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Creative strategies needed to deal with new terror threats

Publication Date : 12-04-2014


An ancient Chinese proverb describes the challenge facing the authorities dealing with terrorists: dao gao yi chi, mo gao yi zhang.

It means: as virtue rises one foot, vice rises 10; while the priest climbs a foot, the devil climbs 10.

The same could be said for terrorism. In this lethal cat and mouse game, the security authorities need a mindset change, fresh strategies and new partners to anticipate the unknown and prepare to cushion the blows that will be felt when a terrorist strike occurs.

For tiny Singapore, the challenge of keeping the nation secure in the face of terrorist threats remains critical. Experts say our security authorities can build on a strong record of achievements - but it remains an uphill task, as terrorists are constantly evolving and strike when they spot gaps in security measures.

Given the reality that terrorists only need to be lucky once whereas security forces must be lucky all the time, how can governments succeed in preparing for ever-changing threats?

In September 2001, the world watched in horror as Al-Qaeda suicide pilots flew planes into buildings in the United States. It was an unanticipated terror attack.

In December that year, Singapore's Internal Security Department (ISD) shocked the nation when it uncovered a plot by the Al-Qaeda-linked militant group, Jemaah Islamiah (JI), to blow up foreign embassies and landmarks here.

Singapore responded by creating its own brand of counter-terrorism strategies. The old approach of simply locking up the terrorists would not work.

This time, the terror threat was from a clandestine network that was part of a larger cluster of terror cells in Southeast Asia. To dismantle the JI, Singapore formed its own network of experts from different fields.

Sixteen people involved in this counter-terrorism network were featured in The Straits Times in a recent series of articles. They were security experts, professionals and Muslim clerics.

They showed how a mix of hard and soft power methods were being used to handle security problems that are intertwined and transnational.

While ISD officers used the intelligence gathered to smash JI operations here, analysts at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies identified trends in terrorism and highlighted early warning signs of a potential attack.

To tackle deviant Islamic teachings, Muslim clerics spent hours with detainees at ISD's Whitley Road Detention Centre, counselling prisoners on the correct interpretation of Islam.

Engineers worked on ways to protect buildings from bomb damage. Medical experts began implementing measures to contain the spread of pandemics, now classified as a future terror weapon.

In dealing with problems of terrorism, Singapore has been fearless of terrorists, said a security expert who declined to be named. Describing the Government's response when it discovered the JI's plans, the expert said: "The problem was big and it was in the room. It had to be dealt with and there was no time to be fearful or wonder what to do."

But, despite its success in crushing terrorist operations at home, no amount of preparation has helped Singapore or any other country create an air-tight security system.

Operational deficiencies have emerged, and Singapore has responded by fixing these problems.

In 2008, Mas Selamat Kastari, a JI leader, escaped from detention. He was recaptured a year later. A Committee of Inquiry recommended improvements for the detention centre's security features.

This year, security measures at the Woodlands Checkpoint were strengthened after two motorists breached security procedures and drove their cars through in separate incidents, avoiding the mandatory checks.

The Government has said joint drills and border security exercises will be stepped up. The infrastructural design of the checkpoint will also be improved.

Keeping Singapore secure is going to be an on-going challenge. As societies advance, new threats and risks can render existing solutions insufficient.

One such threat is in the realm of cyberspace. Terrorist organisations have already begun putting their propaganda online.

This is a serious security concern as the Internet creates opportunities for the self-radicalisation of individuals. A person can pick up radical ideology in the privacy of his home, leaving no trail for the ISD to pick up.

His emotional needs may draw him to extremist websites where he can be brainwashed by charismatic Islamic ideologues who use fiery language to poison his mind and entice him to join in a war against the US and its allies.

Singapore detained its first do-it-yourself terrorist in 2007.

Five self-radicalised Muslims have been detained since, and three have been released. Among those detained are a few who planned to fight in the Middle East and South-east Asia.

There is also the threat of a self-radicalised person who becomes a lone wolf, set on wreaking havoc.

Security expert Kumar Ramakrishna says some military strategists fear a new kind of warfare in which "super-empowered" lone wolves may in the coming decade exploit digital technology to mount crippling cyber attacks on national infrastructure.

If cyber terrorists succeed in attacking linked computer networks for waste water and drinking water, they could pump waste water into reservoirs. They could kill if they crack computer codes that connect wireless devices in a hospital's digital system, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps.

To harden critical infocomm infrastructure against cyber attacks, the Government set up the Singapore Infocomm Technology Security Authority in 2009.

Even with the best security measures in place, Singapore must be prepared for the unexpected. It must not fear the shock and trauma that will inevitably occur as new terror threats emerge.

Instead, it should see disorder and chaos as opportunities for learning. To keep succeeding in the fight against terror, Singapore must continue to stay 10 steps ahead of the terrorists.


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