20 years after 9/11, community vigilance against extremism even more important now: Teo Chee Hean

Singapore's best defence against terrorism and radicalisation continues to be a complementary approach taking in both security and community responses.
Singapore's best defence against terrorism and radicalisation continues to be a complementary approach taking in both security and community responses.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Twenty years ago, the threat of radicalised individuals mainly took the form of young and middle-aged men in organised groups. Today, the danger also comes from self-radicalised lone wolves - including teenagers and women - who wield everyday instruments as weapons to carry out attacks on their own.

The key difference between 2001 and 2021? The Internet, which has sped up and extended the reach of radicalisation, said Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean, in an interview with The Straits Times to mark two decades since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

"Therefore, we cannot rely only on our security agencies and a security approach to counter and prevent violent extremism," he added. "A community approach with vigilance and response from everyone has become even more important."

Mr Teo, who is Coordinating Minister for National Security, noted that in 2001 and earlier, violent extremist groups had to form cells, travel and gather for indoctrination and training to plan and execute attacks.

Fast forward to 2015 and Singapore had detained, under the Internal Security Act, 19-year-old Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i. He was the first known youth to harbour the intention to carry out violent attacks here, and had also planned to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group - after viewing terrorist propaganda online. If he could not leave Singapore, he intended to kill then President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In 2017, Singapore also detained a woman for the first time. Childcare assistant Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, then 22, had been radicalised by online propaganda from ISIS as well. She had planned to travel to Syria with her young child, to marry and settle down with a fellow ISIS supporter.

Both were radicalised by the persuasive power of what they saw and who they interacted with on the Internet, said Mr Teo.

"The Internet creates more opportunities for individuals to be radicalised through the 'echo chamber' effect," he explained. "The Internet has also accelerated the process of radicalisation from a few years to a few months - even a matter of days in some cases."

"This has sped up the timeline for conducting attacks, particularly those by lone wolves, making it more challenging for security agencies to detect and pre-empt them."

Mr Teo also pointed out that even societies considered safe, such as New Zealand's, have suffered attacks from individuals radicalised by different but violent ideologies.

In March 2019, a white supremacist gunman attacked two Christchurch mosques, killing 51 people and injuring dozens of others.

Last Friday, a Sri Lankan man inspired by ISIS grabbed a knife off a supermarket shelf in Auckland and stabbed seven people before he was shot dead by police.

Mr Teo told ST that Singapore's best defence against terrorism and radicalisation continues to be a complementary approach taking in both security and community responses.

He pointed to the Community Engagement Programme, launched in 2006 to strengthen intercommunal ties in the event of an incident. It was succeeded by the SGSecure movement in 2016, which has since rolled out programmes to raise preparedness in the community.

Mr Teo also commended community organisations' counter-ideology efforts to prevent exclusivist views - a precursor to violent extremism - from taking root. He cited the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis); Religious Rehabilitation Group of volunteer Islamic scholars who counsel radicalised persons; and Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, which looks at the socio-economic well-being of detainees and their families. The non-governmental Inter-Religious Organisation has also played an important role in promoting interfaith harmony, said Mr Teo.

Terrorism is not confined to any one religion, race or nationality, added the Senior Minister, who cited the case of a 16-year-old Protestant Christian Singaporean boy detained last December for plotting to attack two mosques and kill Muslims on the second anniversary of the Christchurch attacks.

He said this case highlighted the "need to guard against the potential of 'reciprocal radicalisation' and cycles of retaliatory violence, where the actions of jihadist terrorists and far-right extremists feed off and amplify each other's intensity".

"Terrorism is not justified in any circumstances," he added. "We should oppose it and counter it wherever it comes from."

Mr Teo called on family members, friends, colleagues and schoolmates to help "sound the alert" on individuals drawn to exclusivist and violent ideology. Referring them as early as possible to counsellors and to the security agencies can save them from doing harm to themselves and others, he said.

Mr Teo also stressed that an attack may occur when least expected, and before security forces arrive, Singaporeans must be ready to save themselves and those around them.

"Every Singaporean matters in the fight against terrorism," he said. "The engagement and partnership with the community to counter terrorism is a continuous work in progress, and we can do even better."