First Singaporean in an ISIS video: 3 questions

First Singaporean in an ISIS video: 3 questions: 3. What can be done?

Experts suggest targeted efforts to engage vulnerable workers and students abroad, and people who may feel marginalised

Security experts say Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad's case illustrates the limitations governments face when it comes to the radicalisation of citizens living abroad.

Shahdan moved to the Middle East in early 2014, and some time during his stay there he was radicalised. In a matter of months, he would be on his way to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and would spend the next three years or so fighting on the front lines in Iraq and Syria.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, in Facebook remarks last week on Shahdan's appearance in an ISIS propaganda video, said the Internal Security Department (ISD) had been aware of his activities.

"So far, ISD has moved early, dealing with those who showed signs of radicalisation, in Singapore. This man, Abu Uqayl, is outside Singapore," he said, using the name Shahdan is identified by in the video.

"And over time, we must assume more of this will happen. We have to think of ways of dealing with radicalisation of Singaporeans, that could take place outside Singapore, particularly in countries where the possibilities of radicalisation are higher."

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told Insight that it is studying this.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), set up in 2003 to counsel JI detainees, now has its own resource and counselling centre, which has pushed out a slew of initiatives aimed at spreading the right teachings of Islam, such as a mobile application and pamphlets on frequently misunderstood issues like the Syrian conflict.

It is very difficult to monitor and counter overseas radicalisation, said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

"While Singapore is good at trying to stop its citizens from being radicalised at home, it faces an Everest-like challenge when trying to stop people like (Shahdan) being radicalised abroad, what's more in the Middle East," he said.

The conditions in some countries may be more "conducive" for radicalisation, he added. Exposure to exclusivist teachings that might have been banned in Singapore, or proximity to crises involving Muslims, like the Rakhine conflict, could make Singaporeans abroad more susceptible to terrorist propaganda.

Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid said governments can work with foreign intelligence agencies to monitor citizens abroad. But deciding who to keep tabs on, and dedicating resources to do so, will be a challenge.

Having a grassroots network on the ground - made up of people who live in the country and have the time and opportunity to get to know the other Singaporeans there on a personal basis - can be a crucial step.

Such groups that regularly reach out to and organise activities for the community can help with the alienation and marginalisation some Singaporeans experience abroad that may lead them to seek comfort and meaning in radical ideology, said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat.

Efforts to build these bonds already exist, he noted, citing how the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) keeps in close contact with students studying in Islamic institutes abroad, and update them on happenings back home.

The Muslim community must continue to lead the way when it comes to countering and speaking out against radical ideology, said Dr Tan Kim Huat from the Trinity Theological College, who suggested that accounts from those who were radicalised and have been rehabilitated could be made public.

Muis has student liaison officers to look after the needs of students in regions like North Africa and the Middle East.

In the coming years, said International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research head Rohan Gunaratna, Singapore will need to invest more time and resources to identify and engage vulnerable workers and students abroad.

INTERNATIONAL TIE-UPS

And as the terror threat grows more complex, Singapore cannot let up on international and regional cooperation efforts, be it working together to keep tabs on nationals deemed at risk or sharing military might, said experts.

Complex as the task may be, it has paid off.

"In our region, security agencies work closely together to exchange information in our common fight against terrorism," said the MHA. "Such collaborations have helped to uncover plots, led to the arrest of suspects, and thwarted attacks."

For instance, the authorities here have worked with their partners abroad to deport foreigners who were working here and found to be radicalised, foiled plans by an ISIS-linked cell based in Batam to fire a missile at the Marina Bay area last year, and captured Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader Mas Selamat Kastari in 2009, who fled to Malaysia after escaping from the Whitley Road Detention Centre a year earlier.

Within Asean, added MHA, there are established platforms for officials from different countries to meet and discuss counter-terrorism strategies.

The sharing of expertise and practices will help countries adapt to the evolving terror threat - and Singapore has much to offer.

For one thing, said Dr Fauzi, there is a wealth of Singapore-based terrorism research at institutions like the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Then, there is the Singapore approach to deradicalisation, which has drawn interest from countries around the world, noted Professor Gunaratna.

Last year, Singapore hosted a workshop on best practices and policies for promoting religious tolerance, which included a trip to the Harmony Centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque, which features artefacts and information on different religions, and organises inter-faith programmes.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), set up in 2003 to counsel JI detainees, now has its own resource and counselling centre, which has pushed out a slew of initiatives aimed at spreading the right teachings of Islam, such as a mobile application and pamphlets on frequently misunderstood issues like the Syrian conflict.

Meanwhile, Muis has set up a network that will bring together asatizah (religious teachers) and youth groups, who will be trained to counter radicalisation and reach out to young people on social media.

It will also serve as an avenue for people to seek religious advice for loved ones, with total anonymity, to help with earlier detection and intervention.

The authorities and community leaders have in recent months - as several Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act for radicalism - stressed the importance of family and friends coming forward to inform the authorities or those with religious know-how about individuals who may show extreme behaviour.

Mr Muhammad Faizal Othman, chairman of Taman Jurong Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle, said: "We must take care of each other, always be vigilant, and have the moral courage to alert the authorities when we see suspicious activities or behaviour. In doing so, we will enable timely intervention."

The Muslim community must continue to lead the way when it comes to countering and speaking out against radical ideology, said Dr Tan Kim Huat from the Trinity Theological College, who suggested that accounts from those who were radicalised and have been rehabilitated could be made public.

But non-Muslims also play a crucial role by showing empathy and solidarity, he said, citing how the National Council of Churches of Singapore has issued statements in support of Singapore's Muslim community.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop's Communications Office at the Archdiocese of Singapore said other groups must affirm and commend the efforts of the Muslim community. The development should concern all Singaporeans and the different communities will "need to work harder together and in even closer collaboration", it added.

Besides inter-faith activities like dialogues and putting up a united front, targeted programmes to give those who may feel left behind hope and help are important, too.

Dr Norshahril believes that even as religious leaders here beef up theological arguments, "we need to devise mechanisms to ensure those who feel marginalised can receive support".

He pointed out that while ISIS' recruits have come from all walks of life, the group has attracted a higher proportion of people on the margins.

Shahdan himself came from a life on the margins - a school dropout who did not hold a stable job and was in and out of jail for a series of drug and criminal offences.

"(His) story is a classic case of the disenfranchised or alienated being given a new but radicalised meaning in life, leading to zealotism," noted Dr Tan.

"How we are to find programmes to encourage fresh starts in life but without their being exploited or radicalised will be a big challenge for our society."

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 01, 2017, with the headline 'First Singaporean in an ISIS video: 3 questions: 3. What can be done?'. Print Edition | Subscribe