On 11 Sep 2001, the world watched in horror as operatives from the terrorist group, Al-Qaeda (AQ), hijacked and crashed two commercial aircrafts into the iconic World Trade Centre towers in New York City. A third aircraft was flown into the US Pentagon. The catastrophic events of 9/11 marked the beginning of a new wave of terrorism, from which Singapore was not spared.
The first specific lead that ISD received which led to the disruption of the Singapore network of the AQ-affiliated regional terror group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), came from a vigilant member of the public. A Singaporean source had informed ISD that Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan (Aslam) had AQ links. ISD then mounted surveillance on a group of people associated with him and investigated them. In December 2001, ISD brought forward operations against Aslam’s associates after the media published a report about Aslam following his arrest by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. As part of the operations mounted against the Singapore JI network, 15 persons were arrested by ISD between 9 Dec and 24 Dec 2001, and another 21 persons were arrested in August 2002.
The Singapore JI was part of JI's terror network that spanned several countries in Southeast Asia and included Australia. Beginning in December 2001, ISD arrested dozens of members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist cell in Singapore, which disrupted their local attack. JI had plotted with AQ operatives to carry out several operations targeting Western interests, including the US embassy, and key installations in Singapore. ISD's timely intervention prevented the Singapore JI from executing their planned attacks. Had the attack plans gone ahead, there would have been grave consequences for Singapore and Singaporeans.
A Singaporean JI member had briefed the AQ leadership about some of JI's attack plots. A reconnaissance videotape and notes and sketches containing information on Yishun MRT station and the shuttle bus service which ferried US military personnel to the station were found in the home of a high-level AQ operative in Afghanistan. On 14 December 2001, five days after the first JI arrests, the Americans briefed ISD about the video when ISD briefed them about the JI arrests.
Handwritten notes on bomb-making were seized during the arrest of a Singapore JI member.
Learn more about the JI arrests: "White Paper - The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism" and "20th Anniversary of ISD’s Operations Against Jemaah Islamiyah in Singapore"
The Singapore JI institutionalised sophisticated security practices and counter-surveillance tradecraft to evade detection by the authorities. A strict culture of secrecy was ingrained among JI members at the point of recruitment. It was common for members to use multiple aliases, and to frequently change them. They regularly communicated using code-words and code-numbers, including to arrange meetings.
JI members used the codes in conjunction with a special recall code system, BMTDK, to alert members of upcoming meetings. It stands for B - “Bila” (When), M - “Masa” (Time), T - “Tempat” (Place), D - “Daripada” (From whom), K - “Kepada” (To whom). For example, if the code number of JI member “A” is 41, “B” is 42 and “C” is 43, then 29-20-41-42-43 means that “C” has been activated by “B” to meet at “A”’s place at 2000hrs on the 29th (day of the month).
Even private meetings held at the homes of JI members were subjected to stringent security protocols. For example, members would alight at a bus-stop near their intended destination and walk the rest of the way. Instead of taking the lift to the floor of the member’s house where the meeting was to be held, they would alight several floors either up or down and make the rest of their journey on foot. Members staggered their arrival and dispersal, and brought their footwear inside the house so that there were no indications of a large gathering. The security measures were documented in a 12-page document entitled “Security of An Organisation” uncovered from forensic investigations of a JI member’s hard disk.
Operational materials and resources, including the reconnaissance videos of selected targets, were hidden in plain sight in the JI members’ homes and offices. ISD found two video compact disks (VCDs) innocuously labelled “Visiting Singapore Sightseeing” and “MP3 Rock n Roll” in the JI members’ possession. These contained the reconnaissance footages of the intended attack targets, including various embassies and high commissions, and the naval vessels at Sembawang Wharf and Changi Naval Base respectively.
The JI’s reconnaissance videos of various targets in Singapore were found in VCDs innocuously labelled “Visiting Singapore Sightseeing” and “MP3 Rock n Roll”.
