What more can be done to fight ISIS' ideology?

Fighters loyal to Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi stand guard in front of the Cairo Fortress in Yemen's third city of Taez, on Oct 21, 2015.
Fighters loyal to Yemen's President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi stand guard in front of the Cairo Fortress in Yemen's third city of Taez, on Oct 21, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

The terror threat has been hammered home with the fact that at least seven Singaporeans have been known to have joined or planned to join ISIS.

That the allure of ISIS' warped ideology is so pervasive, even here, must come as a shock to many.

But it is a relief that the vigilance and early detection efforts of the public and agencies such as the Internal Security Department meant that this year, five people were identified and dealt with.

Last year, two travelled to Syria where they are still believed to be: Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, now 39, and an unnamed woman who went with her Malaysian husband and two children.

This year, there has been a spate of preventive detentions by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In June, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a group of Muslim scholars who counsel terror detainees and radicalised individuals, launched a 130-page manual to help fellow counsellors .

In April, 19-year-old M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i was detained for making plans to join ISIS, and if he could not travel to Syria, planning to attack key facilities and assassinate the Prime Minister and President here.

In July, Mustafa Sultan Ali, now 52, was detained for having similar plans. He had been arrested by the Turkish authorities for trying to cross into Syria to join ISIS, and was deported in June.

In August, Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, now 29, and 18-year-old Harith Jailani were detained in separate cases for planning to join ISIS. A radicalised 17-year-old student was also placed under a Restriction Order which limits his activities.

Across the world, the search for a narrative powerful enough to displace ISIS' own is a top priority today, in the face of a protracted military campaign with no end in sight.

As that global search for a counter-narrative goes on, Singapore is experimenting with its own formula. In June, the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a group of Muslim scholars who counsel terror detainees and radicalised individuals, launched a 130-page manual to help fellow counsellors.

Besides being a storehouse of information on the evolution and organisation of ISIS, it collects research done by reputable Islamic scholars worldwide that debunks its rhetoric. The manual also provides alternative arguments to the them-against-us worldview of ISIS, such as the rich tradition of co-existence between Muslims and non-Muslims in South-east Asia for hundreds of years.

What makes ISIS' message such a heady concoction is its combination of the idea of a new Muslim society that transcends national boundaries, mixed with a siren call to adventurism and rebelliousness at the end-times, says anthropologist Scott Atran, who has done field research with foreign fighters on the front lines in Syria.

In spite - or even because - of its grisly and retrograde videos of beheadings and the burning alive of its prisoners, the wider message has managed to cut a swath through age groups, backgrounds and language barriers.

"Governments need a strong alternative to the caliphate as proposed by the Islamic State, instead of just trying to undermine it and saying it's a fantasy," he says.

"You have to show them that there are possibilities for a life of significance and glory through a different interpretation of their values than what ISIS says."

Knowing that disinformation and spin are now commonplace on the Internet means that the general public also needs to be a more active partner in the fight against ISIS, say experts.

Instead of shutting down accounts or websites that transmit extremist content, education and awareness efforts may be more effective, says RSIS' Dr Kumar Ramakrishna, who likens it to building "mental firewalls" to make communities more resilient against the malware that ISIS is trying to propagate.

"When it comes to dealing with the ideological threat that sustains the physical terrorist threat, there is still some way to go," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'What more can be done to fight ISIS' ideology?'. Print Edition | Subscribe