Singapore travellers 'less put off by terror risk now'

How real is the threat?

Amid the threat of terrorism, The Sunday Times speaks to four observers on how people can stay alert and respond to such an incident.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was dealt a heavy military blow this year. But the threat it poses is far from over, security experts said at a Sunday Times panel discussion on terrorism last week.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said as the terror group loses territory, its leadership has been shifting its strategy to more decentralised operations, posing a greater threat.

Countries in this region are at risk on three fronts, he said.

One, returning foreign fighters. Around 1,000 South-east Asians have joined the Syrian conflict and they and others will try to return to their countries to take up arms.

In May, ISIS-linked militants seized Marawi City in the Philippines and battled Philippine forces for five months. Foreign fighters included Indonesians, Malaysians, Arabs and even Uighurs, showing the conflict was a global incident.

Two, existing terror groups. Several dozen groups in Asia, such as the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf involved in the seizure of Marawi , and Jemaah Ansharut Daulah in Indonesia, have pledged support to ISIS.

Three, lone wolves. These are individuals radicalised online, and encouraged by ISIS social media accounts to carry out attacks.

"The bar is lower; you don't need to learn how to make a bomb," said Prof Kumar. "You can drive a truck or car and mow down pedestrians."

There have been multiple vehicle attacks this year, particularly in Europe - at Westminster Bridge in March, London Bridge in June and Barcelona's La Ramblas in August, to name a few.

 
 
 
 

These lone wolf attackers are hard to detect by security agencies, compounding the danger they pose.

Yet, the psychological impact of such an attack on a community can be great, said National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

"All you need is to kill one person, and the impact will be very great in people's minds," he said.

Add to this the fact that Singapore is seen by militants as an iconic target, and where social ties could be frayed in the aftermath of an attack.

Prof Kumar said: "Militants will consider a successful strike against Singapore as a major, symbolic, psychological and political boost."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'How real is the threat?'. Print Edition | Subscribe