Fighting terrorism in unusual war zones

They pit their mental stamina and skills against each other like gladiators in a modern-day amphitheatre of terror.

In one corner are the bad guys, terrorists who are apocalyptic antagonists, constantly seeking ways to inflict pain and damage on society. On the other side are the good guys - the counter-terrorist experts who crush terror groups like Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

I began writing stories on this fight in a series titled Old War, New Methods in November. The series was published in The Straits Times earlier this year. It has since been compiled into a book that details new development on the terror front. The idea behind the series was to put a human face to the counter-terrorism efforts being done on many fronts in Singapore, and to tell the stories of the men and women involved in that effort. What struck me about the good guys was that they were no James Bond type secret agents. No fancy electronic gadgets and no flashy sports cars. They were professionals who brought their expertise in different fields to counter new terrorist threats out there. 

One such expert is a former physical education teacher Salim Mohamed Nasir, 52. The soft-spoken man is on secondment from the Education Ministry to a think tank, the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). He visits schools, engaging young minds and helping them to see why it’s important to reject extremism and violence.

Another expert, Ms Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin, 28, is an online cyber terrorism expert. Also with RSIS, the petite mother of two young children trawls painstakingly through postings on extremist Indonesian websites. She spots, interprets and passes on information to security agencies, who then do the investigation and enforcement. 

Professor Pan Tso-Chien, 60, an urbane and relaxed engineer, heads the Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management. His mission: protect buildings from terrorist attacks and natural disasters. 

Other experts bring their knowledge to counter the work done by terrorists who call themselves the CEOs of Al-Qaeda's weapons of mass destruction programme.To make sure these CEOs fail, scientists like Dr Lee Fook Kay, 54, the gentle-mannered chief science and technology officer at the Ministry of Home Affairs, step up to the plate. He uses his expertise in chemistry and technology to block terrorists from bringing in deadly bacteria and viruses into Singapore. His work and that of the others is as valuable as the job done by intelligence officers who ferret out details of clandestine operations.

Terrorist threats keep evolving and it is no longer possible for one agency to handle terror threats. The work of the 16 experts profiled in The Straits Times demonstrates that everyone has a part to play in the war against terror. To believe that the Government or someone else will protect Singapore from an attack is naive.

Terrorists are like pickpockets looking for weak links to exploit, said Dr Rohan Gunaratna, 52. He is a much-sought-after security expert in RSIS and he has interviewed many terrorists detained in the US, Iraq and Asia. He knows what makes them tick. "On the surface, they look just like us, normal. But it is very difficult to read their minds. They are very determined to use violence to achieve their political goals," he said.To fight them, the public must be the “eyes and the ears of the government", he says.

What can ordinary citizens do? See a suspicious looking parcel in the train, report it quickly. Spot smoke coming out of a parked vehicle, call the cops immediately. It can be as simple as that.

Reader response to the articles was encouraging. Some said they now know more of the terror threats against Singapore.One reader asked me how to contact Dr Mohamed Ali, a Muslim cleric featured in January. The cleric was among the first in Singapore to begin work in 2001 on the religious rehabilitation programme for Jemaah Islamiah militants who were detained. He wanted to introduce the cleric to a Buddhist monk doing research on anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar.

In February, I received an e-mail from a reader Mr Jeff Norwitz in the United States. It arrived after we published the article on Mr Mark Fallon, a former US Navy counter-intelligence agent who spoke about the problems of using torture to extract reliable information from detained terrorists.An online video interview accompanied the print article, and this reader, who specialises in counter-terrorism work, asked if he could use the video in his classes for national security professionals.

For me, a big takeaway from meeting so many experts is realising that anti-terror wars are being fought in unusual ways, in unusual war zones. Over time, hopefully, this approach will become part of our national psyche as we learn how to live with terror, not in terror.

The book Old Wars, New Methods is launched on Nov 18. Published by The Straits Times Press, it costs $15 (including GST) and is available at major bookstores from Nov 19.

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