2 Singaporeans detained under ISA: Arrests signal threat posed by extremist rhetoric online, say experts

Zahran Hashim, who led April's Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, met one of the two arrested Singaporeans.
Zahran Hashim, who led April's Easter attacks in Sri Lanka, met one of the two arrested Singaporeans.

The recent arrests of two radicalised Singaporeans highlight the prevailing threat of extremist ideologies being disseminated online, experts said yesterday, noting that one of them went a step further to travel abroad and meet an extremist cleric face to face.

Kuthubdeen Haja Najumudeen, 36, made three trips to Sri Lanka and met Zahran Hashim, who led April's Easter bombings at churches and hotels which killed over 250 people, the Ministry of Home Affairs said yesterday.

The meetings took place between May 2015 and October 2016, but investigations did not show any indication that Haja was involved in the April attacks, it said.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow with the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies, said Haja's meetings with Zahran and his group, the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), are "hugely significant" as they show how easy it is to travel to another country and be radicalised, or show solidarity with extremist individuals and groups.

He said the task of monitoring radical extremist individuals has become even more difficult for the Singapore authorities, who have to stay ahead of the curve to preserve the country's national security. "As Haja was in contact with Zahran and NTJ, we cannot rule out the possibility that the terror threat is real, in that Haja could have been inspired to plot something similar in Singapore, with disastrous consequences for our multicultural social fabric and harmony."

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said the "additional step" Haja took to meet personally with an extremist preacher abroad shows how a significant degree of radicalisation can happen, facilitated by social media. "With social media so easily accessible, it is now far easier for extremist ideologies of any stripe to be readily disseminated across national borders," he added.

Dr Mustafa noted that Haja's case also highlights the cross-regional terror link between South and South-east Asia, adding that countries need to work together in dealing with the threat, such as by sharing best practices to tackle it.

 
 
 
 

Prof Ramakrishna said that besides legislation and enforcement, closer engagement between social media firms, the Government and religious leaders to make online counter-narratives and alternative narratives more appealing than extremist ideology is also necessary.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) said the cases reinforce the "dangers of seeking religious guidance over the Internet from untrusted sources, particularly those from overseas". It urged the Muslim community to seek religious guidance only from credible registered religious teachers and schools.

"Despite the debunking of ISIS' (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) radical ideologies on mainstream and social media, it is regrettable that both individuals fell prey to ISIS influence online," Muis said, calling for vigilance against exclusivist and extremist teachings.

It is important for family members and friends to help those showing signs of radicalisation by referring them to community groups or the authorities, it added.

They can also contact Muis on 6359-1199, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) helpline on 1800-774-7747, or via the RRG Mobile App, and the Asatizah Youth Network via the Muslim.SG app.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2019, with the headline 'Arrests signal threat posed by extremist rhetoric online, say experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe