Published: 12 June 2015
It is almost a year since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared that the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the areas under its control. The fighting in Syria and Iraq continues unabated and is very much likely to continue in the foreseeable future.
2 ISIS is not only waging a battle on the physical front, it is also waging a fierce battle on the ideological front. Unlike kinetic conflicts, this battle for the hearts and minds is increasingly fought on the Internet and social media. The Internet is a very porous and borderless media and ISIS can use the Internet and social media unfettered to peddle its radical ideology to gain recruits. It is not a faraway problem anymore; for most countries it is right here on our shores. Governments therefore need to recognise that unfettered access to information on the internet is one of the biggest challenges in countering violent extremism. Countries must adopt a long term view of this problem to prevent extremism from taking root in the first place; otherwise governments will need to expend much time and effort to repair a broken system.
Role of Government – the Singapore Experience
3 Since the twin tower attack in Sep 2001, the Singapore Government has had to face the realities of a terrorist attack within its shores. In 2001/2002, local members of the Jemaah Islamiyah network were detained for plotting attacks in Singapore, including against Western embassies and a train station frequently used by US military personnel. Today the threat and perils of returning ISIS fighters from Syria and elsewhere loom even larger.
4 The Singapore Government fights terrorism on a few fronts. Cyber wellness education in schools, implemented since 2008, is one important front. This has helped students and youth to be more aware of the negative aspects of information via the internet and social media so that they can make more informed and responsible decisions, and are able to discern between treasure and trash, falsehoods and truths. Singapore endeavours to also continue bringing our youths out of the virtual world into the real world by encouraging them to participate in dialogues with community leaders. This will help to strengthen their understanding of current affairs and underscore the importance of social cohesion through interaction.
Limitations of Blocking Radical Content Online
5 Many have suggested that governments should create barriers online by blocking radical content on websites and social media platforms. Intuitively, this proposal has its merits, but it is essentially reactive in nature. As soon as one account is shut down, more will emerge. We also have to deal with commercial entities who, because governments have no extraterritorial reach, make their own decisions whether to shut down an account or otherwise. There is thus, a limit to the effectiveness to the blocking of websites.
6 A more proactive solution would therefore be to shore up the defences in the minds of our citizens and increase the resilience of our societies by strengthening the bonds between the different communities. This can be achieved through upstream initiatives by both the government and the community.
Role of the Community
7 In Singapore, the Government has engaged both Muslim and non-Muslim leaders in closed-door dialogues to share the Government's security concerns about the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Such dialogues have proven to be useful, as the community leaders gained a better appreciation of the government's concerns and understand how the issue involves the larger community and not just the Muslim community. This has also allowed further collaboration as part of our efforts to prevent the problem from taking root in Singapore, as a fallout from any conflict can harm Singapore's multi-racial and multi-religious harmony. It is through these series of engagements that the religious scholars have come to realise the importance of changing the way they convey their messages as the attention span of young people is shrinking. Together with the Government, they have helped in efforts to combat the problem as well as planned how the Government and community can collectively handle a situation "the day after" something happens, should it happen.
8 The Malay/Muslim community, which is a minority community in Singapore, has undertaken various initiatives to prevent the spread of extremist ideas in Singapore and to counter the radical ideology of ISIS and other terrorists. In Singapore, as it should be everywhere, the Muslim community and the religious organisations should be engaged, as they play a crucial role in countering, and inoculating their members, against the radical ideology of ISIS and the terrorists. The community has come out to help tackle this problem and nip the issue in the bud on their own volition as they recognise the need to protect the long spell of peace and religious harmony that Singapore has enjoyed. Their active participation has complemented security action by the Singapore authorities.
9 Let me elaborate about the Singapore's Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which was set up in 2003 by a group of volunteer religious teachers and scholars counter the JI's brand of extremist ideology that had resulted in, among other things, the Bali bombings. Since then, the RRG has moved on to counter ISIS' ideology and debunk misconceptions that fighting in Syria is a form of jihad. The RRG has taken its counter-narrative efforts online, where the ideological battle is now being waged. The RRG has a website and a Facebook page to widen the reach of its counter-ideology messages, and has uploaded videos online to explain why ISIS' ideology goes against Islamic teachings, so as to reach Internet-savvy youths who are most at risk of being radicalised via social media.
10 As we speak, the group has just launched three additional measures to counter the growing threat of self-radicalisation in Singapore. Firstly, a helpline for members of the public who wish to raise the alert on those whom they feel are in danger of being self-radicalised because we know that unlike organised groups, there are now these "lone-wolves" who were self-radicalised via the internet and who the authorities know nothing about. The group will now also facilitate short religious talks before weekly Friday Prayers for the RRG to raise awareness on the threat of radicalisation. Finally, the RRG has also launched a counselling guidebook for RRG counsellors to refute ISIS' ideology.
11 Even in rehabilitation, the Muslim community figures prominently, and once we learn of individuals who are known to harbour extreme or violent views, we intervene early and refer them to religious counsellors in the mosques or to the RRG. Other community groups, like the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group who would take care of the families of these self-radicalised individuals, also come into play.
12 At the national level, the Singapore government facilitates the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and the Community Engagement Programme that bring different communities together to engage each other meaningfully. These initiatives are meant to build up strong communal relations during peace time, so that there would be stronger social resilience in times of crises.
Role of Parents
13 I cannot emphasise enough the important role of parents, as they are the vanguard of our efforts to combat violent extremism, especially at home. As a parent myself, it is heart-breaking to read about how teenagers, some as young as 14 years old, being deceived into embracing the romanticised notion that joining ISIS is a "glamourous" endeavour. In Singapore, the government had to detain a 19-year-old under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Apr 2015, as he had intended to join ISIS in Syria and wanted to carry out violent attacks in Singapore if he was unable to leave the country. The individual had even intended to attack the President and Prime Minister should he not be allowed to join ISIS. It was revealed that the seeds of radicalisation were planted in his mind after he started viewing terrorist propaganda online.
14 Parents need to guide their children's online activities to ensure they do not come under the pernicious influence of radical ideologues. We have asked parents to take the initiative to seek counsel from credible religious authorities if they are unable to answer their children's queries in relation to religious matters, or if they have questions themselves. The Singapore government believes that these steps go a long way in sensitising and inoculating their children against the poison of extremist rhetoric.
15 To conclude, radical teachings are increasingly finding traction via online platforms. We must adopt proactive measures to counter terrorist ideology in cyberspace and prevent it from taking root in the hearts and minds of our people. This cannot be achieved by governments alone, and the wider community should come together alongside to combat extremist violence in a joint effort. Everyone has a role to play.