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Rohan Gunaratna: Engage terror detainees to minimise relapse

Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna on reforming detained terrorists and preventing relapses. - ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN
Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna on reforming detained terrorists and preventing relapses. - ST PHOTO: KEMBURAJU THANGARAJAN

Global security experts and officials will be here next week for the East Asia Summit (EAS) Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Reintegration to discuss countering the terrorist threat. As militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) casts its pall internationally and plots are thwarted closer to home, Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies tells Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh about reforming detained terrorists and preventing relapses.

Q: You are the convenor of the upcoming EAS Symposium. Can you tell us more about it?

It focuses on terrorist rehabilitation and community engagement. With the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, a new global threat landscape is emerging. If you look at Singapore and East Asia, ISIS-linked groups and cells are now beginning to pose a threat. To mitigate the threat, Singapore decided to convene this symposium with 550 delegates.

The United States delegation is led by General John Allen, President Barack Obama's envoy for fighting ISIS.

There will be a number of delegations from this region, including top counter-terrorism officials from Indonesia and Malaysia, and several heads of security and intelligence services.

Q: That's a wide range. Is this the first time such a symposium has drawn such keen interest?

This will be the biggest. Singapore itself developed a series of impressive conferences in the past, including the first international conference on terrorist rehabilitation in 2013. This one will see the highest-level representation from the Singapore Government and community. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will inaugurate the symposium. The Mufti of Singapore will also be speaking. Some of the best academic specialists will be here.

In terms of participation at the political, operational and academic level, it is very significant.

Q: What does the symposium hope to achieve? Why the need for it now?

Our particular intention at this point is to work with a number of governments, especially in this region, to build their capacities and capabilities to fight terrorism.

One way is to enhance rehabilitation programmes, create structured programmes in countries that have only ad hoc ones, and to seed such programmes in countries where none now exists. We have a capacity-building team to help these countries do this.

In the past, we helped Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Bangladesh build their own programmes. We are also helping Indonesia enhance its ad hoc rehabilitation programme.

Singapore's approach is a full-spectrum response. We integrate hard power with soft power and produce what you call "smart power". We are engaging communities, preventing radicalisation, and for those who are radicalised, we de-radicalise them through rehabilitation.

Singapore is sharing its soft-power capabilities with others. This is in contrast to the Western approach to fighting terrorism using hard power - meaning to catch and kill terrorists, and to disrupt terrorist operations.

Q: Some countries have an ad hoc rehabilitation programme, while in others, like Singapore, it's compulsory. Do you think compulsory rehabilitation could work in all countries? Would you recommend it?

My personal opinion is that a terrorist is a person who has violated the human rights of others. If a terrorist is unwilling to accept rehabilitation, that terrorist should be incarcerated for as long as he or she does not change their point of view.

If a government releases a terrorist without rehabilitation, three things would happen: The terrorist will infect others with his ideas and there will be regeneration, there will be new terrorists; second, that terrorist poses a security threat and may undertake attacks; and third, this terrorist who is unrepentant, who is not expressing remorse, will be hailed as a hero by a small group of supporters and sympathisers.

In order to fight terrorism in the long term, it is imperative for us to ensure that every terrorist undergoes rehabilitation.

But there are countries which don't want to do it. There are countries that don't have rehabilitation programmes. And in such cases, there is recidivism - when a terrorist who is released goes back and conducts attacks, or joins or forms new groups, or infects others with their ideology.

Unless you ensure proper rehabilitation, that individual will pose a security threat.

Q: And could this be why there are rising recidivism rates - an issue that will be touched on at the symposium. What do you think this means for South-east Asia?

In the next three years, there will be about 200 terrorists released from Indonesian custody, including those who participated in the Bali attack (in 2002 which killed 202 people). As they were not rehabilitated, they will pose a threat. Some will end up in Syria. Some will do attacks in Indonesia.

I believe it's important to build comprehensive rehabilitation programmes. While in custody, the terrorist will undergo key forms of rehabilitation: religious, educational, vocational, social and family … You have to engage detainees on all fronts to minimise the chance of relapse.

I believe the Singapore spirit is the most important spirit (with which) to fight terrorism. If you're a true Singaporean with friends across communities then you cannot be extremist.
- Rohan Gunaratna 

Q: You mentioned the different types of rehabilitation. Can you tell us more about the Singapore model?

We must convert prisons and detention centres into universities and schools. Unless we show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel and treat them humanely, terrorists and extremists won't change.

In fact, we have encouraged governments not to use the term terrorist when a terrorist joins a rehabilitation programme. We ask them to use the word "beneficiary". Today, in Pakistan, they say they learnt the word "beneficiary" from us.

