Last December 2021, Singapore commemorated the 20th anniversary of the arrest of members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist group. In late 2001, they were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for planning to launch terrorist attacks in several locations in the country. These included plans to use truck bombs to attack the US and Israeli Embassies, commercial buildings housing American firms and shuttle buses carrying American military officers and their families in the Sembawang area to Yishun MRT Station.
Fortunately, their plans were successfully thwarted when JI’s activities were detected by the Internal Security Department (ISD). ISD arrested 13 JI members in late 2001 while more arrests were made in 2002. Like other countries facing similar threats at that time, Singapore naturally heightened its security, while outlining strategies to deal with JI and the threat of terrorism.
Terrorism and violence are not new in Singapore. The country had experienced racial riots, confrontations, and even international terrorism in the past. Unlike previous threats however, violence from JI is religiously motivated, and this posed a new challenge for the government and the Singaporean society. To counter it, the government developed a holistic and comprehensive approach that included the rehabilitation of those arrested.
The government also realised that terrorism would affect Singapore’s multiracial and religious fabric, and hence strives to strengthen the relationship and trust between the different religious communities in Singapore. This was critical, as terrorism and violent extremism have the potential to disrupt social order through exploiting racial and religious fault lines. Thus, ever since the plot of the JI network was discovered, the government and community have continuously maintained social stability amongst its people from different religions and races through various initiatives.
An important element in the overall counter-terrorism strategy was the government’s endorsement of community-based initiatives to co-exist alongside more traditional counter-terrorism measures. This came from the realisation that the affected community would be in the best position to locate the local sources of misunderstanding or grievances, thus facilitating targeted solutions. This gave rise to local community-based initiatives such as rehabilitation conducted by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and social services extended by the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group (ACG) during the early days of the JI threat.
RRG comprises a group of local Muslim scholars who provide religious counselling to JI and other ISA detainees, while the ACG, represented by several community organisations, was formed to assist the family members. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), a governmental body responsible for Muslim affairs, along with local mosques, also initiated programmes which aimed to counter radical ideologies and prevent radicalisation in the community.
Since 2001, the threat of extremism from violent Islamist groups in Singapore has evolved to the phenomenon of self-radicalisation of individuals who have come under the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) narratives and propaganda. This has spurred the Singapore government and the community to continue developing new strategies to deal with the enduring threat of extremism and radicalisation.
SINGAPORE’S UNIQUE COUNTER-IDEOLOGICAL PROGRAMME
Terrorism occurs when ideological motivation meets operational capability. The way a terrorist group shapes its radical worldview, and its publicly disseminated messages play an important role in the public interface between the group and its target audience. A group can successfully indoctrinate the public to become sympathisers, mobilise supporters and recruit members through its methods of propaganda.
A multi-pronged approach is needed to counter terrorism effectively. The ideological battle in the ‘war on terrorism’ should include not only a ‘shooting war’ or law enforcement operations but a ‘war of ideas’ as well. The response needs to disrupt and degrade a terrorist group’s military and economic infrastructure and target the organisation’s political apparatus. If left unchecked, this apparatus will continue to mobilise political support and logistical assistance, eventually generating new recruits.
Unlike the use of hard counter-terrorism approaches, Singaporean leaders realised that it was essential to partner with the Muslim community to reach out to vulnerable individuals. While only a very small number of Singaporean Muslims were detained for terrorist-related activities, they could not be held indefinitely, so the government ought to develop strategies to meet the contemporary challenges of ideological extremism.
Prominent Islamic scholars were invited to an initial dialogue with the JI members. These scholars assessed and concluded that the religious-ideological component of the JI movement must be dealt with in order to deal with the threat effectively. According to them, the grave danger of JI’s religious-ideological inclination needed to be treated as a concern to Singapore’s security, and thus addressed. This urgency led to the formation of the RRG.
RRG was officially inaugurated in April 2003. It originally had 11 members and is now over 46 members strong. They consist of mainly asatizah (religious teachers) drawn from diverse age groups, careers, and educational backgrounds. RRG also includes a secretariat made up of members from the asatizah and individuals from non-religious backgrounds. It functions as administrative support. RRG’s main and initial task is to provide religious counselling to the JI detainees and their family members.
Today, counselling efforts by the RRG have been extended to include self-radicalised individuals, those influenced by ISIS narratives, and anyone deemed to possess radical and extremist views. The group’s other objective is to serve as an expert resource panel in assisting the government and the community’s understanding of Islam. Counselling sessions discuss concepts pertaining to jihad (struggle), shariah (path, or understood as Islamic laws), or daulah Islamiyah (Islamic state) and refute the detainees’ distorted understanding of the concept of al-wala’ wal bara’ (loyalty and disavowal). Apart from addressing these doctrines, the detainees were also guided on how to live as good Muslims and be progressive in the context of a secular and multi-religious society.
Counselling of the detainees is a daunting task and a long-term process that requires perseverance. While counselling efforts are ongoing, RRG has also engaged the wider community in various engagements and programmes online and offline. These programmes aim at proactively educating the wider public on the dangers of extremist ideologies and preventing Muslim youths from being lured by deviant teachings.
