External terrorism threats to region include Islamist and far-right extremists: ISD

Armed police officers standing guard at the gate of the national police headquarters in Jakarta following a suspected militant attack on March 31, 2021.
Armed police officers standing guard at the gate of the national police headquarters in Jakarta following a suspected militant attack on March 31, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The Internal Security Department (ISD) released its third Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report on Wednesday (June 23), which alerts Singaporeans to the security environment here and in the region.

Here are some highlights of the external terrorism threats facing Singapore's neighbours:

ISIS

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) might have lost its last territorial stronghold in March 2019, but it is still an active insurgent force in Syria and Iraq.

The ISD said that it reportedly still has about 10,000 fighters in the conflict zone and tens of millions of dollars in cash reserves.

Over the past year, the group has increased its activities in the conflict zone, taking advantage of the security vacuum left by reduced military operations due to Covid-19 and the reduction in United States troops in Iraq.

"With ISIS gradually regaining its strength, there are concerns that it may be able to reconstitute its capability to orchestrate international attacks," said the ISD.

The group has stepped up calls for its affiliates and supporters worldwide to conduct attacks. ISIS propaganda from its official media arms has decreased, but self-styled pro-ISIS media entities and sympathisers have filled the void.

The report also said that ISIS affiliates have become increasingly deadly in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

South-east Asia remains part of ISIS' caliphate, noted the department, with southern Philippines and Myanmar's Rakhine state as potential areas of conflict.

For instance, ISIS-affiliated militant group Abu Sayyaf was linked to bombings on Jolo island in August last year in south-west Philippines. In November that year, an ISIS-aligned Rohingya militant group rallied supporters to travel to Rakhine state to take up arms.

The terror group's propaganda also continues to be circulated in Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog.

"With individuals spending more time online during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the proliferation of radical propaganda could lead to more self-radicalisation cases in future," said the ISD.

Al-Qaeda

Terror group Al-Qaeda suffered a series of leadership losses last year, but it remains resilient due to a strategy of building support among local communities, through its regional affiliates.

The ISD said the group continues to exploit ungoverned spaces, conflict zones and security vacuums to recruit and conduct its activities. In particular, its affiliates in parts of Africa have made gains.

The department said that before 2015, Al-Qaeda had reportedly directed some affiliates not to launch attacks against the West, but there may be signs it has reverted to plotting attacks against Western targets.

Last December, a Kenyan member of Al-Qaeda's East African affiliate Al-Shabaab was charged in the US with plotting to conduct an attack in an unnamed American city. The attack was to be styled after the devastating Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

The ISD added that the security vacuum arising from the impending withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan by as soon as July could also facilitate the resurgence of terror groups in the country.

Jemaah Islamiah

Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the terrorist group linked to Al-Qaeda, remains a latent terror threat in South-east Asia, and the ISD warned that the group remains committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate within Indonesia, and possibly the region.

Despite the arrest of around 160 members, including several senior leaders, since 2019, JI continues to recruit and operate in Indonesia through its network of schools and charitable foundations.

"JI also continues to grow its revenue streams through its legitimate businesses and by undertaking fund-raising appeals under the guise of humanitarian efforts directed towards the Covid-19 pandemic and overseas conflicts," said the ISD.

JI is reported to have sent recruits to receive combat training from Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant groups in Syria, and some of them have since returned to Indonesia to impart their paramilitary skills to fellow JI members, noted the department.

Indonesian authorities have reportedly disrupted two separate attack plots by JI-linked militant cells in 2020 and 2021, which included Indonesian Chinese workers and businesses among their targets. Such developments suggest that JI is rebuilding its military capabilities and may resume terrorist violence in Indonesia.

The recent release of high-profile JI operatives over the past two years - Malaysian Yazid Sufaat and Indonesian Abu Bakar Bashir - could also rally regional JI supporters, said the ISD.

Far-right extremism

Far-right extremism is an emerging threat, said the ISD, which called it the fastest growing threat in some Western countries.

The movement of this brand of radical behaviour, which espouses racial supremacy, anti-Islam and anti-immigration ideas, is diverse.

The department pointed out its groups can range from neo-Nazis, anti-immigrant or Islamophobic groups and ultra-nationalists. They could also include conspiracy theorists and the so-called "involuntarily celibate" or incel movement.

Far-right extremist groups have reportedly become more organised and are capable of mounting attacks. Their threat of violence also comes from lone actors like Brenton Tarrant, who staged the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings that killed more than 50 people.

The ISD noted that a growing number of far-right radicalisation cases overseas have involved young people recruited through social media and video gaming platforms.

Although such extremism does not have significant traction in this region, its broader messages of ethno-religious chauvinism and anti-immigration nativism have found resonance with some hardline groups here.

"Such narratives could deepen societal fault-lines and even inspire individuals to mount acts of violence against members of other communities," said the ISD.

It also warned of how such violence could provoke retaliatory attacks from Islamist terrorist groups, as seen in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings where Islamist terror groups threatened to conduct revenge attacks against Christians and Western targets.