JI members also came up with simple methods to conceal important information in their computers. Some created seemingly empty documents on their devices by obscuring contents using font size-one and white fonts. JI members were also known to have deliberately embedded important information in Excel files.
To crack the JI’s security tactics, ISD officers had to check through a large number of items seized from the JI members meticulously. Given the time sensitivity of the operations, officers often had to rely on their security instincts and resourcefulness to decisively ferret out critical operational leads.
For instance, in the midst of the JI operations, an ISD officer, “Choong”, was handed a diskette found in the home of a JI member. It contained an Excel file that appeared to be empty. However, Choong noticed that the file size was very large, and thought that this was strange and suspicious. Back then, Excel had a maximum capacity of approximately 65,000 rows, or about 38,000 A4 pages – a herculean task to comb through manually. Exercising some creativity and taping on his knowledge of Excel, Choong was able to devise a simple yet effective solution to quickly uncover the hidden data. Buried in the 10,000th page of the Excel file were the financial records of the JI. Choong’s discovery was invaluable in helping ISD to piece together details of the group and its members.
The terrorism threat is an evolving one. The mid-2000s saw the rise of self or home grown radicalisation where individuals who were not part of any organised terrorist groups became radicalised by the radical propaganda put out by groups like Al Qaeda or radical ideologues like Anwar al-Awlaki (deceased). In 2007, ISD detected the first case of a self-radicalised Singaporean who wanted to carry out armed violence overseas. As the internet and the use of social media become ubiquitous, online terrorist propaganda became one of the key means through which individuals become radicalised.
In the mid-2010s, we saw the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) amidst the Syrian conflict. The game-changer during this period was the social media. ISIS’s savvy use of social media and ability to produce propaganda videos of high production value led to a new wave of radicalisation cases involving both Singaporeans and foreigners based here. Those radicalised were also getting younger, and for the first time, women were being dealt with under the ISA because of their terrorism involvement. Several of these radicalised individuals had harboured intentions to travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS or other terrorist groups operating in the conflict zone. A few were even willing to conduct attacks in Singapore or against Singapore interests overseas. ISD’s pre-emptive security operations thwarted their violent plans.
The Internal Security Act (ISA) allows the Government to act pre-emptively to protect Singapore from threats to our internal security, such as terrorism, foreign subversion, sabotage, espionage, politically-motivated violence by other countries and acts of violence or hatred against persons on the basis of race or religion.
To find out more about the ISA, download the ISA booklet.
Violent extremism is not restricted to any one race or religion. Beyond radical Islamist terrorism, the global rise of other forms of violent extremist movements including far-right extremism, has added to the terrorism threat Singapore faces.
In December 2020, ISD detained the first self-radicalised individual who was influenced by far-right extremist ideology. The 16-year-old Singaporean youth was inspired by the March 2019 Christchurch mosque shooter, Brenton Tarrant, and wanted to emulate his attack.
The youth was found to have made detailed plans and preparation to conduct attacks using a machete against Muslims at two mosques in Singapore. He intended to conduct the attacks on 15 March 2021, the second anniversary of the Christchurch attacks.
Learn more about his radicalisation and this attack plot.
An image of a vest that the 16-year-old youth intended to adorn with right-wing extremist symbols and wear during his intended attacks, and an online listing of a machete that he wanted to purchase for the attacks.
Shortly after, the serious threat of lone-actor attacks was further underscored by the case of the 20-year-old Singaporean youth who was detained under the ISA in March 2021. Aggrieved by the Israel-Palestine conflict, he had made plans and preparations to conduct a knife attack against members of the Jewish community at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue in Singapore. He also wanted to travel to Gaza in the Palestinian territories to join the military wing of HAMAS.
The 20-year-old Singaporean was the first self-radicalised individual who was aggrieved by the Israel-Palestine
conflict to the extent that he wanted to engage in armed violence.
