SINGAPORE: The escalation of violence in Syria and Iraq over the last three months, as well as the expansion of the Islamic State (IS) threat beyond the two countries’ borders, have raised the security threat posed to Singapore. Two Ministers took turns to address concerns raised by Members of Parliament on Tuesday (Oct 7).
Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean shared the Government’s assessment of the situation, while Foreign Affairs Minister, K Shanmugam said that countering the terrorism threat has to ultimately be “in the arena of ideas”.
COUNTERING EXTREMIST IDEOLOGY
Mr Shanmugam said as many as 15,000 people from about 80 countries could have joined IS and other radical groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. This is the largest mobilisation of foreign fighters since the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s – the conflict that ultimately created the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
This region is not immune to the threat, with many joining in the fight in Syria and Iraq, he said. To combat the threat, Mr Shanmugam raised three points.
Firstly, international solidarity and action will send a strong signal to the IS that the world has rejected its extremist agenda.
Secondly, IS in both Iraq and Syria must be dealt with as one entity. He said any overall strategy must include a political solution to end the conflict in Syria, and political will to develop an inclusive and tolerant government in Iraq.
Lastly, military force alone will not be enough. “Military force is necessary to blunt IS on the ground but missiles and rockets alone cannot and will not bring peace,” said Mr Shanmugam. “This brings me to my third point – the true fight has to be in the arena of ideas. We have to counter the extremist ideology which is used to recruit foreigners to terrorism and fuel their violent agenda.”
He added that the threat posed by IS was real and everyone must do their part to combat global terrorism.
THE THREAT TO SINGAPORE
Mr Teo elaborated on the threat of the IS closer to home. IS continues to actively recruit foreign fighters – including Southeast Asians – and its brutality is not confined to beheadings of Westerners, but also to the killing of other Muslims and minority communities in Syria and Iraq, Mr Teo told Parliament.
A United States-led coalition of more than 40 countries, including several Arab states, is now taking counter-action against IS, he added.
“We currently have no information of any specific threat to us resulting directly from beheadings of IS and the anti-IS strikes,” Mr Teo said. “However, our assessment remains that the expansion of the IS threat beyond Syria and Iraq has raised the threat not only to countries who are part of the US-led coalition but also to Singapore.”
As with the threat from Al-Qaeda, he said, “even if Singapore is not itself a target, foreign interests here may be targeted. This House may recall that Al Qaeda, working with the Jemaah Islamiyah Group, had planned to bomb the US and other embassies in Singapore in 2002”.
There are also reports that some Malaysians and Indonesians who have fought for IS have formed a militant group called Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyyah, or Malay Archipelago Unit for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“If this group expands in Southeast Asia, it will pose a regional terrorism threat like the JI terrorist network, which had also aimed to set up a Southeast Asian Islamic Archipelago that encompassed Singapore, through the use of violence and terrorism,” Mr Teo said.
LOCAL SECURITY MEASURES IN PLACE
The DPM said Singapore’s security agencies are working with its security partners to monitor the situation in Syria and Iraq closely though the exchange of information, and will cooperate with them to counter the threat posed by foreign terrorists to Singapore.
There are also measures to prevent Singaporeans from getting involved in the violence there or from carrying out activities in support of IS, he said, such as co-sponsoring the UN Security Council resolution on foreign terrorist fighters.
“Any Singaporean who assists, supports, promotes or joins violent organisations like IS would have demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support the use of violence. Such a person poses a real threat to Singapore’s national security, and will be dealt with in accordance with our laws,” he said.
“Our approach will be carefully calibrated to the specifics of each case. Where necessary, the Internal Security Act (ISA) will be used in order to pre-empt and neutralise these terrorism threats to the security of our citizens and our country.”
In response to a question by Workers’ Party MP Low Thia Khiang, Mr Teo said that there are at least two known Singapore citizens who have gone to Syria to take part in the fight, though their exact whereabouts are unknown.
He added that authorities will continue to investigate anyone who expresses support for terrorism or an interest to pursue violence.
LOCAL COMMUNITY HAS PART TO PLAY
The Deputy Prime Minister also called on everyone to play a part in protecting Singapore against the terrorism threat. This includes alerting the authorities early to prevent family and friends from becoming radicalised.
There are also various community initiatives to counter IS’ radical rhetoric, he noted. The Religious Rehabilitation Group, for example, plans to produce online videos to debunk IS’ ideology to better reach out to Internet-savvy youths who are most at risk of being radicalised via social media, he said.
Mr Teo also mentioned a meeting was organised in July, with various community leaders, for them to understand what the Muslim community is doing to counter the threat.
“The threat is always there, but it’s something which we have to continue to work hard together, to bring people together, and help them understand the problem, and that our Muslim community is taking proactive and real steps to deal with this issue,” he said.
“All members of the public can also play their part by being alert to suspicious persons, objects and activities. A timely call to the authorities could well save many innocent lives. By working together, we can make Singapore a safer place for everyone,” Mr Teo added.