Returning ISIS fighters will pose a long term threat to global security: DPM Teo

SINGAPORE - Foreign fighters returning home from the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq pose an international security threat that will last for decades to come, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said on Thursday, at the opening of an international symposium on rehabilitating terror detainees.

Even after they leave the fighting in the Middle East, the radicalised fighters - who today number over 20,000 according to a UN report - can continue to carry out attacks in their home countries, or further the violent agenda of militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by forming their own terrorist groups and radicalising their countrymen, said DPM Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs.

"The threat of returning fighters is not new to Singapore," he said at the opening of a two-day East Asia Summit Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Integration.

"Some members of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network had been involved in the earlier Afghan conflict, before they later engaged in terrorist activities in this region."

JI members had plotted to bomb Changi airport, and even collaborated with an Al-Qaeda operative to try and mount suicide truck bomb attacks against the American and other embassies here. The plans were foiled when they were arrested in 2001.

DPM Teo drew parallels between the emergence of Al-Qaeda and its subsequent spread of global jihad following the Soviet-Afghan war, and today's ISIS.

"A new generation of militants and terrorists will emerge from the large number of foreign fighters participating in the conflict in Syria and Iraq," he said. "They will pose an international security threat to all of us for decades to come."

The difference in today's conflict is that many fighters have taken their family to Syria and Iraq, whereas the Soviet-Afghan war largely involved only the fighters themselves.

The two Singaporeans known to have travelled to Syria to fight had taken their families and young children along, said DPM Teo.

Evidence that ISIS is indoctrinating such children from a tender age include reports of minors enrolled into the ISIS army as "cubs of the Caliphate", a 10-year-old boy taking part in a hostage execution, and images of cheering families and children watching the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot on projection screens.

"Given their exposure to radical ideology and violence from a tender age, it is worrying what these children will grow up to be," he said.

One common trait among many radicalised individuals investigated in Singapore is that they have weak religious grounding, DPM Teo noted.

This was why Singapore embarked on a religious counselling programme after the JI arrests, he said.

Singapore has been fortunate that respected religious leaders have also stepped forward to counter the erroneous religious teachings disseminated by terror groups, said DPM Teo.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which was set up in 2003, brings together Muslim religious scholars to counsel both terrorism-related detainees and their families. RRG has also brought their counter-ideology effort to a wider audience in recent years to prevent others from being radicalised.

One other component to Singapore's counter-terrorism strategy is reintegration, said DPM Teo. The Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG) which brings together various community organisations provides detainees and their families a range of support, including financial assistance, counselling and family care services.

"The ACG helps to stabilise the families, and help them cope with the detention of the detainees," he said.

DPM Teo emphasised that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the terrorism problem, but that experts from the 30 countries gathered at the symposium can pick up best practices from one another.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar last November that Singapore would host the symposium as part of its efforts to help counter the threat of global extremism, which cannot be tackled by military means alone.

Other speakers over these two days include top counter-terrorism officials and academics from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Japan, India and the United States.

"The fallout from the Syrian conflict goes beyond what any one country or government can deal with," Mr Teo said.

"There is definitely scope for us to learn from one another on what has worked under different circumstances."

yanliang@sph.com.sg