The month of December in 2001 is etched in the mind of Muslim cleric Mohamed Ali.
Filled with shock, dismay and pain, it was a period when Singapore learnt that Al-Qaeda's terror tentacles had gripped Singapore.
He had just started work as the manager of the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang Road after returning with an arts degree in Islamic jurisprudence from Egypt's Al-Azhar University.
One day in late December that year, his father, Ustaz Ali Mohamed, stumbled into the mosque, looking visibly distraught.
Ustaz Ali, a respected Muslim leader and chairman of the Khadijah Mosque, told his son what he had just learnt from the Internal Security Department (ISD): Between Dec 9 and 24, it had arrested 15 people under the Internal Security Act for their involvement in terrorism-related activities. They belonged to a militant group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), linked to Al-Qaeda.
The JI planned to bomb several targets in Singapore. Some among its members had trained in Al-Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
"My father kept repeating: 'This has happened to our country. We must do something.'
"It was a challenging time for us. We knew we had to be at the forefront. But we did not know what or how we were going to do the job," recalls the soft-spoken Dr Mohamed, 40.
What the father and son, and another Muslim cleric, Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan, knew then was not known to the public. It was much later on Jan 5, 2002, that the Government released details of the arrests to the public.
The ISD had consulted the two Muslim clerics first because Singapore leaders realised early the need for a different approach in tackling the terrorism problem.
The ISD could detain the men and prevent them from carrying out terrorist attacks. But its officers lacked the deep Islamic knowledge needed to debunk the deviant beliefs of the JI prisoners.
Security officers were stumped when the captives gave blase replies to the "why" question.
Why did they want to attack the water pipeline that links Singapore and Malaysia, or bomb the United States Embassy in the Republic?
Dr Mohamed says: "The men simply replied, "What's wrong with that? That's my jihad.'"
Extricating JI ideology
THE disquieting news galvanised Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi into action. Before they could rebut the JI ideology, they had to first prise it out of the detainees' minds.
The two men, joined by a few other clerics, took a year to construct this knowledge. Dr Mohamed joined this pioneer team.
Soon after they had compiled a blueprint of the JI ideology, they were ready to start rebutting JI's radical ideology.
Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi realised that a new organisation was needed for the work. In early 2003, the two men set up the Religious Rehabilitation Group, or RRG.
Made up of volunteer Muslim religious teachers, the RRG in January 2004 had 16 men to counsel the detainees, all of whom were male. Five female counsellors worked with the wives and children of the men behind bars.
Since then, the RRG has grown in size. Last year, it had 37 members. Twenty-four were men and nine were women. The remaining four men, who are not Muslim clerics, helped out with secretariat work.
For Dr Mohamed, destroying the JI clandestine network in Singapore proved to be an important turning point.
"My life changed after the JI arrests," he says.
IN 2004, two years after the JI arrests, he left the Khadijah Mosque and joined the think-tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The institute, which set up the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in 2002, was looking for Islamic experts to help build its counter-terrorism capabilities.
Dr Mohamed fitted the bill. As an associate research fellow in the centre, he delved deeper into the JI ideology.
He did research on the JI's ideological concepts of Al-wala (allegiance to God) and Al-bara (disassociation from all that displeases God). These concepts were used in a way that encouraged the detainees to reject and show hatred towards non-believers.
He discovered that these concepts were found only in Salafism, an ultra-conservative Islamic movement which aims to bring Muslims back to the true faith practised by Prophet Muhammad. The JI used the concepts of Al-wala and Al-bara to promote violence.
Dr Mohamed's painstaking research in this field became material for his doctorate, which he obtained from the University of Exeter in Britain last year. His master's degree in International Relations from the Nanyang Technological University came earlier in 2005.
He is married to a scientist and has two children. A playful student in Bedok North Primary and Bartley Secondary, he did poorly in school. He became more studious only after his father enrolled him in Aljunied Madrasah, an Islamic school.
Art of listening
IN HIS work with the JI detainees, he picked up a new skill - how to listen. The initial meetings were frosty, with inmates chastising the Muslim leaders as "hypocrites working with the Government", says Dr Mohamed.
If the clerics had argued against the deviant belief system at this hostile stage, they would have failed, he says. "We had to first diagnose the problems and issues, just like a doctor. We did this by listening to them."
When tempers cooled, the RRG members began the counselling sessions, speaking in a slow and gentle manner. "We cannot play fire with fire. When there is a fire, we have to use water," he says.
The RRG's work in Singapore, done jointly with ISD officers, psychologists and security experts, has shown results. Of the more than 60 JI members detained since 2001, more than two-thirds have been released.
RRG representatives have also travelled to the Netherlands and Britain to talk about their work.
However, Dr Mohamed says the RRG's work is still not done as key JI leaders, such as Mas Selamat Kastari and Ibrahim Maidin, are still in jail and unrepentant.
He warns: "Many of the JI followers in Singapore were foot soldiers with a shallow knowledge of Islam. But the JI leaders have been deeply indoctrinated with the JI ideology.
"As long as this violent ideology is present, terrorists will pose a serious threat to Singapore."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 3, 2014
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