Counterterrorism a priority at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore

Counterterrorism a priority at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore

Lee Hsien Loong

Terrorism is not an entirely new phenomenon that burst on the world only after 9/11. Fifty years ago, there were already terrorist groups in many stable societies, including advanced countries. In Europe, there were extremists like the Baader-Meinhof Group. In the U.S., there were anarchist terrorists — small numbers, but they existed and they were violent. Japan had the Japanese Red Army — and Singapore had firsthand experience with them. In 1974, members of the Japanese Red Army and the PFLP — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — attacked the Shell oil refinery on Pulau Bukom island. They held a ferry boat and its crew hostage and bargained for safe passage out of Singapore. These groups were politically motivated, not religiously driven, and have largely faded away.

Now, we are confronted with jihadi terrorism, religiously driven by a perverted version of Islam. When we first started the Shangri-La Dialogue, 9/11 had just happened. Countries worried about further major attacks by jihadi groups like al-Qaida. Fortunately, there have been no further spectacular attacks like 9/11, although there have been major incidents, like the Bali bombing and the London and Madrid train bombings, and more near misses. For the fact that it has not been worse, we have to credit effective action and cooperation by many governments.

However, the problem is going to be with us for a long time. Although Osama bin Laden was killed, al-Qaida still exists, albeit in a weakened state. In many societies, we are finding homegrown terrorists, self-radicalized individuals who can mount attacks with minimal resources.

Chan Chun Sing, then Singapore’s second minister for defence, left, in white shirt, speaks with Operationally-Ready National Servicemen from the 807th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment in January 2015, stressing the importance of remaining vigilant against terrorism. SINGAPORE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

Chan Chun Sing, then Singapore’s second minister for defence, left, in white shirt, speaks with Operationally-Ready National Servicemen from the 807th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment in January 2015, stressing the importance of remaining vigilant against terrorism. SINGAPORE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

The latest virulent incarnation of the jihadi threat is ISIS [the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. By skillfully exploiting the Internet and social media, ISIS has attracted malcontents and misfits, misguided souls and naïve youths from all over the world. More than 20,000 people have gone to Iraq and Syria from Europe, from the U.S., from Asia, from Australia, to fight — for what? But they are there, and one day when they return home, they will bring radical ideology, combat experience, terrorist networks and technical know-how with them.

ISIS supporters have carried out lone-wolf attacks in a number of countries — Canada, the U.S., Australia and France, so far. [Not long ago], Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, repeated his call for Muslims worldwide to hijrah to the Islamic State. Hijrah means to migrate; it is what the prophet did between Mecca and Medina. Either you hijrah to ISIS, or you wage violent war for ISIS in your home countries, the ISIS leader said.

Southeast Asia is a key recruitment center for ISIS. More than 500 Indonesians have joined this terrorist group. Dozens have gone from Malaysia. ISIS has so many Indonesian and Malaysian fighters that it has formed them into a unit by themselves, the Katiba Nusantara, or the Malay Archipelago Combat Unit. Recently, ISIS posted a propaganda recruitment video. It showed Malay-speaking children training with weapons in ISIS-held territory. Two Malaysians, including a 20-year-old, were identified in another ISIS video, which showed the beheading of a Syrian man. The Malaysian police have arrested more people who are planning to go, including armed forces personnel, plus groups plotting attacks in Malaysia. These individuals are going to Syria and Iraq not just to fight, but to bring their families there, hijrah there, including young children, to live in what they delusionally imagine as an ideal Islamic state under a caliph of the faithful.

Several radical groups in the region have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Some have links to the Jemaah Islamiyah group, whose Singapore chapter had planned to set off truck bombs in Singapore soon after 9/11. Last year [2014], Jemaah Islamiyah’s spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, pledged allegiance to ISIS, posing for a photograph surrounded by followers in white Arab robes. He was in a jail in Indonesia, but he was able to pledge allegiance and take a group photograph and have it published around the world. Several hundred fellow terrorists presently in jail in Indonesia are due to be released in the next two years.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during a news conference in July 2015. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during a news conference in July 2015. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

ISIS has said it intends to establish a wilayat in Southeast Asia. A wilayat is a province under the ISIS caliphate. The idea that ISIS can turn Southeast Asia into a wilayat, into a province of a worldwide caliphate controlled by ISIS, is a grandiose, pie-in-the-sky idea. However, it is not so far-fetched that ISIS could establish a base somewhere in the region, in a geographical area under its physical control as in Syria and Iraq, to have territory in Southeast Asia somewhere far from the center of power of state governments, somewhere where government writs do not run. There are quite a few such places in Southeast Asia; if ISIS did that, it would pose a very serious threat to the whole of Southeast Asia.

Even in Singapore, where we have a peaceful and well-integrated Muslim population, some individuals have been led astray. A few have gone to join ISIS, and others have been intercepted and detained before they could leave. Recently, we arrested a 17-year-old student, and we detained another 19-year-old student who had been radicalized. The 19-year-old was planning to join ISIS in Syria, and if he was unable to leave Singapore, he intended to assassinate government leaders here, including the president and, for good measure, the prime minister.

This is why Singapore takes terrorism, and in particular ISIS, very, very seriously. The threat is no longer over there; it is over here. We are participating in the international coalition against ISIS, and we are contributing a KC-135 tanker to the operation.

I have described how our region has changed in the last half-century. Fifty years ago, had we known that we would be in this position today, we would have been more than satisfied. Asia is peaceful and prosperous. We have successfully navigated a major transition out of the Cold War. A new international order is taking shape, not without problems, but basically stable.

Fifty years from now, I doubt the scourge of extremist terrorism will have entirely disappeared. After half a century, the jihadist ideology will surely have visibly failed or at least weakened its hold on the imaginations of troubled souls. However, remember that Soviet Communism, which was another historical dead end, took 70 years to collapse. That was a nonreligious ideology, so these things take a long time.

A guard of honor marches past City Hall in August 2015 during the 50th anniversary celebration of Singapore’s independence. [Getty Images]

A guard of honor marches past City Hall in August 2015 during the 50th anniversary celebration of Singapore’s independence. [Getty Images]

On the broader issues, my optimistic hope is that a stable regional balance will continue to exist. ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] should be an effective and relevant actor. The Indochinese countries should have narrowed the development gap, and the grouping should have become more cohesive and more closely integrated.

I suspect that the U.S., China and Japan will remain major powers, and India will play an increasing role in the region. I hope that we will continue to have an open global system of trade, investment and economic cooperation. Certainly, I hope that there will be free trade in the Asia Pacific, instead of the current alphabet soup of trading arrangements. It should not be a world where might is right, where the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. It should be a world where legitimacy and constructive engagement are the international norm, and every country, big and small, can compete peacefully for the chance to prosper.

There is no road map to such a happy scenario. The future is not a straight-line projection of the past. However, if we resist the temptation to be consumed by short-term issues, keep our focus on longer-term shared interest, and continue striving for a peaceful, open and inclusive international order, then step by step we will build confidence and trust and maximize our chances that the next 50 years will be stable, prosperous and an upward path.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered this keynote address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on May 29, 2015. He spoke on the balance of power, regional cooperation and terrorism. FORUM excerpted this portion of his speech on terrorism and edited it to fit this format.

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