Singaporean youth detained under ISA for planning knife attack on Jews leaving synagogue

Amirull Ali had planned to target three Jewish men after their Saturday congregational prayers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.
Amirull Ali had planned to target three Jewish men after their Saturday congregational prayers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.PHOTOS: INTERNAL SECURITY DEPARTMENT, ST FILE
To prepare for his attack, ISD said Amirull fashioned a replica knife to practise stabbing motions and grip techniques at home to avoid damaging the actual knife or injuring himself.
To prepare for his attack, ISD said Amirull fashioned a replica knife to practise stabbing motions and grip techniques at home to avoid damaging the actual knife or injuring himself.PHOTO: INTERNAL SECURITY DEPARTMENT
Amirull Ali had planned to target three Jewish men after their Saturday congregational prayers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.
Amirull Ali had planned to target three Jewish men after their Saturday congregational prayers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.PHOTO: ST FILE
The interior of Maghain Aboth Synagogue.
The interior of Maghain Aboth Synagogue.ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - A 20-year-old man who had planned to use a knife to attack and kill Jews leaving a synagogue, and to take up arms abroad, has been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Amirull Ali, who was a full-time national serviceman in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) when he was arrested in February, had planned to target three Jewish men after their Saturday congregational prayers at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Waterloo Street.

The Internal Security Department (ISD) said on Wednesday (March 10) that Amirull, who was enraged by the Israel-Palestine conflict, had targeted the men on the assumption that they would have done national service in Israel and hence had carried out alleged atrocities against the Palestinians.

But he shelved his attack plans twice, as he was concerned he would not attain martyrdom should he be arrested and sentenced to death after the attack.

Instead, he made plans to travel to Gaza to join the military wing of the territory's ruling faction Hamas in its fight against Israel.

This is the second case of a thwarted terror attack on a place of worship in recent months. Last December, a 16-year-old self-radicalised Singaporean student who had planned to attack two mosques in Sembawang and Woodlands and kill Muslims there was detained under the ISA.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Wednesday that a large part of the Jewish community here are Singapore citizens, and would have served national service here. 

Mr Shanmugam added that Amirull was detained not because he sympathised with the Palestinian cause, but because he wanted to kill innocent people here to show his support for the Palestinians. This would have severely impacted religious harmony here.

Speaking during a visit by Muslim leaders to the synagogue, the minister said: "It's perfectly okay to support the Palestinian cause, but it's not okay to go around killing people.

"If he had succeeded in his plans, the consequences for us would be very serious. It will go beyond the loss of the three lives, or however many he managed to kill. It would probably incite a greater animosity, distrust, between different races and religions in Singapore."

Self-radicalised over several years

Amirull, who was also self-radicalised, had developed an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict some time in 2014, after viewing a video of Palestinian civilians being bombed by Israeli fighter jets.

ISD said: "His subsequent online research into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict convinced him that Israel was oppressing Palestinians and also deepened his hatred for Israel."

In 2015, he started supporting Hamas' military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (AQB), after reading a book glorifying the group's exploits.

Three years later, Amirull discussed his intentions to travel to Palestine to join AQB with a foreign contact, who encouraged him. ISD added: "He was told that he would become a martyr if he were to die fighting against the enemies of Islam on the battlefield."

An ISD spokesman told The Straits Times that this contact was a casual acquaintance of Amirull and is currently not in Singapore. Apart from Amirull, he is not known to have influenced any other individuals in Singapore with his radical views.

Between mid-2018 and last year, Amirull researched travel routes to Gaza.

He also made a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle and practised handling it, believing he would be issued one by AQB based on what he had read.


Amirull made a replica of an AK-47 assault rifle and practised handling it. PHOTO: INTERNAL SECURITY DEPARTMENT

ISD said he planned to join the group after completing his full-time national service and when he had saved up enough money.

Its investigations so far indicate that Amirull had acted alone, and that there was no sign of him trying to influence anyone or involve others in his intentions.

His immediate family and others in his social circles were not aware of his attack plans.

