First Singaporean in an ISIS video: 3 questions

1. Why feature a Singaporean?

Although ISIS put a Singaporean face to its propaganda, it is unlikely to have much impact as a recruitment tool

Dressed in military fatigues, and vaulting onto a truck loaded with artillery rounds, Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad last weekend surfaced online as the first Singaporean to anchor one of the slickly produced propaganda videos of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In it, the 39-year-old praises East Asian fighters, calls for extremists to join the terror group's efforts in East Asia or the Middle East, and challenges Britain's Prince Harry - a former Apache pilot in the British army, who paid a visit to Singapore in June - to a fight.

"Why don't you come here and fight us if you are man enough? So we can send you and your Apaches to hellfire," says Shahdan, who is identified in the video as "Abu Uqayl from Singapore".

The 3 1/2-minute clip may be high in machismo, but analysts and community leaders say although ISIS may have put a Singaporean face to its propaganda, it is unlikely to have much impact in getting people here to rally around the group - although it is also impossible to rule out lone individuals being attracted by the video.

They point out that only a small number of Singaporeans have been detained for supporting ISIS despite its steady onslaught of online propaganda, compared with the hundreds who have been flagged as ISIS supporters in Malaysia and Indonesia.

And just three Singaporeans are known to have made their way to Syria and Iraq to join the extremist group: Shahdan, who has been fighting on the front lines since he entered Syria three years ago, is one of them, as well as Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali and Maimunah Abdul Kadir, who left for Syria in 2014 and are believed to still be there with their families.

SHOCK-INDUCING

I doubt the video will have much traction in Singapore... If anything, Singaporeans in general and Singapore Muslims in particular will be greatly shocked at the video - that a Malay/Muslim can betray the nation and the Malay community in order to threaten Singapore.

MR JASMINDER SINGH, senior analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

"The level of support and empathy for ISIS in Singapore is very low," said S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) senior analyst Jasminder Singh.

And instead of tempting more people here down the path of radicalisation, the clip may well have the effect of drawing disapproval, he added. "I doubt the video will have much traction in Singapore.

"If anything, Singaporeans in general and Singapore Muslims in particular will be greatly shocked at the video - that a Malay/Muslim can betray the nation and the Malay community in order to threaten Singapore."

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, believes this is because Singaporeans are resilient enough to withstand ISIS' propaganda offensive.

"Its message will not resonate among Singaporeans as Singaporeans value moderation, tolerance and coexistence," he said.

These have been key messages put out by political and religious leaders here, and ties between the different racial and religious groups are constantly tended to.

This means extremist ideology does not find a foothold as easily in Singapore as it may in neighbouring countries, where fault lines have been stoked in the name of politics, or in the West, where Muslim minorities feel displaced and downtrodden.

Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid said Singapore has been consistent in combating religious extremism. This has applied not just to Islam, but to other religions as well, such as in the case of foreign Christian preachers recently denied entry to Singapore because of Islamophobic remarks they had made.

And the country has been successful in portraying itself as a staunchly secular state "without the political need to appease its religious communities, Muslim or otherwise, unlike the cases of Malaysia and Indonesia, where Muslim support for the government is a crucial factor in ensuring its electoral survival", he said.

Dr Fauzi, a former visiting fellow at both RSIS and the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, added: "Shahdan being a Singaporean rather than a Malaysian or Indonesian would probably garner more attention... If a Singaporean could fall for ISIS, what more Malaysians and Indonesians?"

SYMBOLIC RATHER THAN MARKETING TOOL

In fact, analysts believe the video will serve more as a symbol and a signal of ISIS' plans moving forward than a successful marketing tool to lure more Singaporeans into joining the group.

RSIS associate research fellow Remy Mahzam sees the English-language clip as a strategic shift in the group's media campaign. "It is a stepped-up attempt to reach out to a younger and better-educated audience in a predominantly Malay/ Muslim region," he said.

He added that Shahdan is portrayed as a skilled combatant who plays a significant role in the expansion of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, projecting him as an influencer much like Indonesia’s Bahrumsyah - who heads ISIS’ South-east Asian unit, the Katibah Nusantara - and slain Malaysian militant Zainuri Kamaruddin, who appeared in an ISIS video last year threatening attacks in his homeland.

SENDING A MESSAGE

The video is, for ISIS, of great symbolic and propaganda value, especially vis-a-vis Singapore and what the Republic stands for.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BILVEER SINGH , of the National University of Singapore.

Meanwhile Mr Singh noted that Malaysian and Indonesian fighters have for years cropped up in the group's propaganda videos because they constituted a sizeable source of ISIS foreign fighters, and come from the region's two leading Muslim nations.

