Thinking Aloud

How do we respond to a relentless wave of terror?

Ensure us-versus-them mindset, which is more destructive than any attack, does not take root

A little over a week ago, I was about to leave the office when my Twitter feed buzzed with reports of a suicide terror attack in Jakarta.

Two militants influenced by terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were gunning for police officers, and killed three.

Just two days earlier, a bomber had killed 22 concert-goers in Manchester. Surely a respite from this barbarity was due?

Alas, the tempo picked up.

Two days after the Jakarta blasts, gunmen dressed in military fatigues forced Coptic Christian pilgrims off a bus in western Egypt and killed 28.

Last week, twin bombings in Baghdad killed 22.

A day later, a massive car bomb in Kabul's fortified diplomatic quarter killed at least 90 and injured 400 others.

And over the past fortnight, rebels in Marawi City have taken over 175 lives in their attempt to wrest control of the city and ostensibly establish a wilayat - or province - of ISIS in Mindanao.

Even as ISIS Central comes under heavy pressure from members of a global coalition chipping away at territory it holds in Iraq and Syria, its influence shows no signs of abating.


Particularly grievous is the fact that these attacks across continents took place just before or at the start of Ramadan, a period most Muslims regard as the holiest month in their religion, and a time for prayer, self-reflection and good deeds.

Yet here, once again, is a group of militants who seems to have abused religious teachings.

And it has called on its followers to launch more attacks in the coming weeks.

Militants are not short on creativity in their attempt to lure support, with slick videos and appeals to romanticised notions like a caliphate. Counter- narratives to their messaging have to be equally savvy.

As ISIS marks the third anniversary of its self-proclaimed caliphate this month, the group is losing its hold on physical territory.

But its foreign fighters are returning to their home countries, many of them hardened radicals ready to launch attacks. And its message continues to hold sway and win new recruits.

Can its seemingly relentless onslaught of terror be countered?

One key approach is for people to realise the nature of the threat - and react to family members and friends who show a turn towards radicalisation.

A recent audio message in Arabic, circulated on ISIS' official Nashir channels on the Telegram messaging app, is illustrative of the group's effort to reach out globally as it faces setbacks on the ground.

The message calls for attacks on "homes, markets, roads and forums". It adds: "Targeting of civilians is beloved to us and the most effective."

In a similar vein, an article in the latest edition of ISIS' online magazine Rumiyah suggests supporters can falsely advertise properties for rent or goods for sale on websites such as Craigslist, Gumtree and eBay to lure victims and kill them.

Given the persistence of such radical propaganda in recent months, the first Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report published last Thursday by the Ministry of Home Affairs concluded that the threat to Singapore is serious.


In particular, radicalised individuals are a grave security concern, the report said, as they might heed ISIS' calls to carry out solo attacks using any means at their disposal - like cars and knives.

One way the community at large can play a part is in detecting those with tell-tale behavioural changes and counselling them before they step off the precipice and harm themselves and others.

For instance, they might become more withdrawn or secretive, or begin holding extreme views.

If they are unable to rein them in, they should alert the authorities, the ministry said.

There is cause for worry, as the rate at which a small fraction of Singaporeans is being radicalised has risen. In the eight years between 2007 and 2014, 11 radicalised citizens were dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA). But since 2015 - not long after ISIS declared its caliphate - 14 Singaporeans had to be dealt with under the same law.

Close to 50 foreign nationals working here have also had to be repatriated after they were found to have been radicalised to varying degrees.

It would not be far-fetched to say that the terror threat poses the gravest danger to Singapore's social stability in recent years.

A recent report in The Atlantic magazine notes that ISIS seeks to inspire attacks because it wants to pit communities against each other, inflame anti-Muslim sentiment and sow discord among Muslim communities and in society.

ISIS spokesman Abul Hasan al-Muhajir is cited as saying: "Make them forget sleep, terrorise them so that the neighbour fears his neighbour."

Such an outcome would be disastrous in a society like Singapore's.

The need to avert such a situation is partly why over the past year, the Government has rolled out the SGSecure initiative to raise alert levels and get people prepared to respond calmly in a crisis like a terror attack.

Islamic religious leaders have, over the past decade, come out clearly to explain that terror has no place in the religion, and warn the community about the dangers of extremism. Muslim and non-Muslim community leaders have also sought to deepen trust across faiths.

But, given the dire consequences an attack on Singapore soil - or on a group of Singaporeans overseas - would have, one should always ask: Can more be done?

Militants are not short on creativity in their attempt to lure support, with slick videos and appeals to romanticised notions like a caliphate.

Counter-narratives to their messaging have to be equally savvy. One example is an anti-terrorism ad released two Fridays ago by Middle Eastern telco company Zain to coincide with the start of Ramadan.

Over some nine days, it has garnered over 4.6 million views on YouTube and continues to be widely shared - and discussed - on social media.

The three-minute video shows everyday scenes and images of a suicide bomber preparing to carry out an attack. As the bomber boards a bus, the dusty faces of passengers greet him.

They seek to reclaim his religious invocations. When he cites God, a man carrying a child responds: "You who come in the name of death, he is the creator of life."

He flees and is confronted by victims of terror attacks in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

People confront the bomber, who falls, as a pop star sings: "Worship your God with love, not terror. Be tender with your faith, not harsh."

"Let's bomb hatred with love, Let's bomb extremism for a better life," the singer adds.

The video has drawn significant traction across the Middle East - the area where ISIS has wrought the greatest destruction.

Similar efforts could help counter the radicals' appeal in South-east Asia. Beyond social media efforts, we should be aware of what ISIS hopes to achieve through these attacks - and refuse to let terror change the tenor of our society.

There is widespread sentiment that the spate of terror attacks has cast the vast majority of peaceful Muslims in a negative light globally.

This is why it is worth reiterating that the vast majority of ISIS victims have been Muslims. And ISIS is itself opposed to mainstream Islamic religious leaders and institutions.

When the group first entered the city of Mosul in Iraq, mosque imams were rounded up and forced to choose between swearing allegiance to it and dying. Its propaganda also brands leading Muslim scholars as apostates and infidels, saying they are legitimate targets who can be killed.

However, the prevailing sense is that the spate of terror attacks worldwide has led to rising anti-Muslim sentiment that could make the radicals' message attractive to some.

It has also seen ISIS make headway in its bid to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims.

This is especially dangerous in multi-religious societies like ours, where people across faiths have tended to become more religious .

Greater religiosity itself is not an issue, but when people mingle largely among their groups, they may not pay enough care to getting to know one another as individuals or as neighbours.

There is a risk that exclusivist or extremist views may be entrenched.

In our neighbouring countries, views such as Muslims should not vote non-Muslims to represent them, or that non-Muslims should not join in the breaking of fast, have worryingly become more common.

Such views are divisive and those who subscribe to them tend to be a long way from signing on to what ISIS advocates.

But the us-versus-them mindset they engender fits into ISIS' playbook of a world that is inevitably divided.

If such a mindset gains ground, it would be far more destructive than any short-term damage a terror attack can cause.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'How do we respond to a relentless wave of terror?'. Print Edition | Subscribe