Terror threat must be tackled online: Experts

PHOTO: The New Paper

A FUTURE terrorist attack in Singapore would likely be carried out by "self-radicalised" individuals consumed by terrorist ideology on the Internet.

Terrorism experts told The Straits Times this is why Singapore needs to redouble its efforts to tackle the terror threat online.

The issue is something that should be "front and centre" for Singapore, according to Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

"ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has a big, strong social media presence and we know they are making a strong effort to target South-east Asian Muslims," he said.

The militant group ISIS claimed responsibility for Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris that claimed 129 lives and injured more than 350 people.

Authorities here have repeatedly warned about the threat of ISIS, pointing out that hundreds from the region have joined the fight in Syria, including a few from Singapore.

In August, two Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act for planning to do just that.

They had been radicalised by online ISIS propaganda, the Ministry of Home Affairs said in September.

Dr Ramakrishna said the community here must build "mental firewalls" so it would be more resilient to such ideology.

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, said: "What is happening online is difficult to control.

"Singapore has to invest and build online platforms to counter terrorism. There has to be an effort to work with the community on this."

He noted that there are already strong efforts offline, pointing to those by the Government and religious organisations including the Community Engagement Programme, which seeks to foster bonds across religious groups, and the Religious Rehabilitation Group, which counsels terror detainees and counters radical ideology.

And even as they caution continued vigilance, Singapore is a tough target for terrorists because of its tight border control and laws on firearms.

Dr Rohan said: "The American approach of allowing weaponry is like arming the terrorist; the European approach of opening the borders is tacit facilitation - you have no control of what is happening outside your borders."

Singaporeans, too, appear to be vigilant, said Norman Vasu, deputy head of Centre of Excellence for National Security.

Referring to Exercise Times Square in 2010, when police rigged smoking cars at locations around the island, Dr Vasu said 52 Singaporeans had "instantly contacted the police".

There was criticism then that the public here had a lax attitude towards terrorism, but Dr Vasu disagrees.

He said: "I, on the other hand, would argue that was 51 people more than we needed to alert authorities to such an incident."

But that does not mean Singapore is not vulnerable. The attacks in Paris prove terrorists continue to exploit security vulnerabilities.

Experts pointed out that attackers in Paris picked community targets - including a stadium, a concert theatre and restaurants - because the French increased security at hard targets, such as government installations, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year.

Any successful counter-terrorism strategy then would require society here to develop a resilience, enabling it to take a successful attack in its stride, said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia).

He pointed to how society had banded together and weathered the Sars crisis and said this is proof that Singaporeans are socially resilient, adding: "It's the ability to cope with an attack and its consequences for society to rebound quickly in its aftermath."


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