SINGAPORE - Several Singaporeans are among 12,000 foreigners taking part in the armed conflict in Syria, including a couple of parents who had taken along their children.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean disclosed this in Parliament yesterday, when he warned that such fighters could return proficient in terrorist skills and pose a security threat.
Among the "handful" of Singaporeans is said to be a woman who went with her foreign husband and their two teenage children. "The whole family is taking part in the conflict in various ways, either joining the terrorist groups to fight, or providing aid and support to the fighters," said Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister.
Another man, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali, 37, took with him his wife and three children between the ages of two and 11. He is a Singapore citizen who was an Indian national, the Home Affairs Ministry had said in March when announcing that he was under investigation. Several other Singaporeans had planned to join the conflict but were detained before they could set off, and some others are under investigation, said Mr Teo.
He is the third minister here, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who have spoken recently about the security threat posed by foreigners travelling to Syria to fight alongside rebels against the Syrian regime.
Their remarks come amid growing concern that foreign involvement could encourage the spread of violent extremism worldwide.
Mr Teo said social media had been a "game- changer" in the conflict, letting extremists market their cause and recruit fighters. "The presence of former foreign fighters in our region - whether they originate from South-east Asia or elsewhere - is a security threat to us. This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans."
He also noted that Singaporeans who have helped militant organisations had "demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause". They pose a national security threat, he added.
Drawing parallels with the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s which drew scores of foreign fighters, he said Al-Qaeda had spawned from there. In 2001, the terrorist organisation had planned to attack Singapore through its regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiah, after the Sept 11 attacks in the US. Foreign fighters returning from Syria may similarly "undertake terrorist activities in their home countries or overseas or... provide logistical and operational help to terrorists whom they befriended in Syria", he added.
Mr Teo urged Singaporeans to keep a lookout and alert the authorities if their family members and friends show signs of becoming radicalised. Those who want to help Syrian victims of the violence should check with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, or Muis, that the humanitarian organisations they are donating to are bona fide and not fronts for extremists to raise funds, he added.
Another worry he highlighted is that if support for the fighting in Syria grows more widespread, it could cause "disquiet on the ground" in Singapore and breed mistrust between communities. He said the Government will work with religious leaders and community groups to counter the radical propaganda used by terrorists and will investigate those who intend to "engage in violence overseas".
This article was first published on July 10, 2014.
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