ISIS terror threat greater now, says Shanmugam

Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore, on Dec 2, 2016.
Singapore's Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam speaks to journalists during the Foreign Correspondents Association of Singapore luncheon in Singapore, on Dec 2, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Group's extremist beliefs have taken root in S-E Asia, with uptick in terrorism-related arrests in Indonesia

The threat of a terror attack in the region this festive season is stronger than that last year, because the extremist beliefs of terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have spread and taken root in South-east Asia, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Although ISIS has lost territory and has been wounded by military setbacks in the Middle East, there are pockets of people closer to home who are receptive to - and areas that are fertile for - such ideas, he added.

Mr Shanmugam also pointed to a series of actions that could indicate a looming threat. Towards the end of last year, Indonesia detected clear signals of an attack and arrested several individuals.

Still, Jakarta was struck by bombs in January, killing eight people.

Now, a similar uptick in terrorism- related arrests is taking place in Indonesia, he noted, adding that Singapore agencies are working closely with their Indonesian counterparts.

He noted that some of those picked up were protesting against the Jakarta governor, but planned to use the event for terror purposes.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking of the possibility of a terror attack in Singapore at a luncheon yesterday organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association here.

Terrorism was among a range of questions he fielded during the hour-long session. The other issues raised included changes to Singapore's elected presidency and its relationship with the United States, which will have a new leader next month.

But the threat of terrorism was a dominant issue.

The threat comes from three groups, he said. The first group, those who return from fighting in Iraq and Syria "battle-hardened"; the second, those freed from detention but who still harbour radical inclinations; and the third, those radicalised online by ISIS propaganda.

He noted that ISIS has called on its supporters to carry out attacks at home if they are unable to travel to Iraq and Syria to join its cause.

The number of attacks by individuals using everyday items such as knives and vehicles to kill went up significantly after that, he noted.

While security agencies are on high alert concerning the heightened terror threat, getting Singaporeans to be vigilant is an uphill task, said Mr Shanmugam.

"From the perspective of the people, everyone is winding down for Christmas," he quipped to laughter.

"It is safe to say that trying to get our population to understand and realise what we are up against is very much a work in progress that has got a long way to go."

The situation is not a surprise, he said, as Singaporeans have grown accustomed to living in a safe country, and so they take security as a given.

But it prompted the Government to launch SGSecure in September, a nationwide movement to increase people's preparedness and resilience in a crisis, like a terror attack.

The Government wants to reach out to one million households to educate people on what to do in an attack and encourage them to get training on how to use emergency equipment.

Singapore has also set up Emergency Response Teams that will form the first wave of responders in a terror attack.

Some of these troops are put on motorcycles so that they can beat the traffic and get to where they need to be quickly, he said.

Mr Shanmugam reiterated that while prevention of an attack and the immediate response to one are important, how Singapore reacts the day after is no less critical.

"Do we respond as one people and not point fingers at a particular community or a religious group, but respond as Singaporeans, understanding that most Singaporeans are moderate and inclusive? Then we have won, if life goes on as normal.

"If we go into our bunkers and start pointing fingers and become divided, then the terrorists win," he said.

When asked if he thought Singaporeans would stay united after a terror attack here, Mr Shanmugam said he believed Singaporeans would rally together.

But he cautioned that if the attacks are repeated time and again over a sustained period of time, differences in society may develop like they have in countries such as France and the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS terror threat greater now, says Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe