Asean 'needs to close ranks against ISIS'

The latest detentions of two Singaporeans planning to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) underline the severity of the threat the terror group continues to pose.

But observers say it also reflects how Singapore has managed the threat: A coordinated, multi-agency approach to national security matters in place over the past decade to deal with the Jemaah Islamiah threat has helped tackle the challenge posed by ISIS.

However, greater co-operation among countries in the region is vital to decisively counter ISIS' growing influence in the region.

Some 30 extremist groups from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have taken oaths of allegiance to ISIS over the past year, said Professor Rohan Gunaratna, who heads Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

He notes that while these groups are not directly funded by ISIS, they localise and disseminate its propaganda, augmenting its ability to recruit foreign fighters and carry out attacks in areas far away from its self-declared caliphate.

"ISIS is 80 to 90 per cent financially independent as (it raises) money through oil, taxation, cross-border trade and kidnapping for ransom," he said. "The biggest resource it needs is manpower, which it is receiving from this region."

There are now some 100 fighters from Malaysia and 500 from Indonesia with ISIS, many of them part of its Malay Archipelago Unit. ISIS has about 30,000 foreign fighters. And even as the authorities in both countries clamp down on militants, ISIS' online propaganda goes on.

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says: "The messages are not just targeted at fighters and fanatics, but also at professionals and administrators."

ISIS' counter-culture narrative of building a new, utopian society has proven to be difficult to counter as it appeals to both the young and idealistic and those looking for a deeper meaning to life, he added.

Singapore has not been spared. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that two citizens had been detained for planning to join ISIS and take up arms.

The two, Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, 29, and Muhammad Harith Jailani, 18, bring to seven the number of Singaporeans known to have planned to join ISIS or who have joined them.

Dr Kumar said public education efforts to sensitise the community to signs of radicalisation appear to have borne fruit, citing anecdotal evidence that some recent arrests were the result of tip-offs from concerned friends and family members.

Dr Gunaratna said Singapore's approach to fighting terrorism, which sees agencies working together and sharing information, has proven effective at highlighting and identifying cases of radicalised individuals.

And as the ISIS threat shows little sign of abating in spite of efforts by an international coalition of more than 60 countries, both analysts called for greater regional co-operation between Singapore and its neighbours.

Dr Gunaratna said the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States can serve as a model for ASEAN members threatened by ISIS like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. He hopes to discuss this at the inaugural Asia Pacific Homeland Security conference later this month.

More can also be done to build professional ties between the various national intelligence agencies.

"In South-east Asia, we have the famous ASEAN way, where there is a subculture of co-operation, but a lot also depends on the working relations between the the heads of security agencies," said Dr Kumar.

"You need regular interactions at a working level between not just intelligence chiefs, but also staff to build that rapport and trust."

This article was first published on Oct 2, 2015.
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