Published: 16 April 2015
We are here today for the opening of the East Asia Summit (EAS) Symposium on Religious Rehabilitation and Social Integration, organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and supported by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore.
Terrorism Trends and Threats
2 The terrorism threat has grown more severe since the watershed events of Sep 11, 2001. Terrorist groups like the ones who call themselves Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah have been evolving and morphing in response to the enforcement measures. New groups have emerged. Old networks are revived. New alliances are formed. And even as terrorists are neutralised, new members are recruited to replace them.
3 In recent years, we have seen the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS has raised the stakes with its brutal violence and exhortation to "erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere". It has exploited Islam, distorting religious tenets to serve its violent political agenda. Its declaration of a caliphate under ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has also attracted many who deem it legitimate. ISIS has skilfully used modern technology, the internet and social media to amplify its message internationally. It has drawn more than 20,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, and has instigated radicalised individuals to carry out lone-wolf attacks in their home countries.
4 ISIS has succeeded in radicalising not just adults but also teenagers as young as 13 years old, clean skins and recidivists, men and women. Radicalised parents have brought their young children with them to Syria and Iraq, where they become radicalised themselves at a tender age through their exposure to the violence around them. We have seen images of young children being trained with weapons to prepare them for a life of violence.
The 'Returnees' Threat
5 Like most countries, we are concerned that these foreign fighters may continue with ISIS' violent agenda not just while they are in Syria and Iraq but also after they have left. They could carry out attacks in their home countries, form their own terrorist group or join local and regional terrorist groups, to carry out attacks at home or overseas. They could also radicalise and recruit their countrymen to fight in Syria and Iraq, or to join their terrorist network. The security threat posed by returnees has already manifested in several incidents. One of them was Nemouche, a French national who had fought in Syria and later went to Brussels where he killed several people at the Museum in May 2014. Nemouche is pertinent to us because enroute from Syria to Belgium, he had travelled through Southeast Asia, including Singapore.
6 The threat of returnee fighters is not new to Singapore. Some members of the South East Asian Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network had been involved in the earlier Afghan conflict, before they later engaged in terrorist activities in this region. For example, Singaporean JI members who were Afghan war veterans were involved in plotting terrorist attacks against mass transit system, Changi Airport, and water facilities in Singapore. A few of them even collaborated with an Al-Qaeda operative in the plot to mount suicide truck bomb attacks against several embassies here. These plans were foiled when they were arrested in Dec 2001.
7 The emergence of Al-Qaeda from the Soviet-Afghan war and its subsequent spread of global jihad are instructive. A new generation of militants and terrorists will emerge from the large number of foreign fighters participating in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. They will pose an international security threat for decades to come.
Threat of Lone Wolf Terrorists
8 Another concern relates to individuals who fall under the influence of the violent ideology of ISIS and proceed to carry out lone-wolf terrorist attacks on their own in their home countries. Such attacks have already occurred in a number of countries like Australia, Canada, the US, France and Denmark.
9 ISIS has been especially successful in spreading its ideology through social media, reportedly with its own social media network called "5elafabook" in response to Facebook and Twitter shutting down thousands of ISIS-related accounts in recent months.
10 Many individuals worldwide, including youths, have fallen prey to ISIS' propaganda. The power of such propaganda cannot be underestimated. Many individuals developed from passive consumers of radical propaganda to becoming active actors in armed violence in a short span of time. Some have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight. But there are others who have not gone overseas, and instead pursue the violent cause by carrying out attacks at home. These lone wolf terrorists pose an equally grave terrorist threat and are difficult to uncover. Being lone wolves, their identities may not be easily uncovered and they can strike at any time, using any means at their disposal, like knives or cars to mow down innocents.
11 Who are those who are potentially vulnerable to ISIS' radical propaganda? There is no specific profile and reasons vary from individual to individual. But what appears to be one common characteristic that has been observed among radicalised individuals that we have investigated in Singapore is that they possess weak religious grounding. This made them more susceptible to believing wholesale the radical exhortations that distort religious concepts to give their message of violence an aura of divine sanction.
