12 Apr 2006

The International Conference on Terrorism in Southeast Asia - The Threat and Response by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and the US State Department - Speech by Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs

​Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

There is no doubt that security agencies in our region have made significant inroads in the fight against terrorism. Indonesian security forces eliminated bomb-maker Azahari Husin. The manhunt conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines in late 2005 has flushed out from Mindanao, Khadafi Janjalani, leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and JI fugitives Umar Patek and Dulmatin. These three are believed to be hiding in the southern Philippine island of Sulu. Between Oct and Nov 2005, Philippine security agencies also arrested Hilarion del Rosario Santos and Pio de Vera, the founder and second in command of the Rajah Solaiman Movement The Rajah Solaiman Movement comprises militant converts to Islam based in Manila and northern Luzon..

2. However, despite these successes, there is also no doubt that the terrorist threat in the region remains a challenging one. Several fundamental problems continue to require determined concerted action by governments in this region and beyond. Several key developments have also created new challenges which warrant even greater coordination and calibration of efforts by governments in the region.

Mindanao – A Weak Link in the Chain

3. The on-going peace negotiation between the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is an important development to watch. Some observers have cautioned that the MILF leadership is divided over the peace talks. If the peace talks succeed, MILF is likely to distance itself from its partnership with the ASG and JI. This would also help to erode support to the ASG and JI. However, if the internal power struggle among the MILF leadership results in fragmentation of the MILF and the defectionof hardliners to the ASG or JI, these two groups could be strengthened.

4. In early Mar 2006, Admiral William Fallon, Commander of the US Pacific Command informed the US Senate Armed Services Committee that there has been progress made in southern Philippines. That may be so but he is right to have also said that more can and must be done.

5. The United States has over the years assisted the Philippines to disrupt the clandestine terrorist training camps in Mindanao, Philippines. However, two key problems remain. One, while the larger terrorist training camps appear to have been disrupted, there have been reports of smaller and even mobile training camps. There have been reports that cohorts of trainees from the region continue to undergo training in these camps. In addition, key JI members like Umar Patek, who has a US$1 million reward on his head, and Dulmatin, who has a US$10 million reward for his arrest, continue to help train terrorist operatives. Some analysts assess that such JI inputs have contributed to the visible increase in sophistication of coordination, design and method of attacks. The continued assistance of the US to the Philippine government in eradicating clandestine terrorist camps in Mindanao, must carry on beyond the engagement of MILF forces to shut their camps to trainees from the region.

6. The second key problem as I see it is the illicit smuggling and human trafficking routes along the extensive coastline of the Zamboanga peninsula and the scattered islands of Sulu, Tawi-tawi and Basilan. This area, which forms the southern backdoor to North Sulawesi and East Kalimantan, is believed to be the main route used by various groups including MILF and the ASG to smuggle firearms and explosives. This area is also used by fugitives and terrorist trainees, especially but not confined only to JI operatives, to travel between Indonesia and the Philippines for terrorist training. Unless this smuggling route is broken up, the flow of these terrorist trainees, firearms and explosives will not stop.

7. In short, to address the weak link in southern Philippines, we need a two-pronged approach. We must keep up efforts at dismantling terrorist training camps in Mindanao beyond those run by the mainstream MILF factions. At the same time, governments in the region have to help police and cut off the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea smuggling and trafficking lifeline.

Crime-Terrorism Nexus

8. Governments in the region can do more to cripple the mobility of terrorists and criminals. Mobility is a critical requirement for the capability development and operations of global and regional jihadist terrorist groups. By enhancing border control security, governments will restrict the movement of terroristsand criminals.

9. On 31 Mar 2006, we unveiled the BioPass, Singapore’s first biometric passport. Whilst biometric passports will not completely stop terrorists from moving furtively between countries, it will certainly make mobility extremely difficult for terrorists. Biometric passports will also boost the chances of timely detection of suspects after an incident. To reap these benefits, there must be international inter-operability of biometric passports. To gain a strategic advantage over terrorists and criminals, governments need to implement inter-operable biometric passports sooner rather than later. This is an area where there will be quick practical benefits if investments of technical and resource assistance are pursued in collaboration with governments in the region and their developed partners beyond.

10. In the meantime, security agencies can do more to exchange information on lost and stolen passports. Lost and stolen passports can be forged and used by terrorists and criminals to travel between countries. Lost and stolen passports are also an illicit trade in its own right and can generate revenue to fund terrorist and criminal activities. Here in Singapore, we are studying ways to enhance our ability to track lost and stolen passports and for such information to be shared with foreign security agencies in the region and beyond.

