Countering The Narrative Of Terrorism

The recent arrest of one Singaporean teenager and the detention of another for being involved in terrorism-related activities is a matter of serious concern for all Singaporeans, for several reasons.

Firstly, they are some of the youngest would-be “jihadis” encountered here thus far. Post-secondary student M Arifil Azim Putra Norja’i is 19 years old, while the other unnamed individual is only 17.

Secondly, not only had Arifil desired to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he also planned to carry out attacks on public places and prominent leaders in Singapore, and attempted to recruit others.

Thirdly, Arifil attempted to link up with ISIS by befriending people online who he thought could help him join the terrorist group.


The threat posed by such young recruits to militancy is potentially long-lasting. Should they succeed in going to the Middle East and joining ISIS, they will become battle hardened, and if they survive, become the nucleus of a group of South-east Asians in the ISIS ranks. Upon their likely return to Singapore, they will engage in terrorist acts, thereby extending the reach of ISIS to South-east Asia.

However, the issue of very young people getting involved and taking an interest in terrorism, especially in ISIS, is not exclusive to Singapore. It is a trend evident in many countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, with some teenagers as young as 14 years old attempting to travel to join ISIS. Many are drawn to the ISIS propaganda on the Internet and social media.

To prevent terrorist groups from taking root in Singapore and radicalisation permeating into the community, the security authorities need the support of all segments of society. Family, friends, school, religious leaders and the community all have a role to play in countering radicalisation. The case of Arifil is illustrative: He was reported to the authorities by a member of the community who knew him and noticed the changes in his behaviour, enabling further investigation to be conducted.

Friends and family members who are aware of similar behavioural changes in their circles can do likewise. They should realise that reporting their friends’ suspicious behaviour is not “putting them in trouble” but helping them from causing greater harm or damage to the community.

On a broader level, there needs to be more community engagement programmes in schools, for the community to raise awareness of the dangers of radicalisation and the distorted and extremist ideology of ISIS and such groups. With early intervention, religious teachers can come forward to help vulnerable individuals from becoming even more radicalised.

In Singapore, the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has provided counselling to citizens who have been influenced by radical ideology, since 2003. From its inception, the RRG has provided religious counselling to members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), self-radicalised individuals, and their family members.

In its efforts to counter ISIS narrative and engage the community, the RRG has published two public educational pamphlets, The Syrian Conflict and The Fallacies of ISIS Islamic Caliphate, which are accessible on the RRG’s Facebook page.

Singapore has also adopted a system of recognition of Islamic teachers and scholars called “Asatizah Recognition Scheme”. They are accredited to teach Islam to the public so the latter are not religiously misled or become self-radicalised by materials found on the Internet and extremist websites.


Countering radical ideological narratives has to be done both online and offline. ISIS has exploited the Internet, especially social media, to disseminate its ideology and propaganda.

There are 46,000 Twitter accounts supporting ISIS globally, and at least 1,000 Facebook accounts of the same nature in South-east Asia. To counter ISIS online, the community needs to work with social media. For example, Facebook and Twitter have taken down accounts of ISIS members and supporters that post ISIS narratives.

Shutting down such accounts is necessary even though some analysts might protest that such a measure would cut off access to a trove of information about extremist groups. Removing online support for ISIS ideology is one of the ways of carrying out the uphill task of countering online extremism and radicalisation.

There is also a need for a model to counter extremism and terrorism online. Such efforts should complement successful real-world engagements that are already taking place today. Participants should be moved to be the counter-force and spread the message of peace. Not only would this create an effective dissemination of counter-messages, it would also provide continuity in community engagement efforts on the ground.

On a positive note, the announcement of the arrest of one teenager and the detention of another by the Ministry of Home Affairs came with the news that three former JI members who were under Detention Order had been released under Restriction Order (RO), and five individuals under the RO had their RO lifted. They had been receptive and cooperative to rehabilitation.

While the fight against radicalism is not over, it is not a lost cause. The two detained teenagers can change, and there is still a chance for them to become responsible Singaporeans with proper engagement, religious counselling and family support.


Nur Irfani and Nur Azlin are Associate Research Fellows of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Ms Irfani is also a volunteer with the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). This commentary first appeared in RSIS Commentaries.



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