Today, the concept of religious rehabilitation, particularly for Islamist militants, has gained wide acceptance locally and internationally. Many governments have recognised that religious rehabilitation is key to formulate an effective counter-terrorism strategy. This can be seen in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia where similar programmes have also been in place. Singapore’s approach to religious rehabilitation has also accrued interest and recognition from many governments and scholars regionally and globally.
Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University (Washington, DC) states:
“The path-breaking work of Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) provides a model and inspiration for counterradicalisation efforts everywhere. The RRG’s outreach efforts not only to radicals but to their families are a seminal example of the most innovative and novel approaches to addressing this phenomenon. Most importantly, it proves that there is no war on Islam, as the radicals often claim, and that communities can indeed co-exist peacefully and harmoniously”.
ROLE OF SCHOLARS AND COMMUNITY
The ideology of violent Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda, JI and ISIS, frames their organisational structure, leadership and membership motivation, recruitment, and support. It also shapes their strategies, tactics and worldview. The threat posed by these groups will persist unless their extreme and perverted understanding of religion is countered. Violent Islamists attempt to identify themselves as representatives of the authentic and original Islam as practised by the early Muslims. They advocate strict adherence to their understanding of Islamic practices as enjoined by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and subsequently practised by the early Muslims.
These groups managed to radicalise individuals and convince them to take action in their name. An example can be seen in the ISIS’ Dabiq magazine. The articles are written by ISIS followers whose chain of knowledge is unknown, and their religious contents can be characterised as having Sunni-versus-Shiite orientation, circular discourses on religious concepts, and the extensive use of eschatological or ‘end of times’ narratives. Extremist ideologies and propaganda will continue even if the groups cease to exist. To confront the threat, though, robust tools and religious scholars are needed to steer misguided views and critically invalidate their ideologies, especially its questionable religious legitimacy.
Responding to the threat posed by violent radical Islamist groups requires a holistic approach that targets both the terrorists’ organisational and ideological infrastructure – a great challenge for many secular governments due to the lack of capabilities and experience. Governments must thus work with religious communities. To counter the perverted understanding of Islam propagated by extremists, religious scholars need to come forth and assume responsibility for framing the religion correctly. Ultimately, they are needed to rehabilitate detainees and to inform the larger Muslim community about the dangers of extremist narratives.
Religious scholars must openly and proactively reject violence and intolerance through debates and open dialogues on the dangers of religious extremism. Their role is critical to bring about peace and harmony. The essential reality is that extremists believe their immoral acts of violence are moral and that they are on the right path to God. This is drawn from a long tradition of extreme intolerance that does not distinguish between politics and religion, but instead distorting them both. This must be deconstructed and the scholars are in the best position to perform this task.
The story of RRG stands out in this regard. A group of local scholars working closely with the local government is a fine example of the importance of a government-community partnership to deal with the threat of terrorism and extremism. The Singaporean government has been amenable to the idea of working with the community for a number of reasons. These include: (1) the threat of terrorism is not the problem of the Muslim community alone but of the nation and hence requires the attention of all; and (2) participation of religious scholars is needed, because they are the right people to confront extremist ideologies and rehabilitate the detainees.
As the Singapore experience has demonstrated, Muslim and non-Muslim organisations such as the RRG, ACG, MUIS, the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) and Malay/Muslim organisations (MMOs) have managed to help the government effectively to reduce the threat of terrorism and extremism in the country. They have valuable expertise and experience in addressing conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.
The discovery of the JI network in Singapore and the arrest of individuals radicalised by ISIS narratives have produced invaluable lessons. Importantly, it has demonstrated that the government and the Muslim community can work together to produce the ideological counter required to defeat terrorists and extremist groups. This is not a war against Islam but a war against any misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Islam. This is not a clash of civilisations but a clash of ideas that has divided the world into peace and war.
The efforts made by the Singapore government and the community to fight terrorism and mitigate the threat of ideological extremism have been robust. While the threat has been degraded, it is likely that the country will continue to be targeted. Efforts and necessary resources must continue to be directed to support an efficient and effective strategy. This includes the allocation of sustained resources to train manpower, improved infrastructure to ensure greater security, and the support and intervention of the community and religious organisations. Strong leadership is, in this respect, key and has thus far been demonstrated. Singapore’s counter-terrorism success has been a direct result. ⬛
1 Mohamed, A. Winning Hearts and Minds, Embracing Peace, Commemorating the 5th Anniversary of Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group. Khadijah Mosque. 2008
Dr Mohamed Bin Ali is an Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He is also the Vice-Chairman of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) and Vice-Chairman of Geylang Serai Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC). He holds several appointments in the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) as member of the Syariah Appeal Board, associate member of the Fatwa Committee, member of the Wakaf Dispute Resolution Committee and member of the Committee for Future Asatizah. Dr Mohamed completed his Bachelor of Arts from Al-Azhar University, Master of Science from RSIS and obtained his PhD from University of Exeter, United Kingdom.