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Defusing terror threats from Sheik Google
Publication Date : 24-01-2014
Just when Muslim cleric Leyaket Ali Mohamed Omar felt he was getting a handle on rehabilitating detainees from militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), he found himself sitting with a different type of detainee - a lone wolf, brainwashed by "Sheik Google".
Sheik Google is a personification of the way charismatic Islamic ideologues use fiery speeches on jihadist websites to poison minds and entice converts to join them in a war against the United States and its allies.
Ustaz Leyaket, who used the term Sheik Google as a convenient shorthand, says that Sheik Google's terror footprints are easily found on the Internet.
"The Sheik Google becomes the lone wolf's guru, his teacher. The individual then upholds these deviant teachings as the right ideology," says Ustaz Leyaket.
"We need to spread the message that Sheik Google is dangerous," he adds.
Muslims need to seek answers to their religious queries from a good Islamic teacher with credentials recognised by the mainstream Muslim religious leaders. Singapore has about 1,200 accredited religious teachers or asatizah.
Lone wolves, as they are known in security circles, are difficult to detect as they do not belong to any militant group.
Singapore detained its first do-it-yourself terrorist in 2007, six years after the first wave of arrests of JI members.
Five self-radicalised Muslims have been detained since, and three have been released.
Another group of six self-radicalised individuals have been placed on restriction orders. Under this order, a person is not detained, but his movement and activities are regulated.
Those detained are between the ages of 20 and 30. A few planned to go to battle fronts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia to take part in the fighting.
The threat posed by self-radicalised individuals is expected to grow. The number of jihadist websites globally stood at 5,600 in 2007, and a Saudi researcher estimated the number of these websites to grow by about 900 each year.
Security expert Kumar Ramakrishna says that with the spread of Al-Qaeda ideology via the Internet, "the threat of terrorism has metastasised".
"Some military strategists even talk of so-called Fifth Generation Warfare in which 'super-empowered' lone wolves may in the coming decade exploit digital technology to mount crippling cyber attacks on national infrastructure. They may even deploy small radiological devices against cities," he says.
It is important to have effective counter-ideological campaigns aimed at undermining the violent extremist ideology that sustains them, he adds.
Another security expert who declined to be named notes that the threats posed by self-radicalised members are as serious as the ones from those in a militant group.
But a new danger lurks.
The two groups could join forces, he says. "A lone wolf operating alone can cause mass casualties.
"But, in the terrorists' mind, the ultimate target is to have another Bali-style bombing or an attack similar to the Sept 11, 2001 incident in the United States in which hijackers turned aeroplanes into flying explosives.
"To pull off these kinds of spectacular attacks, a self-radicalised terrorist will seek out and join a militant group," he warns.
Different folks, different strokes
Along with a white shawl thrown over his shoulder, Ustaz Leyaket, 38, is always dressed in a long, flowing robe or gamis when he enters Whitley Road Detention Centre's interview room.
For the past four years, he has counselled detainees as a member of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Made up of volunteer Muslim clerics, the members counsel JI and self-radicalised detainees.
The ustaz draws on his experience in Islamic jurisprudence, a subject he studied as an undergraduate at the ancient Rubat Institute of Islamic Studies in Yemen. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in Islamic Studies.
By providing detainees with a deeper insight into Islamic teachings, he helps them understand and accept the correct interpretation of Islam.
The methods used to rehabilitate self-radicalised and JI detainees are different, he reveals.
JI detainees belong to a formal group which have radical preachers who taught a deviant Islamic ideology. The self-radicalised person, on the other hand, is an individual who seeks specific answers on the Internet to questions he has about Islam.
A self-radicalised person is often desperate for answers. His emotional need draws him to radical websites.
For example, one self-radicalised person wanted to know about ways to get closer to God. Habitually accessing the Internet for more than six hours every day, this person once spent nearly 24 hours listening to speeches by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
Another thought he had found the meaning to the Islamic teaching on riba or usury - the unethical act of charging excessively high interest rates on loans.
But he misinterpreted the concept, concluding that Singapore financial bodies were acting unethically by charging interest rates on loans. He wanted Singapore to abolish the system.
Reconnecting with the truth
Some self-radicalised persons respond well to counselling, discloses the ustaz. "One man's eyes lit up when I explained the correct interpretation of Islamic concepts. He started asking more questions in a genuine way. But another guy was really stubborn and he would not listen. He even started lecturing me."
Ustaz Leyaket also discusses other approaches with RRG members, seeking fresh ways to re-connect with those who are stubborn.
The ustaz also uses techniques he learnt during his master's course in counselling at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
When the discussion with a detainee breaks down, he shifts the focus from religion to family matters. He inquires about the detainee's spouse and children's education.
"When he begins to feel good, we talk about Islam," he says.
Ustaz Leyaket, who is married to a school teacher, has four children. He is now pursuing his doctorate in inter-religious studies at the Gadjah Mada University and the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies.
Islamic religious leaders like Ustaz Leyaket play a critical role.
"I tell the self-radicalised person, I am the real Google. Ask me your questions on Islam and not the cyber terrorist teachers who pose as the Sheik Google," he says.