Keeping an eye on terrorism overseas

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 27, 2013 

B EARING boxes of local delicacies from Yogyakarta, security expert Bilveer Singh walked into the sparsely furnished home of radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in Solo, Indonesia.

It was a difficult meeting to arrange as the cleric did not want any visitors from Singapore, considered by Islamic militants as anti-Islam because of its ties with the United States and its allies.

But when the two men met, their meeting lasted for more than three hours.

Bashir told his Singapore visitor: "The next time you want to see me, just call."

They met on three other occasions at Bashir's house. Dr Singh, 57, questioned him on his role in inciting terrorism and suicide bombings in the region.

Speaking softly, Bashir defended his violent ideology, while treating his guest to generous offerings of cake and fruit juice.

He argued that he only preached militant Islam but did not instigate or mastermind terror attacks.

He told his visitor: "God gives everyone a brain. What and how he uses it, is up to him."

Pointing to a knife that was being used to cut an apple for his granddaughter, Bashir purred: "There is a knife. I sharpen the knife. Whether you use it to cut an apple or somebody's throat, it is your decision. Not mine."

Spillover effect

DR SINGH, who has studied Indonesian terrorism for more than 32 years, experienced up-close the charismatic appeal of the spiritual leader of militant Islam in his home in Solo. His interviews with the cleric took place between 2007 and 2009.

Bashir is now in jail and, though frail, he still holds sway over his followers. He was sentenced in 2011 for his role in organising a terrorist training camp in Aceh and is now serving a nine-year term in Nusakambangan prison in Indonesia.

Bashir sent shivers down the spine of Singapore authorities when the plot of the terror group he founded, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), was uncovered in Singapore.

The JI's sinister scheme in 2001 to blow up several important locations in Singapore was thwarted that year when its key leaders were nabbed and jailed.

Dr Singh has fixed a hawk-eyed gaze on security developments in Indonesia. What happens there will have a spillover effect on Singapore.

"I'm not worried about our captured Singapore terrorists. In the planned JI attacks in 2001 and 2002, the Singaporeans were just the foot soldiers.

"More worrying are the terrorists from overseas who buy Bashir's ready-made narratives and are prepared to be suicide bombers in attacks," Dr Singh says.

New militant Islamic groups are also popping up, some of them without known names. Not much is known, for example, about the group involved in a plot this year to attack the Myanmar Embassy in Indonesia.

But they are involved in a growing Salafi jihadist movement which aims to purify Islam through jihad, or a struggle to defend Islam through violence.

Some younger jihadists even look down on former jihadists and say they are not violent enough, Dr Singh reveals.

Another worry is the threat posed by a lone wolf. The term refers to a loner who radicalises himself. He also carries out the attacks personally, making it more difficult to identify him in advance, says Dr Singh.

Singapore is not immune to this problem. It has detained five self-radicalised men since 2007.

Exploiting loopholes

A GENIAL father of two married to a school principal, Dr Singh wears two hats.

At the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department, he is an associate professor of international relations.

Since 2010, he has also been a senior adjunct fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security, focusing on terrorism in Indonesia. He has written 20 books on security issues in Indonesia.

He is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, a language he picked up from his Indonesian friends when he did his master's and PhD in international relations at the Australian National University between 1982 and 1986. He has a Bachelor of Social Science (Honours) degree in political science from NUS.

Treat the disease

ACCORDING to Bashir, the best gift the terrorists received in Indonesia was when the country made the transition from military to democratic rule in 1998.

Mr Solahudin, an Indonesian expert on Islamic extremism in Indonesia, agrees. He said at a security seminar on countering violent extremism in Singapore in September this year that Indonesian terror groups are taking advantage of the democratic space.

"When some groups demand that jihadists websites be closed, terrorists reject the demands on the grounds that their freedom of expression would be violated.

"The government has not taken this issue seriously. The Minister of Information and Communication has been far more interested in closing down pornography sites than jihadi ones," he said.

Dr Singh adds that some progress has been made by Indonesian law enforcement agencies and civil society to counter the terrorists' propaganda. He gives credit to Indonesia's elite anti-terrorism agency Densus 88 which has fought "fire with fire". So far, over 80 terrorists have been killed and 800 captured.

Talks given to the public by mainstream Islamic groups like the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama are also useful in countering violent ideology.

But if Indonesia is to win its war on terror, it must strengthen its prison management system. Convicted terrorists need to be isolated so that they do not convert other prisoners to their cause, he suggests.

Agreeing, Singapore terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna says that the problem of prison management is not unique to Indonesia. He adds that Indonesian prisons must also improve their rehabilitation capabilities.

Dr Singh, a Sikh, adds that it is going to be difficult for moderate Indonesians to counter-balance the voice of militant Islam. Often, the moderates are drowned out by the rhetoric from radicals.

He comes back to his meetings with Bashir.

"He told me his mission in life is to convert all non-Muslims, including me, into a Muslim."

This is a weekly series featuring people in the fight against terror.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 27, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to