To feature a Singaporean - from a country which is only about 15 per cent Muslim - sends the signal that ISIS can reach out to a citizen from a successful and developed country that is also a friend of the West, he said, noting that Shahdan, unlike other South-east Asian fighters featured in previous videos, speaks fluent English.

This was echoed by Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

In Shahdan, he said, ISIS must have found an ideal Singaporean to champion its propaganda: a Malay/ Muslim who speaks English and grew up in a country known for its multiracialism.

"The video is, for ISIS, of great symbolic and propaganda value, especially vis-a-vis Singapore and what the Republic stands for," said Prof Singh.

The group's strategists, he added, are trying to demonstrate that they can penetrate any country - poor or rich, Muslim-majority or Muslim-minority - and succeed in recruiting a fighter who is willing to threaten its enemies.

"The use of a Singaporean is for political and propagandistic purpose, telling the Singapore Government and Singaporeans that 'we have got one of yours on my side' - and this is symbolically a victory for ISIS," said Prof Singh.

And, he added, at a time when the group is struggling to keep hold of its territory in Syria and Iraq, it is finding whatever means it can to openly threaten the countries it regards as enemies.

"Singapore has fit this bill for a long time. Hence, ISIS' belief that it was opportune to use a Singaporean, and believing that it will come as a shock - as the message would be to the world at large through the English medium," said Prof Singh.

It also serves to tell Singapore that it is on ISIS' radar, he added, warning: "It may well be planning an attack on Singapore, hence the video with Shahdan as the star."

If there is a silver lining to the video, it is perhaps that it is a wake-up call to Singaporeans and others in South-east Asia to be more vigilant of the threat to their country and the region.


2. The state of terror threat?

The conflict in Marawi (left) began in May. Despite losing ground to the Philippine armed forces, militants there have defied predictions and proven difficult to root out.
The conflict in Marawi began in May. Despite losing ground to the Philippine armed forces, militants there have defied predictions and proven difficult to root out. PHOTO: REUTERS

From returning ISIS fighters to brewing conflict in Rakhine, the region faces a multitude of challenges

With a steely gaze, Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad calls on ISIS sympathisers around the world to make their way to East Asia and fight with militants there, in the video released last week.

He urges them to "inflict black days upon the crusaders".

Security analysts say it is a clear sign that South-east Asia is firmly in the cross hairs of ISIS and other such extremist groups.

ISIS has been losing ground in the Middle East, steadily beaten back by an international coalition. It is barely hanging on to its sole remaining stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. However, experts have long warned that the group's inevitable defeat there would not spell the end of its menace.

The latest video, part of the series titled Inside The Caliphate, shows ISIS is preparing to continue operating after being forced out of the Middle East, Professor Rohan Gunaratna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) pointed out.

"The news should be a warning to the region of future ISIS intentions. Although ISIS is suffering in its core, it is expanding in the regions, especially those with big Muslim populations," he said.

He added that the group intends to "deepen its ideological and operational influence in South-east Asia". So there is good reason for Singapore to sit up and take notice.

It is also estimated that over 1,000 South-east Asians have travelled to the Middle East to fight for ISIS - and these battle-hardened fighters form a credible threat when they return to their homes or join existing conflicts in the region.

ISIS has already made moves in the region, a fact acknowledged by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Tuesday at a security conference.

"The conflict in Marawi, South Philippines, the seizure of chemicals which can be used to make bombs in Java, and the arrest of ISIS supporters in Malaysia remind us that ISIS and its affiliates are also active in our neighbourhood," he said.

CONFLICTS IN THE REGION

In the southern Philippine city of Marawi, ISIS has established a foothold with its local affiliates, led by militants Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute brothers.

The conflict began in May, when hundreds of armed extremists flying the black ISIS flag overran the city following a disastrous attempt by security forces to arrest Hapilon.

Despite losing ground to the Philippine armed forces, militants there have defied predictions and proven difficult to root out, said RSIS senior analyst Jasminder Singh, who believes that the conflict in Marawi will continue for some time to come.

"As the Philippine government is not in a position to dislodge the pro-ISIS fighters, not only is the conflict likely to persist, there is also the danger that it may spread to other parts of Mindanao where ISIS is influential," said Mr Singh.

Even if ISIS is rooted out of Marawi, the violence will probably erupt "elsewhere in the Philippines and possibly elsewhere in South-east Asia, in the form of an attempt at a mass casualty attack", said Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict director Sidney Jones.