Learn more about his radicalisation and this attack plot.
Replica of an AK-47 rifle made by the individual to practice rifle-handling techniques
A knife which the individual intended to use during his attack at Maghain Aboth Synagogue was sized by ISD.
These cases illustrate that external developments and foreign grievances have significant repercussions on Singapore’s security landscape, and could motivate at-risk individuals in our society to engage in violence.
The developments in Afghanistan in 2021 could also have an impact on Singapore’s domestic security. The state of civil conflict and Taliban’s ascension to power may allow transnational terrorist groups like AQ and ISIS to re-establish safe havens for training and attack planning. Militant groups may also leverage on ideological narratives to attract recruits, including radicalised individuals from Singapore, to Afghanistan as a theatre for jihad. Read about ISD’s assessment on this issue in media.
ISD is committed to taking firm action against any individual in Singapore who supports, promotes, undertakes or makes preparations to undertake armed violence. This is regardless of how the individual rationalises such violence, or where the intended violence is to take place. Anyone who knows or suspects that a person has intentions to travel to Afghanistan or other conflict zones should promptly contact the ISD Counter-Terrorism hotline 1800-2626-473 or make a report via the SGSecure app.
Historically, terrorism is not a new threat to Singapore. Singapore has had prior brushes with international terrorism, namely the Laju Incident in 1974 and the hijacking of flight SQ117 in 1991. The key difference between these earlier incidents and the terrorism threat we face today is the fact that the JI network in Singapore, and the self-radicalised individuals dealt with in more recent years, were our fellow Singaporeans who were willing to resort to violence to advance extremist beliefs. The fight against the contemporary terrorism threat requires not only a kinetic response, but a battle of hearts and minds to ensure that extremist beliefs do not take root in our society.
Seven days of intense negotiations were carried out between the terrorists and the authorities.
On 31 January 1974, terrorists from the Japanese Red Army and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed petroleum tanks at Pulau Bukom. During their escape, the terrorists hijacked a ferry boat, Laju, and took its crew members hostage. They demanded the release of their jailed comrades in other countries. The crisis was diffused after several ISD and other government officers volunteered to act as guarantors for safe passage of the terrorists in exchange for the release of the civilian hostages; they accompanied the terrorists on a special flight to Kuwait, where they disembarked before the terrorists took off for Aden.
The hijacked SQ 117 on the tarmac at Changi Airport.
In March 1991, four terrorists from Pakistan hijacked a Singapore Airlines passenger flight travelling from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Singapore. They threatened to kill their hostages if their demands were not met. ISD provided intelligence that contributed to the successful storming of the aircraft by Singapore Armed Forces commandos.
Contemporary news articles on the incident:
Stay in the Know on ISD's counter-terrorism cases.
Singapore’s racial and religious diversity is a strength worth celebrating, but it also carries inherent vulnerabilities. The relative racial and religious harmony, or communal harmony, that Singaporeans enjoy today belies a past punctuated by racial and religious riots.
In 1964, when Singapore was part of Malaysia, deadly riots broke out between Chinese and Malays amidst an atmosphere of heightened communal tensions. The violence in Singapore in July and September 1964 claimed 36 lives and injured over 500 people. Together with the Police, ISD, then known as the Singapore Special Branch, worked tirelessly to contain the volatile situation.
In May 1969, communal riots in Malaysia spilled over to Singapore in the wake of the Malaysian general election. In the week of rioting that ensued in Singapore, four people were killed and 80 others injured. The Police and the Singapore Armed Forces, acting on intelligence from ISD, eventually brought the situation under control.
Federal Reserve Unit policemen cordoning off the streets along Kallang and Geylang Roads during the 1964 racial riots.
Singapore has not experienced large-scale communal unrest since the 1960s but this does not mean that the threat of communalism or racial and religious extremism has ebbed. Race and religion remain the most visceral and dangerous fault lines in our society.
