Latest video a sign of ISIS' focus on South-east Asia: Experts

The video featuring Singaporean ISIS fighter Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad is likely part of a push to attract younger, English-speaking Muslims in South-east Asia, says a security expert. PHOTO: VIDEO SCREENSHOT

The latest Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) recruitment video featuring a Singaporean fighter is a "game changer", said security experts yesterday, noting that it was evidence of the terror group's determined focus on South-east Asia and its English-speaking Muslims.

The 31/2-minute-long video, which surfaced yesterday, featured a Singaporean fighter by the assumed name "Abu Uqayl". In English, he addressed directly fighters in East Asia and elsewhere, urging them to commit violence in this region.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) identified the man as Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad, 39, who left Singapore in 2014 to work in the Middle East, where he was believed to have been radicalised.

Megat Shahdan, it is understood, has a string of criminal and drug-related offences here - including burglary convictions in 1999 and 2002.

His appearance in a recruitment video shows that he has risen up the ISIS ranks to join notable fighters from the region such as Indonesia's Bahrumsyah, said Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

Bahrumsyah heads ISIS' South-east Asian unit, the Katibah Nusantara. It fights on the front lines and makes propaganda videos in Malay, Bahasa Indonesia and English.

"He was not chosen by accident. He's from South-east Asia, from a country where Muslims are in the minority, and which has been publicly targeted for attack," said Prof Singh, adding that the video aimed to "inspire and motivate" English-speaking Muslims in the region.

With ISIS losing ground in the Middle East, the video was also a clarion call to join the fight elsewhere, particularly in South-east Asia, where conflicts are brewing in the Philippines' Marawi city and Myanmar's Rakhine state, he added.

The video is part of a series of propaganda videos titled Inside The Caliphate. An earlier video appealed to South-east Asian viewers to migrate to Marawi in the southern Philippines to fight for ISIS.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said ISIS seeks to deepen its ideological and operational influence in South-east Asia.

"To destabilise the region, its strategy is to radicalise and militarise South-east Asians, including Singaporeans," he said, adding that the video was produced to reach out to Singaporeans in particular.

RSIS associate research fellow Remy Mahzam said the video indicates a strategic shift in language medium - likely part of a push to attract younger, English-speaking Muslims in South-east Asia.

"They no longer use only Arabic as the medium to preach or to push their agenda... They are using a language accessible to the communities here," said Mr Remy.

The video's mention of a visit by Britain's Prince Harry to Singapore in June is also Megat Shahdan's way of showing he is familiar with goings-on in Singapore, said Mr Remy.

He added that there is a risk radicalised Singaporeans could see Megat Shahdan as an "ideologue or someone they can emulate", which could prompt them to carry out lone-wolf attacks here.

The terror threat facing Singapore is at its highest level in recent times. Since 2015, at least 17 Singaporeans have been dealt with under the Internal Security Act for terror-related activities. It is estimated that over 1,000 South-east Asians have travelled to the Middle East to fight under ISIS. Among them are at least two groups of Singaporeans - excluding Megat Shahdan.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the Internal Security Department has thus far moved early to deal with those who showed signs of radicalisation in Singapore. But he noted that Megat Shahdan is outside Singapore.

"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," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline Latest video a sign of ISIS' focus on South-east Asia: Experts. Subscribe