Decided on attack here in mid-2019

Amirull decided to attack Jews in July 2019, after watching a CNA documentary on the Jewish community here. ISD said he was "enraged" that they were thriving peacefully in Singapore, while Palestinians were suffering overseas.

Knowing it would be difficult to procure a firearm here, he decided to conduct his attack using a Smith & Wesson knife that he had bought in 2016 for scouting activities.

To prepare for his attack, ISD said Amirull also:

- Downloaded an image of the human vascular system to identify the midsection as the best place to stab his intended victims to inflict a quick death from massive bleeding.

- Fashioned a replica knife to practise stabbing motions and grip techniques at home to avoid damaging the actual knife or injuring himself.

- Conducted at least two reconnaissance trips to the synagogue between August and early October 2019, during which he identified a spot along its exterior wall where he could ambush his victims.

- Downloaded a picture of the synagogue prior to his trips, as he was careful not to take pictures so as to avoid attracting security attention.

- Made plans to use a white keffiyeh (scarf) when carrying out the attack to hide his face.

Amirull had planned to flee the scene after the attack and return home, so that he could post a short manifesto online.


Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaking to the media, on March 10, 2021. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

ISD said: "The aim of the manifesto was to incite all oppressed people to mount attacks against tyrannical regimes using 'any means necessary', including 'assassinat(ion)' and 'vigilante justice'."

However, Amirull started having second thoughts about his attack plan in October 2019.

To him, martyrdom could be achieved only by fighting in an actual battlefield in Gaza. ISD said he was concerned that he would not attain this if he was arrested here.

Revisited plans in December 2020

But about 14 months later, he revisited these plans. ISD said that in December 2020, Amirull became angered by a YouTube video about the killing of an unarmed and autistic Palestinian man by Israeli forces.

The video, uploaded by Turkish state-owned news channel TRT World, depicted 32-year-old Iyad Halak, who was shot and killed by Israeli police last May after failing to stop at a checkpoint in Jerusalem.

Amirull planned to mount his attack on Christmas Day, a Friday. Instead of the white scarf, he wanted to wear a black ski mask he had bought in March 2020, which he intended to use when he joined the AQB in Gaza, having seen its fighters don such a mask.


Amirull planned to mount his attack on Christmas Day, a Friday. Instead of the white scarf, he wanted to wear a black ski mask he had bought in March 2020. PHOTOS: INTERNAL SECURITY DEPARTMENT

These attack plans were also shelved, as he remained concerned about not attaining martyrdom, ISD said.

ISD was notified of Amirull's case by the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), which alerted the department that he could have been radicalised by extremist ideologies.

Mindef said on Wednesday that Amirull did not attempt to influence others in his unit, and that no SAF equipment was missing.

In its statement, ISD said that it will take firm action against any individual in Singapore who supports, promotes, undertakes, or makes preparations to undertake, armed violence, regardless of how they rationalise such violence, or where the violence takes place.

It also underscored the importance of the public's role in preventing terror attacks, noting that if Amirull had remained undetected, he might have eventually carried out his attack plans in Singapore or travelled abroad to undertake armed violence.

"It is important for the public to remain vigilant to signs that someone around us may have become radicalised, so that we can intervene early to avert a tragedy," said ISD.

Update on other cases

ISD said on Wednesday that one of its detainees, Sheik Heikel Khalid Bafana, 49, was released and placed under a Restriction Order (RO) this month. The business consultant was detained under the ISA in March 2019 for his active involvement in the civil war in Yemen, where he had worked for a foreign power as a paid agent.

The RO for another case, Rasidah Mazlan, 63, was allowed to lapse upon its expiry this month. Rasidah was issued with an RO in March 2019 after investigations showed that the then production technician was in contact with multiple foreign entities suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activities.

Investigations showed that Rasidah's contacts with these people were mainly driven by her deep sympathy for Muslims suffering in overseas conflicts, the Ministry of Home Affairs said at the time. But her indiscriminate online activity rendered her vulnerable to adverse influence and recruitment by terrorist elements that pose a threat to Singapore, it said.