The Web as the New Base of Operations

11. Dismantling physical links among terrorists and terrorist organisations is not enough. This is because as we ring-fence terrorist activities and restrict the physical space within which they can operate, terrorists will turn to other avenues to continue their activities. Take for instance recruitment. Recruitment of operatives used to take place in camps in Afghanistan and in Mindanao. Operatives who mounted attacks in Indonesia are known to have personal links established and strengthened when they attended training camps together. On-going efforts in Mindanao will one day eliminate or significantly reduce the training capacity there too. However, if we do not shut out terrorists,they will find ways to recruit new operatives.

12. Al Qaeda is perhaps the first terrorist organisation other than the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to effectively use cyberspace to replicate its recruitment, training, communication and planning facilities. There are no precise figures for jihadi websites. Estimates today of the number of jihadi websites range from several hundreds to several thousands. The actual number could be much higher. If you google the word ‘jihadist’, there are over 1.2 million hits. The growth in jihadi websites has been exponential, considering that a decade ago, there were probably only a handful of such websites.

13. Given the links between JI and Al Qaeda, it will not be surprising if JI, the Abu Sayyaf Group and other jihadist terrorist groups in our region turn to or extend the use of cyberspace to beyond communications. A straightforward approach would be to shut down as many jihadi websites as possible. In this way, we eliminate the use of cyberspace by terrorists to communicate and plan terrorist operations. However, this may not be the most efficient or effective method to prevent recruitment of new operatives.

Countering the Jihadist Narrative

14. We need to reduce the vulnerability and susceptibility of individuals from joining terrorist organisations. One way is not to neglect social and economic development. This is because social and economic development can inhibit terrorism. Many terrorist organisations recruit new members from communities in which terrorism is considered a viable response to perceived local political grievances. When such local conflicts are mapped against a larger canvas of global conflict between infidel oppressors and the oppressed ummah, and the violence of political struggle is dressed in a religious persona, we face a terrorist who thinks he is acting on behalf of all Muslims and is pursuing the cause of God.

15. Hence, the appeal of this go beyond those trapped in such local conflicts. Many who subscribe to the terrorist world-view are drawn to participate in it regardless of their own personal situation in their home country. Not surprisingly, many of such terrorist recruits do not come from poorer communities. The suicide bombers in the 7 Jul bombing in London are home-grown and educated. They were not socially and economically marginalised individuals. The same is true of the JI members we have arrested. They are educated, employed and have families and their own homes. Terrorists can just as easily come from the middle or upper classes as from the poorer strata of society. As result, we need to accept that the only real effective solution against the terrorist threat is to be able to counter the ideology of violent jihad expounded by an extremist and radicalised group.

16. A widely held view is that only Muslims themselves can effectively challenge the distorted messages made by an extremist group in the name of Islam. This is true to the extent that a non-Muslim does not have locus standi to tell a Muslim what he should or should not believe is true Islam. In this regard, our Singapore Muslim community today has come forward to be the vanguard against extremist Islamist views.

17. It is also true that only Muslims can meaningfully marginalise the narrative of violent jihad in order to promote efforts to isolate and reduce the influence of the extremists who advocate intolerance and violence. In this regard, our Islamic scholars speak up and hold public forums to challenge deviant views, as well as to explain concepts like jihad. In the absence of such efforts, the extremist rhetoric of the terrorists grows in familiarity and acquire a doctrinal legitimacy in the minds of the less informed.

18 However, distortions of Islamist teachings cannot be dealt with entirely by Muslims alone. In a multi-ethnic society like Singapore, individuals of other faiths must support their fellow Muslim friends, neighbours, colleagues and residents. They should not treat Muslims in a suspicious manner. Individuals of other faiths also have the responsibility to gain basic understanding that Islam does not preach violence and that only a minority of extremists hold and preach the ideology of violent jihad.

19 It is in this light that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently launched the Community Engagement Programme, a key objective of which is to narrow the distance between communities of different ethnicity and religion. We believe that the approach must be bottom-up in order that activities and programmes be authentic and sustainable. What the government can do and is doing is to facilitate and to lend support to initiatives which promote better ties between communities. In pursuing this direction, we are mindful of the observation made by scholars that ultimately extremist terrorism is defeated by the community and not security agencies.

20. On this note, let me wish you a fruitful time for the rest of this two-day seminar. Thank you.

Last Updated on 21 Mar 2016
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