ISD’s role in safeguarding racial and religious harmony in Singapore primarily takes place behind the scenes. We intervene, and work with community stakeholders, where necessary to prevent individuals and groups from stoking communal unrest, sowing inter-communal discord and undermining the social cohesion that Singapore has painstakingly nurtured over the years.
Visit the Harmony in Diversity Gallery to find out more.
While a terrorist incident is highly visible, foreign espionage or intelligence activities are not as they are conducted clandestinely. Countries engage in espionage or intelligence activities by recruiting human agents or using technical methods to obtain sensitive or confidential information about their target countries. Some countries may also engage in interference activities to try to shape the actions, behavior and policies of the countries they are targeting to advance their own national interests.
Foreign espionage, intelligence and influence operations that target Singapore or make use of Singaporeans to conduct such activities undermine Singapore’s national interests. The disclosure of sensitive or classified information to Singapore’s adversaries could potentially harm our national security, jeopardise our economic interests or damage our diplomatic relations. Over the years, ISD has uncovered numerous such activities and put a stop to them.
In today’s world, spy games are no longer confined to the physical domain. Cyberspace has emerged as a new threat frontier when it comes to state-sponsored espionage and hostile intelligence activities.
ISD’s counter-espionage and counter-intelligence work straddles both the physical and cyber domains. As a highly-digitalised society, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to cyber threats. State-sponsored cyber intrusions against our government, critical infrastructure and other information networks pose substantial threats to Singapore’s national security and national interests. Similarly, hostile dis-, mis- and mal-information campaigns launched by other countries against Singapore could seriously compromise our internal security and stability. They could be part of a larger subversive agenda by our foreign adversaries.
ISD fuses our counter-intelligence expertise and cutting-edge technological capabilities to counter threats to Singapore’s national security emanating from the cyber domain. We advise Singapore government agencies on protective security measures to guard against threats, and work closely with relevant agencies to safeguard Singapore’s national cyber security.
Over the years, ISD has built strong partnerships with the community, public agencies and private sector entities. We place high value on strengthening our ties with the wider community as we recognise that the public has an important role to play in helping to protect Singapore and Singaporeans from security threats.
ISD Heritage Centre
The Centre, which opened its doors in 2002, was originally conceptualised as an in-house training facility for ISD officers. It contains a rich repository of material that documents an integral part of Singapore's post-war and modern security history.
The Centre showcases security operations undertaken by ISD through the years, and reveals the painstaking intelligence work of its officers to keep Singapore safe and sovereign. Visitors learn about the fundamental role the organisation has played in neutralising threats from terrorists, spies, agents of influence, communists, and racial and religious extremists.
Ultimately, in sharing Singapore's security history, the Centre seeks to emphasise that Singapore's security and stability do not come naturally; they require hard work and sacrifice and should never be taken for granted.
Visiting the Heritage Centre
As the Heritage Centre is located within a protected area, it is not open to walk-in visitors. Instead, it liaises with organised groups such as government agencies, schools and grassroots organisations to facilitate requests for visits.
In order to bring key security messages to a larger audience, the Centre also organises mobile exhibitions at external locations. It collaborates, for example, with schools and tertiary institutions to hold exhibitions on the threats to Singapore's national security posed by terrorism, communalism, extremism and radicalisation.
ISD regularly undertakes security outreach to sensitise members of the public to the various threats to Singapore’s internal security. Since 2001, we have conducted numerous briefings for various groups in the community, such as the youth, community leaders and migrant workers in Singapore, to raise awareness of the terrorism threat and educate the public on how they can play a part in preventing terrorist incidents and the spread of extremist ideologies. We also conduct lectures, workshops and mobile exhibitions on national security issues for public sector agencies, institutes of higher learning, community organisations, and private sector companies.
Settling-In Programme for new foreign domestic workers (Terrorism Module)
Community Partnership in the engagement of migrant workers including migrant worker imams