Singapore on edge as Islamic State circles
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned it's not a matter of "if" but "when" the wealthy city-state is targeted by international terrorists
While international linked terror attacks have hit various Southeast Asian nations, Singapore has so far been immune. But as Islamic State (IS) makes deeper inroads into the region, the city state is now on its highest terror threat alert level in years.
Transnational terror groups are believed to see the island nation as a symbolic target for its status as a global financial center with close strategic ties with the United States. It participates in international coalitions against terrorism and hosts several Western targets, including embassies and military installations.
Singapore has honed its counterterrorism strategy in recent years, setting up specialist forces and emergency response teams while doubling down on efforts to sensitize the public and foster community vigilance. Authorities also stage preparedness exercises and elaborate drills simulating attacks on high-profile targets.
The sense of vulnerability, long part of the island state’s national psyche due to various geostrategic anxieties and proximity to hotbeds of Islamic militancy, has not been lost on top officials.
Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has noted on several occasions in the past year that Singapore operates on the expectation of “when” rather than “if” a terror attack will occur.
At a town hall forum in September, Lee acknowledged the rising frequency of cases involving self-radicalized Singaporeans seeking to join militants in Syria and stage violent attacks at home.
The toll of an attack would be great. A successful terrorist strike on the country’s financial center or container port, one of the world’s busiest, would be economically destabilizing to Singapore and the entire region, and likely have a deep psychological and emotional impact on Singaporean society.
If carried out in the name of Islam, suspicion and enmity between Muslims and non-Muslims would complicate community relations in the multi-ethnic state. According to data compiled by the US Central Intelligence Agency, 14.3% of Singapore’s 3.9 million resident population identify as Muslim.
The population is being prepared for such an eventuality. Hundreds watched a mock terror attack simulating a gun and bomb assault held on November 26 as part of an exercise for ‘Emergency Preparedness Day,’ which imparts residents with improvised first aid skills, cardiopulmonary resuscitation training and even how to operate a fire extinguisher.
Singapore staged its ‘Exercise Northstar’, a large-scale civil emergency drill held annually since 1997, for the first time this year at Changi Airport, reflecting official assessments that major transport hubs are prime terror targets. The second phase of the exercise simulated vehicle attacks in crowded areas and an explosion at a bus interchange.
The drill scenario involved an estimated 650 officers from various agencies and envisioned gunmen shooting into crowds, the detonation of a suicide bomb and the discovery of a makeshift explosive. Singapore’s premier personally witnessed the early morning drill at Changi Airport with other government officials.
“Singapore is a key target. We have taken part in international coalitions against terrorism, and we represent many things that are anathema to [IS],” said the Ministry of Home Affairs in its first Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report published in June. The report characterized the threat facing the city-state as “very serious.”
It identified Singapore as a potential target for hosting US and other Western economic and commercial interests, citing an Arabic language jihadist publication that had two entities, the Singapore Exchange building and a port, on a terror hit list. Authorities responded by ramping up security measures in the areas.
While threats from transnational groups like Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) persist, Singaporean authorities believe the most serious regional danger now emanates from IS after the terror group’s five-month siege of Marawi City in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines.
Although Filipino forces eventually prevailed, anxieties persist about the terror group’s capacity to regroup and proliferate into a wider regional network. The liberation of Marawi “doesn’t mean the end of the terror organization,” says Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
“They are complex, adaptive systems,” he says. “The Marawi city siege displayed their ability to mount this kind of operation and exposed the limitations of government forces.” It also demonstrated the power of social media and encrypted messaging services as tools for militant recruitment.
Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defense minister, has claimed that Singaporeans have been radicalized in the past year at a rate seven times higher than the period spanning 2007 and 2014, when 11 allegedly radicalized Singaporeans were detained under the Internal Security Act, a British colonial era law that allows for detention without trial.
Since 2015, six restriction orders and 11 detention orders were known to have been issued under the law, all pertaining to Muslim militant suspects. Several were targeted by the government for sharing pro-IS materials online and planning to take up arms in Syria.
Last year, Singapore’s government launched a top-down community response initiative known as SG Secure, which it has characterized as a “national movement” aimed at mobilizing civilian communities to play a part in preventing and dealing with terrorist attacks.
MHA launched an SG Secure mobile app last year intended to issue alerts and public guidance in the event of a major incident. It also includes a “point, shoot and send” function that enables users to photograph and report suspicious activity directly to authorities.
Singapore boasts the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate and the SG Secure app has reportedly been installed on over 550,000 mobile devices as of June this year.
“Singapore is beginning to see enhanced security,” says Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman of the local S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “The fact that we are one of the most global cosmopolitan cities that has not seen an attack shows that our security system is very much in place.”
Last August, authorities foiled an Islamic militant plot to launch rockets from Indonesia’s Batam island, some 10 miles south of Singapore, targeting Marina Bay, the city-state’s glitzy tourist-oriented waterfront promenade. Indonesian authorities were tipped off and launched dawn raids on the suspects, thwarting the attack.
Singapore notably uncovered a JI plot in December 2001 targeting the US and Israeli embassies, as well as the Australian and British high commissions.
Some 37 suspects were taken into custody during two waves of arrests in response to the plot, crippling the jihadist group’s network in Singapore but putting the island nation squarely on the global terror map.
Four suspects have since been released on restriction orders while the remaining continue to be held under ISA. They include Mas Selamat bin Kastari, an Indonesian-born Singaporean and JI leader who famously escaped a high-security Singaporean detention center in 2008, but was eventually recaptured in Malaysia and repatriated to Singapore, where he is still being held.
Mas Selamat’s escape and the fruitless island-wide manhunt which ensued were embarrassing for Singaporean authorities. The high-profile visibility of the city-state’s multi-pronged counterterrorism efforts and preparedness drills now likely aim to deter any criticism of laxity if a terror attack occurs.
“An actual terrorist attack, despite the government’s best effort, would help the ruling People’s Action Party by rallying the people around the flag, so to speak,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Australia. “[But] if the attack was seen to be the result of government incompetence, then it is a totally different scenario.”