Syrian conflict a security concern, some S'poreans have joined fight: DPM Teo

SINGAPORE - The conflict in Syria now in its third year is a security concern for many countries, including Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament on Wednesday.

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Here is Mr Teo's speech in Parliament on Wednesday:

 The conflict in Syria is into its third year. It is a security concern for many countries, including Singapore.

As many as 12,000 foreigners may already have gone to fight in Syria. This is even more than the number of foreign fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war, and the number is still growing.

Many of the foreigners have joined terrorist groups at the forefront of the violence, such as the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front) and the former Al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has now renamed itself the Islamic State (IS).

The Government knows of a handful of Singaporeans who have gone to Syria to take part in the conflict.

One of them is Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali (Haja), a naturalised Singapore citizen of India origin. He brought his wife and three children then aged between 2 and 11 with him.

Another female Singaporean is believed to have gone to Syria with her foreign husband and two teenaged 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.

Several Singaporeans intended to travel to Syria or other conflict zones to engage in the jihadist violence there, but were detected before they could proceed with their plans.

One was Abdul Basheer s/o Abdul Kader (Basheer), the self-radicalised lawyer who was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) from 2007 to 2010. He was re-detained in October 2012 when he was found to have been looking for ways to travel to places like Syria to engage in armed jihad.

Another was Zakaria bin Rosdan, who tried to contact foreign militant groups online in order to join them and engage in the violence in Syria.

A third Singaporean, Khairul Sofri bin Osman, was interested to carry out militant jihad overseas in places like Syria, and had also abetted Zakaria in his plans. Both Zakaria and Khairul were issued with Restriction Orders (RO) under the ISA in December 2013.

There are others who have expressed interest to go Syria to join in the fighting, and are presently under investigation. We have established that they were radicalised by videos, articles and social media postings online. They subscribed to the sectarian-religious or ideological rhetoric that calls for engaging in militant jihad in Syria.

Security concerns

Mdm Speaker, Singapore is concerned about the flow of foreign fighters into Syria for two reasons.

Terrorism threat posed by foreign fighters

First, we are worried about the terrorism threat from these foreign fighters after they leave Syria. There are parallels between the Syrian crisis and the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, which drew in several thousand foreign fighters and led to the creation of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation.

Al-Qaeda had, among other things, planned terrorist attacks in Singapore through the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group.

Several Singaporean JI members involved had trained in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda. JI planned suicide truck bomb attacks against a number of diplomatic missions in Singapore in collaboration with Al-Qaeda. Fortunately, their plans were foiled by ISD's operations in December 2001.

The foreign fighters in Syria may similarly return from the conflict proficient in terrorist skills. They may undertake terrorist activities in their home countries or overseas, or at the very least provide logistical and operational help to terrorists whom they befriended in Syria. This has already happened.

UK and French nationals who returned from fighting in Syria have already targeted Central London and the French Riviera respectively.

Let me cite a recent example of how foreign fighters in Syria can threaten our security in Singapore.

A French national who had fought in Syria attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels in Belgium on 24 May 2014, killing four persons. He was subsequently arrested in France.

This French national, whose identity we had not known previously, had in fact travelled through Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore en-route from Syria back to Europe. Most likely he did this to mask the fact that he was a returnee from Syria.

Of more direct concern is if there are foreign fighters in Syria who have come from our region.

The Indonesian authorities have said that some 56 Indonesians have joined in the armed violence in Syria and Iraq.

Most belong to militant groups like the Indonesian JI and the Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) which was founded by Abu Bakar Bashir, the former Spiritual Leader of the JI.

More than 30 Malaysians have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, with some reports citing as many as 100. Some 15 of them have reportedly died while fighting in Syria, while another undertook a suicide mission on behalf of IS in Iraq on 26 May 2014 which killed 25 persons.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian authorities had arrested at least 18 people who had been involved in activities related to fighting in Syria, including two servicemen in the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The presence of former foreign fighters in our region - whether they originate from Southeast Asia or elsewhere, is a security threat to us. This threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans.

Indeed, any Singaporean who assists violent organisations like the Al-Nusra Front, IS or any other violent group, has demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause. They would thus pose a real threat to Singapore's national security.

Impact on social cohesion

Our second concern over the Syrian conflict is its potential to damage our social cohesion.

If we find more Singaporeans fighting or supporting the fighting in Syria, or harbouring intentions of doing so, it would cause disquiet on the ground, and mistrust and tension between our communities.

This was the situation in the aftermath of the Sep 11, 2001 attacks in the US, and the arrest of the Singapore JI members shortly thereafter in Dec 2001.

The Government put in considerable effort to work with the communities to protect ethnic relations and social harmony. Our Muslim community, in particular, also played a key role, acknowledging the danger and taking responsibility for countering violent extremist ideology and rehabilitating those who had gone down the terrorist pathway.

We also formed the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and launched the Community Engagement Programme to build good social relations, so that our society can weather similar social stresses. These efforts are ongoing.

They stand us in good stead when we encounter new incidents, for example in 2010 when we detained a National Serviceman who was planning to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Measures needed to address security concerns

The Syrian crisis has increased the terrorism threat to Singapore.

I assure Members that the Government will maintain vigilance in counter-terrorism measures. We will continue to investigate persons who intend to engage in violence overseas, so as to prevent them from posing a security threat to Singapore and their fellow citizens.

A key challenge is to counter the radical propaganda used by the terrorists and radical ideologues to recruit fighters.

At the core of the issue is an ideological battle, between those who distort Islam for their violent political ends, and those who uphold the tenets of Islam as a religion of peace.

We have discussed the security concerns arising from the Syrian conflict with our religious leaders here in Singapore, they understand the problem and are looking at ways to expand and build on their on-going efforts to counter radical ideology.

A related challenge, which the Member has rightly identified, is the use of social media and the internet for recruitment.

The Soviet-Afghan conflict in the 1980s was in the pre-Internet age. Social media and the Internet have been a game-changer in the Syrian conflict. Some foreigners have been lured by the sense of "adventure" marketed by the extremists online. Others are attracted by the "jihad cool" factor, with "selfies" of fighters posing with their weapons.

Youths, who are the primary users of social media, are particularly vulnerable to such propaganda.

It is not possible to completely insulate Singaporeans from the radical rhetoric that is so prevalent online.

Singaporeans therefore must play their part to prevent loved ones and friends from becoming radicalised and embarking on a path of violence and self-destruction.

They should seek help by bringing such individuals to the attention of the authorities early, rather than let the individual go deeper down the path towards violence, causing the death of others, and of themselves.

As one of my Middle-Eastern counterparts explained to me, by intervening early, family members, friends, the community and the authorities would be "saving" these individuals from taking a course of action that would have caused them and others harm.

Singaporeans who wish to help the Syrian civilians who have been victims of the violence should not go to Syria and run the risk of getting involved in the violence. They can help by giving humanitarian aid through bona fide local organisations.

They are strongly advised to check with MUIS before making any donations, because some foreign humanitarian organisations are in fact covers used by radical elements to raise money or recruit fighters.