With educational rehabilitation, you send them to school. You instill a sense of nationalism, love for your country, for your leaders so that misguided youth don't love Osama Bin Laden or ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Social and family rehabilitation is one of the strongest modes of rehabilitation here: caring for the wife and children of the detainee to break the cycle of violence.

A case worker is assigned to each family. They make sure the children go to school. They link families to institutions that can support them, help the wife pick up skills. Community organisations help them pay their electricity bill, put food on the table, and when the detainee hears this, he will think: "The Government is not so bad. Society is not so bad. They have helped us."

So there's a new vision for the person in custody too.

Q: Just nine of the 66 people detained here for terrorism-related activities remain in custody. How has Singapore's programme helped those freed restart their lives?

Singapore had only one recidivist (Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader) and that itself shows that rehabilitation is not the perfect answer. But it is the best available answer for terrorism.

What Singapore has done is to ensure that everyone released is gainfully employed or occupied. If you allow someone out, and there's no job, no studies, that person can drift again. You minimise that by taking care of them.

In countries where they have found jobs or higher-education opportunities, the number of terrorists who relapse is small.

Many of our former detainees are employed, because of the understanding that they have developed with their case workers.

Singapore has been very humane in its approach. Sometimes Singapore portrays itself as a very tough country. It is tough against terrorism - a zero-tolerance approach.

But I also want to tell you that Singapore has truly demonstrated its heart in looking after those who have expressed remorse, expressed regret, rejected violence and embraced peace.

Q: You've said that ISIS is beefing up its external operations wing and courting support in South-east Asia. Could you tell us more?

ISIS followers in South-east Asia have formed cells or groups, or existing groups have transformed and pledged support for ISIS. There are 21 groups in South-east Asia that support it, most of them based in Indonesia.

It's a matter of time before these groups plan attacks. In Malaysia, police have already disrupted a number of attacks, and currently groups in Indonesia are in the phase of planning and preparing for attacks.

Other than that, ISIS' external wing is planning a number of attacks. We are also seeing some early indications of ISIS money coming to this region.

So the real danger is ISIS mounting attacks internationally. We have seen a few attacks, but these are home-grown. ISIS' external wing itself has not attacked at this point. But like Al-Qaeda's external wing staged the Sept 11 (attacks in 2001), it's likely that ISIS will attack outside Iraq and Syria in the coming months and years.

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Q: You said money is now flowing into this region, into South-east Asia. What does it foreshadow?

It's a very recent development, early this year. At this point, the funding has focused on bringing people over to the Middle East and, possibly, some of that money may be used to mount attacks.

Q: ISIS has set up a military unit for South-east Asian fighters. Are there updates, and what does it mean for the region?

About 300 South-east Asian fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq. They have created their own organisation, Katibah Nusantara. It intends to recruit more Southeast Asians and to also send those who are motivated, and who received skills through training, and networks, back to South-east Asia to create platforms to extend their caliphate in this region.

So ISIS presents a very significant and sustained threat to the security and stability of this region.

Governments must do everything possible to prevent such people from travelling to the Middle East. But once they go there, governments must do everything possible to bring them back. Once they return, governments must be able to rehabilitate them.

That's why it is so important to have rehabilitation and community engagement.

If someone is back and a government is not going to take action against the person, there must at least be a community effort to reintegrate that person back into society. That's why this symposium is so important.

Q: This week, Malaysia detained 17 people for terror-related activities in a sign that ISIS' influence is hitting close to home. What does this mean for Singapore?

I believe that during this time, every single disruption of a terrorist plot is a message for another country. The threat landscape in Malaysia extends to Singapore. The threat landscape in Indonesia has a very significant influence in the region.

When there is such an arrest, it's very important for all governments to work together, because it's a common threat.

Singapore cannot defend itself simply by raising its walls. It must work with its regional partners to reduce the regional threat. We are likely to face this level of threat for a considerable period.

So the Tier 1 national security threat to Singapore at this point is terrorism. And I would say that everyone must be alert to prevent the next attack. ISIS is keen to attack and destabilise this region.

Q: Why is it so keen on doing so?

South-east Asia is a region of great hope. It has done exceptionally well. Terrorists want to disrupt that. Terrorists want to see disharmony. Terrorists want to break the relationships between different faiths. So governments must do everything possible to keep these communities together.

ISIS is not an Islamic group. It is misinterpreting and misrepresenting a great religion, and, during this period, we have to work together with our Muslim colleagues to fight terrorism.

Unless we work together, unless we maintain communal harmony, terrorism and extremism will affect this region. To manage extremism we have to manage ethnic and religious tensions. I believe the Singapore spirit is the most important spirit (with which) to fight terrorism. If you're a true Singaporean with friends across communities then you cannot be extremist.