For Singapore, religious rehabilitation is a counter-terrorism weapon


The plans were drawn up. Singaporean members of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network in 2001 would rig six trucks with three tons of ammonium nitrate each in a warehouse. The plan called for six bombs to be detonated simultaneously at embassies and U.S. naval bases around the country.

Just one truck laden with the highly volatile chemical compound had enough detonative firepower to kill 168 people and injure 680 others in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

But the Singapore attack was foiled in December 2001. Following a tip-off, local authorities moved on the suspects before they could execute their plan, ultimately detaining 31 people for premeditation.

Investigations revealed that it was merely one of six plans designed to cripple the country, targeting crucial water pipelines, airports and transport hubs.

The news sent shockwaves through a country unaccustomed to facing such direct terrorism threats. Government leaders urged calm and prime minister Goh Chok Tong called for the strengthening of racial and religious ties.

A year later, in October 2002, the same terrorist network masterminded the Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.

"Singaporean leaders understood quite early on that they had the structures in place to fight the threat of terrorism but not the threat of ideological extremism," Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Nanyang Technological University, wrote in a 2015 book "Terrorist Rehabilitation: A New Frontier in Counter-Terrorism."

The foiled attack galvanised the formation in 2003 of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), comprised of Islamic scholars and teachers who seek to guard the public against extremist ideology while bringing those who have been exposed to radicalisation back into the folds of society. Fifteen years after the planned 2001 attack, the RRG remains a notable success story.

Only one case of recidivism had been recorded by 2015 among the 57 people who were released from detention after working with the organisation.

The programme's approach is holistic, it says, counselling detainees in theology, psychology and social matters. Detainees often lack a grasp of mainstream Islam, the RRG says, a fact that makes them vulnerable to extremist preachers.

"None of those arrested came from madrassas (religious schools) – none," says the RRG's vice chair and counsellor, Mohamed Ali. "Once they go on the Internet, they are swayed into believing that these ideas are the true, authentic Islam."

The RRG takes religious terms that terrorist groups have co-opted, such as jihad (struggle) and takfir (excommunication) and places them back into their rightful scriptural context. "We explain to them how they have misused, misunderstood and misinterpreted Islam," Mohamed says.

Psychologists also offer personalised support and advice to detainees. "It's not only about religion. It's about their character, behaviour, feelings and psychological makeup ... and their sense of unhappiness or their grievances," Mohamed adds. 

The RRG, along with other community organisations, also extend emotional and financial support to overlooked victims, such as the wives and children of detainees. 

Facing the loss of the family's primary income earner in many cases, mothers can be left struggling to manage their finances, while children are often excluded or taunted at school after their fathers appear in national news reports.  In protecting the social and financial welfare of family members, these organisations aim to eradicate the same vulnerabilities that radical groups attempt to exploit – a sense of social exclusion and economic disenfranchisement.

Yet, the process faces many obstacles. Some detainees and their families view the organisation with suspicion, considering it an arm of the government.

Establishing trustful relationships with detainees is essential, even if the process takes months, Mohamed says. "If that is not achieved, religious counselling cannot take place," he says.

A newer challenge is the spread of online material by terrorist groups to foment hatred that often features slick production values and dramatic soundtracks. This change in recruitment tactics is reflected in the demographics of radicalisation targets. While ex-members of the Singapore Jemaah Islamiyah network were between 30 to 50 years old, the average person the RRG sees today tends to be in their late teens or early 20s. 

In 2017, a 22-year-old woman was arrested while attempting to leave with her toddler to join the Islamic State extremist group, the first case of a radicalised female detainee in Singapore. However, despite the continuously evolving threat, the RRG remain focussed on their objectives. "For us, those who have been released from detention don't return to violent thinking and integrate into society. That's a success," Mohamed says.    (dpa)

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