Plans hatched in Batam to launch a rocket attack on Marina Bay underscore the porous nature of territorial borders, whether on land, in the air or at sea, when these run up against the machinations of determined terrorists. Although the cell uncovered was small, the outrageousness of its ambition shows once again that terrorists are not deterred by the scope of an assault or their own limitations. Rounding them up in time owes much to the vigilance of the Indonesian authorities, with whom Singapore's security agencies had engaged in close coordination. Such cooperation will always be needed to ensure that little- known terrorist groups do not go unnoticed. No threat is small enough to be ignored, whether posed by an obscure group or by lone wolves operating in the unpoliced wilds of the virtual underworld.
Given the transnational threat of terror, the response to it can be effective only if it transcends borders. The International Meeting on Counter-Terrorism held in Bali this week underlined that reality. The ministers attending it underscored the importance of effective control that states must exercise over their borders to prevent the surreptitious movement of terrorists, their hardware, propaganda material, funds and weapons. On the sidelines of that meeting, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed on practical steps against cross-border terrorism. A priority is the exchange of biometric information, including fingerprints, on known fighters and those convicted of terrorism offences. The sharing of best practices in deradicalisation and countering violent extremism would also help nations to jointly check the spread of terrorism.
Back home, the Batam cell provides Singaporeans with yet another reminder of the fundamental threat to their existence posed by the long and persistent shadow of terror. Unlike war, which results from the failure of diplomacy and deterrence, terrorism is immune to diplomacy. The asymmetrical warfare it wages is not amenable to the rules of traditional war. What is left is the efficacy of pre-emptive deterrence to stop terrorists before they can strike.
Countries are at a disadvantage because, even if they succeed in stopping 99 attacks out of 100, a single terrorist success would call into question the trust that citizens place in the ability of their state to protect them. A single terrorist outrage could also succeed in undermining the compact among citizens of different religions and cultures. Prevention requires an immense investment of human and technological resources. Equally important is the need to sustain the intrinsic capacity of Singaporeans to survive the social aftermath of a terrorist attack. They must then fall back on the historical resilience of a country that has lived through the Japanese Occupation, turbulent post-war years and outbreaks like Sars.