Singapore must stay vigilant as ISIS eyes region: Analysts

Security personnel patrolling at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.
Security personnel patrolling at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore may not be an immediate target for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) supporters after the terror group suffered defeats in Raqqa and Marawi.

But terror analysts warn that the Republic must keep its guard up, as battle-hardened fighters return home from these frontline areas and with ISIS likely to ramp up attacks in the region - starting with countries where it already has a substantial base of supporters.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore said ISIS and its supporters are more likely to carry out attacks in the Philippines, where it has "an extensive and historical network even though the groups are diverse and badly divided".

And once stalwart military groups there like the Abu Sayyaf "get their act together and ISIS is off the ground again", their sights could turn on Singapore, which offered Philippine forces a detachment of unmanned aerial vehicles to boost intelligence gathering and reconnaissance. These extremists may partly blame Singapore for the loss of Marawi, and "have revenge on their minds against us", said Prof Singh.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) research fellow Graham Ong-Webb agreed that Singapore's support in the global fight against terror - for instance providing intelligence, medical and logistical support to the anti-ISIS coalition in the Middle East - has shone a spotlight on the country.

He said ISIS' core battle has shifted from the Middle East to South-east Asia, where it has looked to the southern Philippines as a pocket of instability where an alternative caliphate could take root. "We can expect ISIS to push harder for an attack in key cities in South-east Asia, including Singapore," he added.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna from RSIS said that Singapore remains the prime target in South-east Asia, due to its pre-eminent status as a global hub.

However, it is "exceptionally hard" to strike Singapore, which has invested much in security and has strong intelligence links in the region, he noted. Recent enhancements include passing a Bill last month to tighten security for strategic infrastructure.

Prof Singh said the number of ISIS supporters in Singapore also remains small compared with its neighbours such as Malaysia and Indonesia, reducing the likelihood of domestic attacks.

"Our deradicalisation, counter-radicalisation and deterrent laws are a great help in ensuring ISIS does not have much support and sympathy here," he said, adding: "Our danger comes from ISIS supporters in the region who target us."

This includes the threat posed by elements like ISIS' South-east Asian unit Katibah Nusantara, which is highly combat-trained, but whose activities and whereabouts are still shrouded in mystery.

"Singapore is definitely an ISIS target but while we need to be extremely vigilant, I think for the time being we are a strong potential, rather than an immediate, target," said Prof Singh.

But while Singapore's security is tough to breach, the country is not impenetrable, Prof Rohan said.

"Although the main effort of Singapore is to strengthen regional security to meet the ISIS challenge, Singapore should prepare for likely attack scenarios on its own soil."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore must stay vigilant as ISIS eyes region: Analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe