The Straits Times says

Bringing the wayward back home

Singapore's security depends crucially on its being able to adapt itself to the evolution of the terrorist threat. A recent visit by President Tony Tan Keng Yam to a centre run by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) attests to that necessity. When the RRG was set up in 2003, its main challenge was to counter the threat emanating from the South-east Asian terror group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI). This was the clandestine grouping that aimed to establish an Islamic State in the region through violent means. Linked to the global terror organisation, Al-Qaeda, which had carried out the attacks in the United States in September 2001, the JI sought to attack foreign and local assets in Singapore. A series of arrests here thwarted those nefarious plans. Singaporeans cast a collective sigh of relief over the diligence of the security agencies. However, they could not but have wondered how long the national defence against global terror would last.

The RRG is one reason for Singapore having held out so long. Consisting of Islamic religious teachers and academics, the voluntary group went to work on its inception, quietly but insistently. Its primary objective was to rehabilitate detained JI members and their families through counselling. RRG volunteers were armed with religious knowledge that was deep and powerful enough to counter misinterpretations designed to mislead Muslims seeking a religious answer to the ills of the world. Members of the RRG reassured the wayward that they could return to the religious mainstream to practise Islam fulfillingly as citizens of multi-religious Singapore. The RRG's hearts-and-minds strategy complemented the hard work of intelligence-gathering and quick action needed to detect and defuse terrorist plots.

JI and even Al-Qaeda have been replaced today by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The promise of its self-declared caliphate has drawn many Muslims worldwide, including some from Singapore, into its fold as activists or supporters. Using the wide reach of the Internet, ISIS has moved beyond the cell-based structure of its predecessors to breed a generation of lone wolves, self-radicalised individuals who act on their own in a way that makes detection difficult.

The RRG's efforts have kept pace with the technological evolution of the terror threat. Measures include a helpline and a mobile application that can be used for private chats with RRG counsellors. Those scouring the Internet - to which ISIS appears to have outsourced much of its recruitment drive - for religious affirmation enjoy the countervailing presence of a sane and moderate institutional voice. The RRG counsels understanding and patience. Clearly, it cannot stop the reach of wild propaganda into every impressionable individual. However, it should help to contain the numbers of such individuals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Bringing the wayward back home'. Print Edition | Subscribe