The Singaporean terrorist and ISIS in South-east Asia

With shrinking space in Iraq and Syria, the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is developing a grand strategy of global expansion.

ISIS' Al-Hayat media centre released on Sept 23 a propaganda video with Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad urging Muslims to emigrate to East Asia for jihad. The three-minute video, the fourth episode in the Inside The Caliphate series, identified Shahdan as "Abu 'Uqayl", rallying fighters in East Asia and then calling on Muslims elsewhere to join them, if not in that territory, then Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya or West Africa.

With its decline in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is entering a new phase where the group is focusing on building its provinces in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caucasus. The East Asia division of ISIS in the Philippines suffered a setback when it besieged Marawi, the Islamic city in southern Philippines. With the terror group creating a capability in the Asean member state, with a view to targeting states elsewhere in South-east and North-east Asia, the next phase of the ISIS threat can be managed by enhancing cooperation among regional governments and national security agencies.

With the creation of the East Asia division in the Philippines and its siege of Marawi, ISIS plans to deepen its ideological and operational influence in South-east Asia. To destabilise the region, ISIS' strategy is to radicalise and militarise South-east Asians, including Singaporeans.

Speaking in English with a South-east Asian accent, Shahdan addressed the "mujahideen in East Asia" and assured them of either "victory or shahadah (martyrdom)".

The ISIS video in English is designed to reach out to Singaporeans and others in the region who speak or understand the language.

Shahdan went on to urge "the believers in the four corners of the world" to join the ranks of the mujahideen in East Asia and inflict "black days upon the crusaders", or "make your way to Sham (Syria), Khurasan (Afghanistan), Yemen, West Africa or Libya", as "the fighting there is only beginning to intensify".

A screenshot of a video posted on social media purporting to show Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad urging Britain's Prince Harry to fight ISIS terrorists like him.
A screenshot of a video posted on social media purporting to show Singaporean Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad urging Britain's Prince Harry to fight ISIS terrorists like him.

The 39-year-old Singaporean was recruited in the Middle East by ISIS and serves in Syria today.

Shahdan then challenged Britain's Prince Harry, a former Apache pilot in Afghanistan who visited Singapore in June, to come and fight ISIS. He directed a message to Prince Harry: "To Harry, you come to Singapore and tell such stories to gain sympathy for the London terror attacks? Why don't you come here and fight us if you're man enough, so that we can send you and your Apaches to hellfire."

This is the first time a Singaporean has been featured in ISIS propaganda. The Ministry of Home Affairs has confirmed in a statement on Sunday that security agencies have been monitoring his activities and had briefed community leaders about him. He left Singapore in 2014 to work in the Middle East, where he is believed to have been radicalised. "He subsequently made his way to Syria to join ISIS' ranks. He is believed to still be with ISIS in Syria," said the ministry.

The news should be a warning to the region of the intentions of ISIS. The ISIS propaganda video will not alarm South-east Asians but make them vigilant of the threat to their countries and regions. It will strengthen the resolve of governments to work together to secure the region. Unlike some leaders in the Middle East, South-east Asian leaders have taken a firm stand against ISIS. In addition, the Home Affairs and Defence ministries are preparing the intelligence and direct action capabilities to counter and eliminate the ISIS threat.

There is a shift in threat from the core to the periphery. ISIS is suffering in its heartland, but it is expanding in regions, especially those with significant Muslim populations. ISIS' strategy has always been to use locals to recruit locals and entice them into joining the terror group. Those who have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq are persuaded to reach out to their own countrymen with the intention of either facilitating their travel to conflict zones to fight or precipitating attacks at home.

Singapore is a prized target of both ISIS and Al Qaeda-centric terrorists. Nonetheless, Singaporeans, who are raised to treasure harmony, are resilient to ISIS propaganda. Its message has no wide appeal among Singaporeans who value moderation, toleration and coexistence. Having understood the harm ISIS has caused elsewhere, the Singapore Government and community leaders, especially Muslim leaders, have responded decisively to the threat.

• The writer is professor of security studies and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

• SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2017, with the headline 'The Singaporean terrorist and ISIS in South-east Asia'. Subscribe