12 That was why we embarked on a religious counselling programme after the arrests of the so-called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members in Singapore. Local religious teachers who had spoken with a few of the detainees realised that the JI group had taught its members a distorted version of Islam that justified the use of violence and hatred of 'others'.'Others' refer not only to non-Muslims, but anyone else, including Muslims, who do not share their beliefs. The religious teachers understood that there was a need for a religious counter-ideology to debunk the radical ideas that underlie the Islamist radicalism and accompanying terrorism threat.
14 Traditional security operations disrupt terrorist plots and neutralise terrorist operatives, but terrorist organisations will simply recruit new radicals to replace those taken out of action. ISIS's savvy use of technology to radicalise and recruit thousands to its political and violent cause have rendered such counter-ideology efforts even more urgent today.
15 At the core of the ISIS appeal is its message of apocalyptic prophecies where victory has been foretold, redemption of an individual's past sins, and the legitimacy of its self-declared caliphate. To counter and contain ISIS, we need to tackle its ideological roots. A purely military or security response is insufficient.
16 The counter-ideology efforts will need to target not just the fighters themselves, but also their families who have accompanied them to Syria and Iraq. Unlike the Soviet-Afghan war, which had only involved the mujahideen fighters, we know that entire families have relocated to Syria to be part of the self-proclaimed Islamic state. The two Singaporeans who are known to have travelled to Syria to fight had brought their families, including young children. There have been disturbing reports of how children living under ISIS rule are being indoctrinated and inducted into ISIS' extreme beliefs and worldview. Minors have been enrolled into the ISIS army as "cubs of the Caliphate", with recent reports of a 10-year-old taking part in an execution and a 13-year-old French boy being the youngest to die fighting for ISIS in Syria.
You may also have seen screenshots of families (including children) watching the execution of the Jordanian pilot from projection screens, and cheering as the execution was carried out. Given their exposure to radical ideology and violence from a tender age, it is worrying what these children will grow up to be.
Singapore's Terrorist Rehabilitation & Counter-Ideology Strategy
17 In Singapore, we were fortunate that there was a group of respected religious scholars and teachers who stepped forward to take on this challenge. They formed the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Formally set up in 2003, a dozen years ago, the RRG provides religious counselling to our terrorism-related detainees and their families, to correct the erroneous religious teachings they had imbibed. Over the years, the RRG has also brought its counter-ideology message to the wider Singaporean Muslim community in an effort to prevent not just to counter the ideology of those who have already imbibed the ideology, but to prevent them from falling under the influence of jihadi terrorist ideology.
18 In addition to counter-ideology, we also need to look into re-integrating rehabilitated terrorists into society. Social integration is an important component of a holistic effort to neutralise the terrorism threat for the longer term. This is especially pertinent given the large number of foreigners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight, and who may later return to their home countries where they may pose a terrorism threat.
19 In Singapore, the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG) provides a range of family care services like counselling, financial and other forms of support to the families of the detainees, leveraging on available community resources and existing public assistance schemes. The ACG helps to stabilise the families and help them cope with the detention of the detainees who are often the breadwinners for the families. The assistance of the ACG does not cease with the release of the detainees from detention, but continues until the families are able to cope on their own. The work of the ACG has been valuable in facilitating the social integration of the former detainees and their families in mainstream society. So this creates an accepting medium for the families and the community upon the detainees' release.
20 The fallout from the Syrian conflict goes beyond what any one country or government can deal with. This symposium brings together experts and practitioners in the fields of terrorist rehabilitation and counter-ideology from the academic, public and private sectors, from more than 30 countries in East Asia and beyond. It provides a much needed platform for us to pool our expertise on the subjects of religious rehabilitation and social integration. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each of us comes from countries with different histories, and different communities and social context. But there is definitely scope for us to learn from one another on what has worked under different circumstances. On this note, I wish you all a fruitful conference.