PROBLEMS IN RAKHINE STATE

Another area that worries security officials is the brewing crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where a crackdown by the Myanmar army has left hundreds dead and sparked an exodus of over 500,000 Muslim Rohingya to Bangladesh.

The army had carried out "clearance operations" in response to attacks by Rohingya militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).

The fear is that refugee camps in Bangladesh could become fertile recruiting grounds for terror groups, and the conflict could also attract foreign fighters.

ISIS has routinely said, through its online publication Dabiq, that it plans to establish a base in Bangladesh to launch revenge attacks on the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Rohingya.

Other extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda already have solidarity with the Rohingya, noted retired Bangladeshi Major-General A. N. M. Muniruzzaman in an RSIS commentary last week.

Indonesian right-wing group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), also opened registration for 1,200 volunteers to join the fight in Myanmar.

"The possibility of prolonged ethnic conflict in Myanmar might create a hotbed of terror as foreign fighters set eyes on the region," said General Muniruzzaman, president of the Bangladesh Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

Ms Jones pointed out that "lots of Indonesians and Malaysians would love to go and fight" in Myanmar, but there has been no channel into the country.

"It's critical to ensure that such channels don't open up in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, so the quicker there are systematic aid efforts there by experienced international agencies, the better," she said.

THREAT OF RETURNING FIGHTERS

Returning fighters from the Middle East are also likely to raise the threat level in the region, said Mr Singh.

They would be battle-hardened, fortified ideologically, and linked to a closely knit extremist network, he said.

"The sheer number of South-east Asians who have travelled to Syria and Iraq is almost more than 10 times the number that travelled to Afghanistan," he said, referring to fighters who travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight with the mujahideen against the invading Soviets.

Whether these fighters return to their home countries, go to a new combat zone, or to the southern Philippines, will be the next key threat facing the region, he said.

The recruitment of fighters foreign to the region, and radicalisation of natives here will also cause the threat level to "peak", said Prof Gunaratna, adding that security and intelligence agencies need to work together across borders.

"They need to create a common intelligence platform and share and exchange vital intelligence and learn each other's good practices to fight the growing threat," he said.


3. What can be done?

Members of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division celebrating ISIS' defeat in Mosul, Iraq in July, with one of them holding an ISIS flag which they pulled down. Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad last weekend surfaced online as the first Singaporean to anchor
Members of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division celebrating ISIS' defeat in Mosul, Iraq in July, with one of them holding an ISIS flag which they pulled down. PHOTO: REUTERS

Experts suggest targeted efforts to engage vulnerable workers and students abroad, and people who may feel marginalised

Security experts say Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad's case illustrates the limitations governments face when it comes to the radicalisation of citizens living abroad.

Shahdan moved to the Middle East in early 2014, and some time during his stay there he was radicalised. In a matter of months, he would be on his way to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and would spend the next three years or so fighting on the front lines in Iraq and Syria.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, in Facebook remarks last week on Shahdan's appearance in an ISIS propaganda video, said the Internal Security Department (ISD) had been aware of his activities.

"So far, ISD has moved early, dealing with those who showed signs of radicalisation, in Singapore. This man, Abu Uqayl, is outside Singapore," he said, using the name Shahdan is identified by in the video.

"And over time, we must assume more of this will happen. We have to think of ways of dealing with radicalisation of Singaporeans, that could take place outside Singapore, particularly in countries where the possibilities of radicalisation are higher."

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) told Insight that it is studying this.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), set up in 2003 to counsel JI detainees, now has its own resource and counselling centre, which has pushed out a slew of initiatives aimed at spreading the right teachings of Islam, such as a mobile application and pamphlets on frequently misunderstood issues like the Syrian conflict.

It is very difficult to monitor and counter overseas radicalisation, said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

"While Singapore is good at trying to stop its citizens from being radicalised at home, it faces an Everest-like challenge when trying to stop people like (Shahdan) being radicalised abroad, what's more in the Middle East," he said.

The conditions in some countries may be more "conducive" for radicalisation, he added. Exposure to exclusivist teachings that might have been banned in Singapore, or proximity to crises involving Muslims, like the Rakhine conflict, could make Singaporeans abroad more susceptible to terrorist propaganda.

Universiti Sains Malaysia professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid said governments can work with foreign intelligence agencies to monitor citizens abroad. But deciding who to keep tabs on, and dedicating resources to do so, will be a challenge.

Having a grassroots network on the ground - made up of people who live in the country and have the time and opportunity to get to know the other Singaporeans there on a personal basis - can be a crucial step.

