of radicalism should never be underestimated.

Warnings by Singapore's leaders are timely. At stake are the nation's security and social cohesion. The potential impact, as underscored by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, could be worse than the Jemaah Islamiah threat in 2001. Terror remains a hydra-headed beast.