SG2015: Insight, hindsight

Staying vigilant against the threat of ISIS

Robert Newman protests against ISIS across from a makeshift memorial for victims of the San Bernardino shooting.
Robert Newman protests against ISIS across from a makeshift memorial for victims of the San Bernardino shooting. PHOTO: REUTERS

If 2014 was the year that terror group ISIS sent shockwaves around the world in declaring its self-styled caliphate, 2015 was the year Singaporeans were constantly reminded of the clear and present danger the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria poses.

Apart from global terror attacks that demonstrated the growing influence and reach of ISIS, and foiled plots targeting Malaysia's Parliament, social media postings this year identified Singapore as a possible target for attack.

Also, four Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act for wanting to join the group.

One of them, polytechnic student M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i, now 20, was the first individual linked to ISIS posing a threat on Singapore soil. He had made plans to assassinate President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong if he could not travel to Syria. If he could not do so, he was planning to carry out attacks in public places using easily available weapons like knives. He was detained in May.

The three others detained were not said to be plotting specific attacks but had wanted to travel abroad to fight alongside ISIS.

Some 700 Indonesians and more than 150 Malaysians have joined ISIS in the Middle East, and a major concern for many in the region is that they will pose a danger when they return home with combat experience.

In July, Mustafa Sultan Ali, now 52, was detained after the Turkish authorities deported him for trying to cross into Syria to join ISIS.

In August, Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, now 29, and Harith Jailani, now 19, were detained in separate cases for planning to join ISIS.

And a radicalised 17-year-old student was placed under a Restriction Order which limits his activities.

There have been others who tried to travel to Syria through Singapore to evade detection. Last month, two Indonesians arriving by ferry from Batam with the intention of going on to Syria were denied entry. They reportedly used false documents.

In the region, a Singaporean became a fatality to a terror attack. Ms Melisa Liu, 34, who worked for insurer AXA, was killed in a bomb blast at Bangkok's Erawan Shrine on Aug 17. Her husband Ng Su Teck, 35, and her brother were among seven Singaporeans injured in the incident.

Whether or not the bombing is directly linked to ISIS, it raises the spectre of similar attacks being plotted and carried out in the region by ISIS sympathisers and returning fighters.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Washington earlier this month that recent years have seen the number of ISIS sympathisers eclipse the number of supporters its predecessor Al-Qaeda had in the decade when it was influential.

Some 700 Indonesians and more than 150 Malaysians have joined ISIS in the Middle East, and a major concern for many in the region is that they will pose a danger when they return home with combat experience.

ISIS has claimed responsibility or inspired attacks around the world, from massacres in Paris in January and November to the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai and a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, this month.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, notes that Abdelhamid Abaaoud - the apparent architect of the Nov 13 Paris attacks - had returned from Syria.

ISIS' ability to mount devastating and coordinated urban terrorist assaults will improve as more such trained, hardened fighters return.

The Bangkok-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime has also pointed to a growing link between South-east Asian radical networks and ISIS.

The situation today is beginning to resemble the early noughties, when returning fighters who had fought in the Soviet-Afghan war formed Jemaah Islamiah (JI), whose Singapore cell plotted attacks on several embassies here.

ISIS has also been aggressive on social media. The Straits Times this year reported videos the group released in Malay that showed the indoctrination and grooming of children of fighters in ISIS' South-east Asian combat unit, Katibah Nusantara, encouraging others to join them.

International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research analyst Jasminder Singh says such videos show that if they return home, "the problem is not going to end just with their parents, but continue into the next generation".

Singapore has been active in fighting ISIS, including deploying military planners to assist the multinational coalition against the group.

It has also long maintained that rehabilitation of radicals is a key part of tackling the ISIS threat, and initiatives to share know-how and help the community counter radical ideology gained urgency this year.

In April, Singapore organised an East Asia Summit symposium on terrorist rehabilitation and social reintegration for scholars, religious leaders and officials from 30 countries.

In June, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Muslim scholars who counsel terror detainees and radicalised individuals - launched a manual to help counsellors counter ISIS' message. It traces the evolution and organisation of ISIS, and collects research by reputable scholars that debunks its radical rhetoric.

In July, RRG launched a helpline for counsellors to clarify religious concepts misused by extremists or guide callers who suspect someone is being radicalised. It also uploaded videos explaining how ISIS has misinterpreted Islamic teachings.

In August, the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group put out a book that shed light on its work in supporting the families of terror detainees since 2002, and helping rehabilitated individuals reintegrate into society.

And in October, several Muslim groups named 20 young men and women "ambassadors of peace" to reach out to their peers and engage them on the importance of harmony and moderation - recognition that youth are key to the ongoing battle for hearts and minds as ISIS seeks to amplify its reach online.

The Home Team and Singapore Armed Forces have also stepped up their guard, including through annual Exercise Northstar in May and Exercise Heartbeat in November to test their preparedness in an attack.

This constant vigilance underlines analysts' warnings that Singapore remains a high-value, symbolic target for ISIS and its allies.

As Mr Singh puts it: "They haven't yet got the opportunity to conduct anything here because of the security environment, but we can't take that for granted because they will keep trying."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Staying vigilant against the threat of ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe