US sending more troops to drive ISIS out of stronghold

DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN, in a Facebook post on his meetings in Bahrain.
DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN, in a Facebook post on his meetings in Bahrain.

Defence ministers at forum warn of threat posed by returning terrorists to their societies

The United States is sending extra troops to Syria in a joint effort to drive terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of its stronghold of Raqqa, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter told a security conference in Bahrain yesterday.

The additional 200 US troops, including special forces, will join 300 deployed alongside Arab and Kurdish fighters, who have advanced to within 25km of the de facto capital of ISIS' self-declared caliphate.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces said it will "begin phase two of the campaign, which aims to liberate territory west of Raqqa and isolate the city", Agence France-Presse reported.

A US-led coalition has been providing support and training in the fight against ISIS, and the spokesman said coordination with the coalition will be "stronger and more effective during the second phase".

Dr Carter was speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Manama Dialogue, where officials took stock of the fight against extremism.

IDEOLOGICAL BATTLE

Like Al-Qaeda before it, our joint efforts will neutralise ISIS militarily, but this battle needs to be fought at the ideological level, with Muslim countries taking the lead. I was encouraged by the response from many leaders.

DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN, in a Facebook post on his meetings in Bahrain.

Defence ministers at the forum also gave a sobering assessment of the global threat, warning that ISIS continues to have a strong presence online and thousands of returning terrorists would pose a threat to their societies.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said social media platforms have been weaponised, making Mosul and Raqqa "only a mouse click away". Iraqi forces are currently trying to retake Mosul.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted that since the global coalition began operations in 2014, ISIS has lost over half of its territory in Iraq and a quarter in Syria.

"Paradoxically, the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria will likely worsen the threat in South-east Asia. We expect the returning fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and a few from Singapore, who are now in Iraq and Syria, will likely return to continue their violent plots at home," he said.

At least 1,000 fighters from South- east Asia have travelled to join ISIS. Groups loyal to ISIS have also set up camps in the southern Philippines.

Yesterday, Dr Ng said countries had to step up efforts to combine resources, share intelligence and build trust among their agencies.

He cited joint patrols by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to deter piracy and terrorism in the Sulu Sea. Singapore has also offered the Information Fusion Centre of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to provide maritime data. "There is more that we can do, within the region and internationally," he added.

Ministers stressed that the battle against extremism is, at heart, an ideological one. Dr Ng cited the case of a 17-year-old Singapore student who was radicalised by pro-ISIS material online in July. Those close to him tipped off the police, and he is being counselled by religious scholars.

Said Dr Ng: "In Singapore, our de-radicalisation programmes are successful, and we must counteract ISIS' propaganda before more young lives are blighted."

Yesterday, he called on Bahrain's Prime Minister Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and thanked Bahrain for its support for SAF deployments to the region as part of the counter-ISIS coalition.

He also met several leaders attending the annual dialogue, from Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'US sending more troops to drive ISIS out of stronghold'. Print Edition | Subscribe