Meeting terror's ideological challenge

Singapore's proposal to conduct an East Asia Summit symposium on the deradicalisation of extremists is a contribution to a two-front war on the resurgence of the global terrorist menace. The first front is military, with a hot war being waged on Middle Eastern battlefields where the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has entrenched itself. Singapore has committed limited but significant military assets to the military effort. The second front is ideological and exists anywhere - in North America, Europe or South-east Asia - from which ISIS seeks to draw its international fighters. Here, military means must yield space to a battle for hearts and minds.

Deradicalisation is an intrinsic part of the latter initiative. Its first task is to create a climate of religious opinion which sidelines radicals and deprives them of the dangerous comfort of believing that they represent the mainstream.

The second task is to prevent returning ISIS fighters from raising the fanaticism quotient among the impressionable, and certainly from planning physical terror attacks on the basis of their battlefield experience. Deradicalisation works best when it judiciously balances sanctions and persuasion to wean radicals off their addictive course of action. They must be guided to see the harm their acts can cause to the nation, the faith community, the radicals' families and to themselves.

Singapore has chalked up a substantial record of defanging the terrorist threat through preventive detention and the rehabilitation of the contrite in custody. The work of the Religious Rehabilitation Group is particularly noteworthy because it draws on the expertise and dedication of Muslim religious scholars to convince radicals that while they have strayed temporarily from the mainstream, there is a way back to it consonant with the timeless tenets of their faith. The group's experiences are among the best practices which Singapore could share at the proposed symposium with other countries in Asia.

The symposium would do well to examine how deradicalisation is itself threatened by developments on the ground. A recent article in Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis, published by the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, examines how a movement against deradicalisation has emerged in Indonesia. The article cites Gerakan Sehari Seribu as an entity that seeks to win over terrorist detainees and their families, as well as to undermine the government's deradicalisation programme. No ideological battle is won once and for all in the war on terror. The symposium could chart the pitfalls ahead.