Terrorism: How prepared is Singapore?

Terrorism: How prepared is Singapore?

Masked gunmen on the run in Paris last week left a bloody trail in unassuming places: the offices of a satirical magazine, a Jewish grocery store, a petrol station.

These join a long list of innocuous places - a shopping mall in Nairobi, a cafe in Sydney, a train station in Kunming - which have been turned into execution sites in recent years.

With the "low-cost, high-impact" style of attacks by radicalised individuals or small groups increasingly the norm in terrorist attacks, Singaporeans and the Government are trying to adapt.

Cafes and shops have been putting in place upgraded surveillance systems, while security industry players expect counter-terrorism training to soon be made a core certification for the thousands of security guards at condominiums and offices.

Over the past six years, "soft targets" ranging from Biopolis to Sentosa have been the sites of staged bomb detonations and shooting rampages as part of the annual Exercise Heartbeat, designed to stress-test how the authorities and their private-sector partners respond to such an attack.

But there is only so much that can be done to secure ordinary public places without costly disruptions to the economy and to Singaporeans' everyday lives.

"You have to have a balance between free society and security. You can't turn every place into a prison or a fortress," said Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam last week, after signing a condolence book at the French Embassy for victims of the Paris attacks that killed 17.

Experts note that the death count from these soft-target incidents is usually low, with little long-term fall-out, as the attack sites are not integral, strategic ones like power plants or airports.

Rather, the aim is psychological damage and lingering trauma in the form of paranoia, mistrust and acts of revenge against racial and religious minorities.

"Such a terrorist attack itself is not damaging to Singapore," Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), makes clear. "It's the aftermath of an attack that will harm Singapore."

Are the strategies enough?

Since 9/11, the Singapore authorities have honed an overarching counter-terrorism strategy that experts say is one of the best in the world.

Singapore has no home-grown terrorist groups, unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, and is blessed with an island geography demarcated by clear, policeable borders.

Strict border control to prevent the flow of both radicalised individuals and a broad list of controlled items - even fertilisers, which contain the bomb-making material ammonium nitrate - is the strategy's foundation.

Intelligence-sharing with South-east Asian neighbours of the sort that decimated the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network is a major prong, as is what Muslim scholars have termed "the Singapore approach" of a sustained ideological campaign to root out and counter extremist teachings that may influence some in the Muslim community, with respected clerics leading the charge.

But the strongest of foundations have hairline cracks.

Social-media networks have effectively spread the transnational ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to all corners of the world, Singapore included.

Last year, the Government confirmed that a few Singaporeans had travelled to Syria to take part in the conflict there; hundreds of Malaysians and Indonesians have done the same.

ISIS has also perfected what experts call "crowd-sourced terrorism": inspiring individuals to unleash violence in their societies with crude, basic weapons.

"The terrorist group provides the overall extremist narrative through social-media channels that legitimises violence. Vulnerable, disaffected individuals do not need any training or specialised skills and can just engage in acts like knifing incidents or driving cars into crowded bus stops," says Dr Kumar Ramakrishna, head of RSIS' Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS).

Access to firearms and explosive material is strictly controlled in Singapore, and the authorities require shops to register buyers of everyday items which could be weaponised.

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