S'pore could be facing same terror threat level as 2001, says Teo Chee Hean

A man walks down a street filled with destroyed vehicles at the car-bombing site in Kuta, Bali, in October 2002.
A man walks down a street filled with destroyed vehicles at the car-bombing site in Kuta, Bali, in October 2002.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - The threat from violent extremism remains a real and present danger two decades after Sept 11, 2001, and Singapore and the region could find themselves back to where they were, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean has cautioned.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Mr Teo said while terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been severely disrupted in Syria and Iraq, it has morphed into other forms like ISIS-Khorasan, its affiliate in Afghanistan, and continues to recruit, motivate and prepare followers to commit attacks in their own countries.

Al-Qaeda, which was behind the Sept 11 terror attack on America that killed 2,977 civilians, has been regrouping, as have its offshoots.

And closer to home, members of terror networks like the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) have been released or could be released soon, and a new generation has emerged, he added.

"Today, with all these trends and the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, we could find ourselves back where we were 20 years ago," Mr Teo said in the e-mail interview this week.

"Do all these mean that history will repeat itself? I certainly hope not, and wish that we will have greater wisdom all round."

Mr Teo, who is Coordinating Minister for National Security, noted that 9/11 - as the attack is usually referred to - transformed the world overnight. "The global nature of the planning and support networks, and the horrific lengths to which the Al-Qaeda terrorists were prepared to go, were a warning for security and law enforcement authorities everywhere," he said.

The impact of 9/11 was reinforced by Singapore's discovery of the JI network, which was planning to attack Changi Airport and other targets here, he added. The Internal Security Department mounted operations to arrest JI members in December 2001 and January 2002.

Mr Teo also noted the direct link between JI and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was established when US forces who had invaded Afghanistan found plans and a video containing reconnaissance footage to attack targets in Singapore in the rubble of Al-Qaeda military chief Mohammed Atef's home.

The seriousness of the threat to South-east Asia and Singapore sank in one year, one month and one day after 9/11, when the JI detonated three bombs in Bali, killing 202 people. "These were home-grown terrorists who had been influenced by Al-Qaeda, and had received training and experience in Afghanistan," added Mr Teo.

He noted that when he spoke to ST on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011, he had said that while Al-Qaeda and JI may have been disrupted, their threat would remain until the ideological extremists and violent ideological basis for the movement are discredited. He also identified the Internet as the new battleground in fighting terrorism.

These observations remain valid today, he said.

Mr Teo also said Afghanistan was a key battlefront in the global fight against extremist terrorism, and this was why from 2007 to 2013, the Singapore Armed Forces contributed to the international community's reconstruction efforts to restore stability in Afghanistan.

The SAF deployed 492 servicemen in support of the International Security Assistance Force, particularly in Bamiyan and Oruzgan provinces, as well as in Kabul.

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban's return to power last month has seen extremist groups anticipating the country becoming a safe haven once more, and prompted a surge in foreigners as well as Afghans seeking to be evacuated.

The safety and security of civilians was foremost, Mr Teo said. Singapore deployed a Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft to assist in the evacuation operations, and Mr Teo said he was glad the SAF's 77-member team, which returned here on Friday, had a safe mission and made a meaningful contribution to the humanitarian effort.

"The events in Afghanistan are still unfolding. We will continue to watch the developments in Afghanistan closely," he added. "Ultimately, it is not what is said, but what is done that actually matters."

Mr Teo said there is currently no information on a specific terrorist threat to Singapore arising from the situation in Afghanistan.

But he added: "We must continue to be vigilant. Our security agencies are watching the developments closely and will calibrate our security posture to be commensurate with the threats."