How will the Taleban's comeback in Afghanistan affect Singapore and the region?

Taleban fighters stand guard along a street near the Zanbaq Square in Kabul on Aug 16, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The ongoing Taleban situation in Afghanistan could draw militants from the region to the country and pose a threat to the safety of Singapore and its neighbours by inspiring other violent extremist groups.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) and security experts told The Straits Times the Taleban's advances across Afghanistan could result in increased terror-related activities in South-east Asia, including driving up recruitment by radical groups and emboldening them to launch attacks.

Citing that he wanted to avoid bloodshed, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Sunday (Aug 15) as the hardline Islamist militants entered the capital Kabul. Amid the collapse of the civilian government, forces led by the United States departed and Western nations stepped up efforts to evacuate their citizens.

On Monday, the Taleban declared the war was over and that it would soon proclaim the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from the presidential palace, as thousands of people swarmed the passenger terminal of Kabul's international airport, in hopes of getting an evacuation flight.

An ISD spokesman said there is currently no specific terrorist threat to Singapore arising from the Taleban situation in Afghanistan, but the ongoing developments are still of concern.

He added that the security vacuum and escalating civil conflict there could allow transnational militant organisations such as Al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to regroup or establish safe havens. Such groups have similarly exploited other conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq.

"These terrorist groups may call upon ideological narratives to draw recruits to Afghanistan as a theatre for jihad," said the spokesman.

The Taleban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until it was ousted by an invasion led by the US following the Sept 11 attacks in 2001. Since then, the militant group has waged an insurgency against the US-backed government.

The group has been retaking land across the country for the past several months, following the US' announcement to fully withdraw from the country this year.

But this has come at a cost - the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in July that during the first half of this year, some 1,659 civilians were killed and another 3,254 wounded. This is a 47 per cent increase compared with the same period last year.

Mr Prakhar Sharma, a PhD candidate in political science at the Syracuse University in New York who has been studying the developments in Afghanistan, said the US' withdrawal has played a crucial role in enabling the situation there.

The ISD spokesman said the department's experience with the Soviet-Afghan conflict from 1979 to 1989, which later gave rise to the Taleban in 1994, is instructive, as he pointed out that the conflict's estimated 10,000 foreign fighters at the time included several hundred South-east Asians.

Through their experience in Afghanistan, the regional militants developed links to AQ and formed a fraternity of fighters. Upon their return to South-east Asia, they continued to pursue a path of violence through membership in regional militant groups such as Jemaah Islamiah (JI), and imparted their operational skills to fellow members, said the ISD spokesman.

At least 11 Singapore JI detainees were known to have attended military training in AQ camps in Afghanistan, and several were involved in terror plots targeting Singapore, said ISD. It added that a few of them even collaborated with an AQ operative on a plot to mount suicide truck-bomb attacks against Western embassies in Singapore.

In recent years, Afghanistan has continued to draw militants from the region. ISD said current developments there may attract radicalised individuals seeking to participate in armed jihad, or perceived religious war .

Research fellow Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies' (RSIS) Centre of Excellence for National Security, said the Taleban's gains could be newfound motivation for South-east Asian extremist groups, as well as home-grown extremists who share similar ideological beliefs.

The Taleban's victories have and will continue to inspire Islamists in the region to emulate the group's tactic of seizing power without using democratic means, said RSIS visiting fellow Noor Huda Ismail.

"The Taleban's victory has security repercussions, especially boosting the spirit of the jihad among pro-Islamic state type of projects in the region including Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans," he added.

An image grab taken from Al-Jazeera television footage on Aug 16, 2021, shows members of the Taleban at the presidential palace in Kabul. PHOTO: AFP/AL-JAZEERA

RSIS senior analyst Jasminder Singh warned of another area of concern - the resumption of inactive terror cells in the region, especially in Indonesia where JI has been active.

"As there are both pro-AQ and pro-IS elements in Afghanistan, while pro-IS groups may feel motivated, there is also the danger that JI elements may become active, including undertaking bombing operations to make their presence felt," he said.

Social media heightens the danger of the Taleban situation, with Mr Singh highlighting how it is used by terrorist groups in a variety of ways to raise funds, spread ideology, recruit new members and share news. The Taleban itself has several accounts on social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, to communicate its messages.

Indonesian militants have previously used social media to communicate with their contacts in Afghanistan, said Dr Noor Huda.

He also noted how these platforms have changed the landscape of recruitment for terrorist groups. They are moving away from "collective action", where individuals have to be part of a formal group like JI or AQ, to "connective action", where individuals are connected to the idea of the group even if they have never physically met them, he said.

Most experts agreed that the threat level to Singapore remains low, given the Taleban's focus on re-establishing total control of Afghanistan and strengthening its sphere of influence in Central Asia.

Afghan people rush towards Kabul airport to leave the capital city, on Aug 16, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Singapore has also implemented many protective measures, said Mr Faizal. "These include the Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act that prohibits providing material support to terrorist entities including the Taleban, more police cameras that could detect hostile surveillance, and border security and Covid-19 travel restrictions that help to keep out foreign fighters."

But vigilance is still important, especially given how terror groups like ISIS continue to radicalise individuals online and mobilise them to commit violent acts, said Ms Susan Sim, vice-president for Asia at New York-based The Soufan Group, a strategic security consultancy.

Ms Sim also pointed out that terrorist groups are growing bigger - AQ, for instance, now has 30,000 to 40,000 members worldwide, compared with the roughly 400 members 20 years ago.

"The dilemma now is that people may feel so secure they tune out reminders to be vigilant. Yet the true test of whether SGSecure is effective would, obviously, be apparent only in the event of an attack," said Ms Sim, referring to the national terrorism awareness movement.

"That's when you know if Singaporeans will hold together and remain resilient. But with each year passing without incident, sustaining public interest becomes challenging."

The ISD spokesman underscored how the department expects social media to continue playing a key role in the radicalisation and recruitment of individuals to overseas conflict zones, including Afghanistan.

He called on members of the public to report anyone who they know or suspect to have intentions to travel to such areas, either through its hotline or via the SGSecure app.

"Public vigilance is key for the detection of radicalised individuals," he said.

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