Such groups that regularly reach out to and organise activities for the community can help with the alienation and marginalisation some Singaporeans experience abroad that may lead them to seek comfort and meaning in radical ideology, said ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute fellow Norshahril Saat.

Efforts to build these bonds already exist, he noted, citing how the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) keeps in close contact with students studying in Islamic institutes abroad, and update them on happenings back home.

The Muslim community must continue to lead the way when it comes to countering and speaking out against radical ideology, said Dr Tan Kim Huat from the Trinity Theological College, who suggested that accounts from those who were radicalised and have been rehabilitated could be made public.

Muis has student liaison officers to look after the needs of students in regions like North Africa and the Middle East.

In the coming years, said International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research head Rohan Gunaratna, Singapore will need to invest more time and resources to identify and engage vulnerable workers and students abroad.

INTERNATIONAL TIE-UPS

And as the terror threat grows more complex, Singapore cannot let up on international and regional cooperation efforts, be it working together to keep tabs on nationals deemed at risk or sharing military might, said experts.

Complex as the task may be, it has paid off.

"In our region, security agencies work closely together to exchange information in our common fight against terrorism," said the MHA. "Such collaborations have helped to uncover plots, led to the arrest of suspects, and thwarted attacks."

For instance, the authorities here have worked with their partners abroad to deport foreigners who were working here and found to be radicalised, foiled plans by an ISIS-linked cell based in Batam to fire a missile at the Marina Bay area last year, and captured Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader Mas Selamat Kastari in 2009, who fled to Malaysia after escaping from the Whitley Road Detention Centre a year earlier.

Within Asean, added MHA, there are established platforms for officials from different countries to meet and discuss counter-terrorism strategies.

The sharing of expertise and practices will help countries adapt to the evolving terror threat - and Singapore has much to offer.

For one thing, said Dr Fauzi, there is a wealth of Singapore-based terrorism research at institutions like the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Then, there is the Singapore approach to deradicalisation, which has drawn interest from countries around the world, noted Professor Gunaratna.

Last year, Singapore hosted a workshop on best practices and policies for promoting religious tolerance, which included a trip to the Harmony Centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque, which features artefacts and information on different religions, and organises inter-faith programmes.

The Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), set up in 2003 to counsel JI detainees, now has its own resource and counselling centre, which has pushed out a slew of initiatives aimed at spreading the right teachings of Islam, such as a mobile application and pamphlets on frequently misunderstood issues like the Syrian conflict.

Meanwhile, Muis has set up a network that will bring together asatizah (religious teachers) and youth groups, who will be trained to counter radicalisation and reach out to young people on social media.

It will also serve as an avenue for people to seek religious advice for loved ones, with total anonymity, to help with earlier detection and intervention.

The authorities and community leaders have in recent months - as several Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act for radicalism - stressed the importance of family and friends coming forward to inform the authorities or those with religious know-how about individuals who may show extreme behaviour.

Mr Muhammad Faizal Othman, chairman of Taman Jurong Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle, said: "We must take care of each other, always be vigilant, and have the moral courage to alert the authorities when we see suspicious activities or behaviour. In doing so, we will enable timely intervention."

The Muslim community must continue to lead the way when it comes to countering and speaking out against radical ideology, said Dr Tan Kim Huat from the Trinity Theological College, who suggested that accounts from those who were radicalised and have been rehabilitated could be made public.

But non-Muslims also play a crucial role by showing empathy and solidarity, he said, citing how the National Council of Churches of Singapore has issued statements in support of Singapore's Muslim community.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop's Communications Office at the Archdiocese of Singapore said other groups must affirm and commend the efforts of the Muslim community. The development should concern all Singaporeans and the different communities will "need to work harder together and in even closer collaboration", it added.

Besides inter-faith activities like dialogues and putting up a united front, targeted programmes to give those who may feel left behind hope and help are important, too.

Dr Norshahril believes that even as religious leaders here beef up theological arguments, "we need to devise mechanisms to ensure those who feel marginalised can receive support".

He pointed out that while ISIS' recruits have come from all walks of life, the group has attracted a higher proportion of people on the margins.

Shahdan himself came from a life on the margins - a school dropout who did not hold a stable job and was in and out of jail for a series of drug and criminal offences.

"(His) story is a classic case of the disenfranchised or alienated being given a new but radicalised meaning in life, leading to zealotism," noted Dr Tan.

"How we are to find programmes to encourage fresh starts in life but without their being exploited or radicalised will be a big challenge for our society."


Correction note: This story initially stated that Bahrumsyah was slain. This is not accurate, as earlier reports of the militant's death have not been verified and he is believed to still be alive/active.