Radicalisation and its threats to a small nation

This is the sixth of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz

A string of high-profile attacks in Paris, Istanbul, Jakarta and Brussels in the past five months has left little doubt that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses real danger to people everywhere.

Singaporeans are no exception.

In those attacks, the terrorist group has shown a high degree of sophistication and planning. Bombs were set off in a coordinated manner to inflict maximum casualties and sow widespread panic. ISIS today poses a far graver threat than its predecessor Al-Qaeda ever did, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in Parliament earlier this month.

As devastating as suicide bombings and shootings are, they represent the conclusion of a journey that begins with radicalisation.


Terrorism is today broadly defined as the use of violence to intimidate people and governments. Its perpetrators have a political agenda. To achieve their goals, religion and ideology are used to divide society along sectarian lines to incite hatred.

ISIS, which grew to prominence in 2013, has shown a mastery of global communication networks, using the Internet to disseminate graphic videos and electronic magazines to spread its perverted form of Islamic teachings. These include convincing Muslims that to be true to their faith, they should migrate to ISIS-held territories to fight and kill non-believers. On social media, sympathisers and militants echo these messages and reach out to the curious and impressionable.

A lone "gunman" being subdued in a simulated terror attack. Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious make-up and financial and aviation hub status make it a prime terror target.
A lone "gunman" being subdued in a simulated terror attack. Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious make-up and financial and aviation hub status make it a prime terror target. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Twitter said in February that it has closed more than 125,000 accounts since last year over links to terrorism, most of which were ISIS-related.

  • About The Big Quiz

    This primer is part of The Straits Times' initiative to discuss issues of national concern. Each Monday, the paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primers, as well as five campus talks helmed by editors and correspondents, are part of this paper's outreach programme called The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, nicknamed The Big Quiz.

    The nationwide event, whose presenting sponsor is the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation, aims to promote the understanding of civics among pre- university students. Yishun Junior College won the first round of the year, held at Innova Junior College on April 6. Tampines Junior College won the second round of the year, held at Victoria Junior College on April 20. The other talks by ST journalists and quiz rounds will be held on:

    • April 27 at Anglo-Chinese Junior College;

    • May 18 at River Valley High School; and

    • July 20 at Raffles Institution

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Unfortunately, several Singaporeans have fallen prey to the militant group's twisted ideas. Some, like Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, 29, and Harith Jailani, 19, were self-radicalised through online propaganda and aimed to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS. The two were detained by the Internal Security Department last August.

Another potential ISIS terrorist, Mustafa Sultan Ali, 52, was arrested by the Turkish authorities and deported while trying to cross into Syria. He was detained by the Singapore authorities last July.

There also was polytechnic student M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i, 20, the first ISIS-linked individual who posed a threat on Singapore soil.

He planned to assassinate President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong if he was unable to travel to Syria. If that was not possible, he would carry out attacks in public places, with weapons such as knives. He was detained in April last year.

Last month, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said two Singaporeans at a religious school in Yemen were detained for their involvement in skirmishes there. Many were also alarmed by the case of Wang Yuandongyi, 23, who was detained for trying to join a Kurdish militia that is battling ISIS in Syria.

But cases are not confined to Singaporeans. Last November, 27 Bangladeshi workers were arrested and deported after they were found to have met regularly to discuss carrying out armed jihad in their home country.

The message is clear: Singapore does not condone supporting or carrying out armed violence, no matter how it is rationalised or where the battlefield is. Such acts show "a dangerous tendency to support the use of violence", said the MHA.

More worrying is what happens when those who have gone to Syria return home. About 500 South-east Asians are known to be fighting in Syria, and a number have returned.

In Singapore, the authorities stopped most who tried to travel to Syria. But at least two Singaporeans and their families were successful in getting there. The fear is that battle-experienced combatants, steeped in extremist ideology, will heed ISIS' call to carry out violent attacks at home.

Such concerns are well-founded: The masterminds of the Paris attacks last year and the Jakarta bombings in January spent time with ISIS in Syria, as did three of the five bombers involved in the Brussels attacks last month.


But should Singapore worry about a terror attack happening here?

ISIS has made it clear that it aims to expand its reach and influence globally - by establishing "wilayats", or provinces, around the world. This includes South-east Asia, which ISIS views as fertile ground because of its large Muslim population and the successes it has chalked up in recruitment. It even set up a Malay Archipelago Unit, which, besides fighting at the front line, aims to spread propaganda material translated into Malay and recruit fighters.

Already, more than 30 militant groups from South-east Asia, mostly from Indonesia, have pledged allegiance or expressed their support for ISIS, said regional terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna.

Mr Shanmugam said this puts Singapore at the "epicentre of the caliphate that ISIS wants to establish in this region".

The island's multiracial and multi-religious make-up and status as a financial and aviation hub also make it a prime target, said officials.

A strike here will be a symbolic victory that will gain ISIS both prestige and new volunteers.

Why? Singapore is well known for its uncompromising stance against terrorism, its participation in the global coalition against ISIS, and its efforts to combat terrorism in South-east Asia. That it has been spared attacks is not for lack of trying by the terrorists, said analyst Jasminder Singh of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

"ISIS is aware of what Singapore is doing to counter its ideology, and it knows it will be a big coup if it ever executes an attack here," he said. "It hasn't had the opportunity because of the security environment. But that means we can't take our safety for granted."

The threat of an attack here is at the highest it has been in decades, said Mr Shanmugam, while PM Lee warns that it is no longer a question of whether, but when, an attack happens here.


In such an event, the damage will be measured not only in lives lost but also whether Singapore's social fabric remains intact. As terrorism today is largely perpetrated by those claiming to represent Islam, the question is whether trust and solidarity between communities can weather such an atrocity. Or will society succumb to anger and retaliation? The litmus test of whether Singapore can withstand any attack will be what happens the day after: Will Singaporeans be able to rise above ethnic and religious divides to pick up the pieces together, or will a rift open that makes healing impossible?


In a sign that the Government recognises these realities, this year's Budget saw significant boosts to counter-terrorism efforts.

These include greater protection of both hard targets such as Jurong Island and Changi Airport, and soft targets such as shopping malls and MRT stations, as well as increasing the size of emergency response teams to deal with multiple attacks. The Home Team will begin using data from traffic cameras and the Electronic Road Pricing system to analyse suspicious travel patterns.

Greater emphasis is also placed on community response. That includes mobilising and training Singaporeans to guard against attacks and to maintain social harmony and unity. This complements a psychological element of sensitising Singaporeans to the terror threat.

The Government is also stepping up efforts against extremist propaganda online. These include integrating lessons about online radicalisation into adult and youth Islamic education programmes.

Community groups are developing materials to help religious leaders counter hardline ideology, and reaching out to parents through seminars on how to foster critical thinking and protect their children against radical teachings.

Whether such initiatives succeed will hinge on Singaporeans recognising that the threat is real and being willing to participate actively. After all, the aim of any terror attack is to spread fear and cause divisions in the population. How the average citizen responds after an attack determines whether the terrorists have truly succeeded.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Radicalisation and its threats to a small nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe