‘Lone wolf, IS, homegrown, high-risk traveller’. These words are now part of the lexicon of a renewed war on terrorism, a vocabulary officials around the world are using as they grapple with ways to tackle extremism within their borders. The news of the brutal, merciless murder of Western aid workers and journalists by a purportedly British-born jihadist, the Sydney Lindt Café siege by a self-proclaimed spiritual healer Mon Haron Manis, as well as the recent unprecedented lockdown of Ottawa’s parliament as a result of shootings that occurred both in the Canadian Parliament, and Ottawa’s war memorial, perhaps highlights the exigency of the need to deal with the prospect of homegrown terrorism with deftness and agile thinking. To further underline the seriousness of the issue at hand, as many as 12,000 foreign combatants have joined the fray in Syria and Iraq, while the rates of recruitment in the current conflict far outstrip those of past conflicts, be they Afghanistan in the 1980s-2000, or the 2003 Iraq war. What happens in the Middle East will inevitably have transnational, cross-boundary security implications that all governments have to contend with.
The IS threat poses a serious dilemma for state governments: How do they balance the need for civil liberties and the need for greater enforcement and surveillance that could possibly impinge on civil rights? Tony Abbott, the Australian PM, gives us a sense of the predicament global society faces in its fight against terror: He has sought to persuade Australians to support a shift in “the delicate balance between freedom and security” as he sought to bolster his case for the biggest overhaul of the nation’s counterterrorism laws in a decade. Many critics, especially human rights groups and some opposition parties, have raised concerns that moves to overhaul counterterrorism laws would encroach on some fundamental rights. Concurrently, the governments of Canada, UK and Australia have all raised the official terror threat level to post-9/11 levels. Some of the typical legislations many Western nations have passed include the right to confiscate the passports of citizens they suspect of being involved in illicit terror programs overseas, greater powers to shut down offending jihadist recruitment websites, the mandate to detain suspects without trial, and to arrest and identify those seeking to travel to ‘specifically designated countries’ where there may be legitimate intent to participate in extremism.
Mr Abbott made three broad promises when passing the legislation; that the government would do whatever was possible to keep people safe, that the target was “terrorism not religion” and Australians “should always live normally because terrorists’ goal is to scare us out of being ourselves”. Indeed, Mr Abbott rightly recognizes the existential, visceral threat that IS poses to everyday life in Australia. Countries have made no attempt to hide their concern that Western jihadists fighting with IS in Syria would one day return home, bringing back with them radicalized beliefs and combat training. Such concern was very much vindicated with the recent spate of killing of Canadian soldiers in Canada by ‘lone wolf’ operatives, as well as the uncovering of a plot by senior operatives in Syria instructing acolytes in Australia to conduct ‘demonstration killings’, i.e. public executions at random, leading to eventual raids across major cities in Australia. Mr Abbott has cited the major anti-terror raids to underline the scale of extremism in Australia, as well as the need to reconsider the balance between freedom and security. To give a measure of the level of bipartisan support for counterterrorism measures, the opposition Labor leader, Bill Shorten also said Labor believed security agencies should have the powers and resources they needed to keep Australians safe from the threat of terrorism, but stressed the importance of “safeguarding fundamental democratic freedoms”. “We must ensure that in legislating to protect our national security, the parliament is careful not to damage the very qualities and liberties that we are seeking to defend from terrorist threat,” Shorten said.
Clearly, however, it seems citizens are willing to subjugate civil rights in return for greater security. After all, as Mr Abbott finely put it, how would it be possible for Australians to enjoy the free right to walk on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne without firm measures in place to ensure the safety and security of Australians to continue on with their everyday lives? Indeed, if we are to initiate preventive measures to enforce security and keep the streets safe from terror that IS wishes to visit upon populations, security considerations must override any concerns over civil liberties.
Zooming into the Canadian context, it would be hard to accurately point out the motives and culprits behind the simultaneous shootings occurring in Ottawa, but perhaps judging by speculation, it would be plausible that the attacks were very much planned by small-scale or lone wolf groups, possibly sympathetic to IS causes or in correspondence with IS itself. Canada was previously under immense pressure to support the international anti-IS coalition led by its neighbour, the US. It joined the international effort in October, and is perhaps facing repercussions for joining the fight so far. Since the U.S.-led bombing coalition against Islamic State began, the group has been urging sympathizers abroad to hit back. “If you kill a disbelieving American or European … or an Australian, or a Canadian … kill him in any manner,” an IS spokesman urged earlier this month.
Just this week, police shot dead a radicalised Muslim-convert youth who had ran over and killed 1 Canadian serviceman and injured another. He had been under intense police scrutiny for having been apprehended for trying to get to Syria to join the IS cause and had his passport confiscated. Such administrative procedures may once have seemed draconian, but are now increasingly common across jurisdictions as the specter of the IS threat looms. Yet, the very fact that he was still capable of committing such acts despite being under close surveillance by state authorities shows there is a need to do more. His case was a curious one, where he clearly had extremist intents but was rejected by the Crown Courts as a candidate for prosecution. Canadian intelligence will likely be coming under intense public scrutiny as to how it let both suspects roam freely, when there was little doubt that they posed a potential threat to national security. Such shortcomings by Intelligence clearly indicate much more needs to be done to combat terror. And perhaps, while moves to ramp up anti-terror laws will be set in place by PM Stephen Harper, shortcomings indicate that much more needs to be done to address the increasingly potent scourge of homegrown terror. Law enforcement and already-present legal provisions have clearly failed to prevent such a crisis.
The ubiquitous, increasingly draconian counter-terror legislation passed by Western governments in response to the heightened sense of threats from overseas jihadists may seek to act as preventive measures to stem the flow of jihadis, but is legislation truly an efficacious means to address the issue of home-grown radicalism? How effectively can legislation actually be enforced, in the face of an increasing number of ‘lone wolf’ operatives who can be hard to monitor, identify and arrest as a result of their covert, undetectable activities? Have Western governments’ grassroots counterterrorism programs been effective in achieving their objectives? And most importantly, through the myriad of measures taken to combat extremism, how can governments implement such measures without making Muslims feel targeted? Failure to consider such viewpoints could render counter-terror policies counterproductive.
It is important for Western governments, in their crackdown against terror, not to stigmatise the Muslim community and encourage the use of stereotyping. How can governments effectively address domestic extremism without making Muslims feel arbitrarily targeted? That moderate Muslims around the world have rallied against IS and recognized how its ideals are a travesty to Islam only underlines how misrepresentative of Islam IS truly is. In fact, groups like the Association of British Muslims have written open letters to British PM David Cameron to categorically reject the use of the term ‘Islamic State’ as this would be misrepresentative of Islam and a ‘’slur to their faiths’’. Equally vital are the actions of other Muslim-majority nations to make a stand against IS. Commendably, notable Islamic scholars in Western and Arab societies have come out to label IS as ‘heretics’. Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, which sees a disturbing number of jihadists fighting in Syria and a key recruitment ground for IS have given their unequivocal support for international actions against IS, promising to undertake firm action against IS members. That prominent religious clerics and Muslim-majority nations are against the violent distortion of religion for the sake of promoting political agendas shows how reprehensible and truly misrepresentative IS’ ideology is. Political and religious leaders must thus, continue to be resolute in their struggle against IS, lending their weight and credibility to the argument that resorting to violence and killing innocents in the name of faith is a travesty of everything Islam stands for. It is only with such steps can we truly stem the flow of youth seeking adventure with militants.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that the will to provide countervailing ideas by harnessing on the clout and credibility of community leaders is something that is sorely lacking in Western policies to grapple with homegrown extremism. There are also several deficiencies in the current grassroots counterterrorism model that the West uses that I will seek to point out, while comparing this with more effective models like that of multicultural Singapore. All in all, a sense of identity remains at the heart of the fight against terrorism; it is not hard to see why secular nations like the UK and France have difficulties integrating their Muslim communities. The failure to implement civic education, laws that have served to alienate ethnic minorities no matter how subtle they seem, such as the ban on the wearing of veils in public in France and lastly, unemployment are just part of such reasons.
To understand the ways in which any effective counterterrorism strategy can be crafted, we must first analyse the motives of youth in joining the IS cause. IS is a global phenomenon that puzzles many. And it puzzles us as to how youths, many of whom barely speak Arabic, are prepared to swop the relative comfort of the stable, predictable lives they enjoy for the harsh desert climate of the Middle East, are prepared to risk their lives to be killed under a banner of extreme Islam that even Al-Qaeda abjures? That radical clerics like Abu Qatada repudiate? Contrary to popular belief, these youths are not ‘misguided’ youths who easily fall prey to the pernicious teachings of clerics. In fact, on closer scrutiny, most of those fighting in the Middle East are not particularly religious. Increased religious piety thus cannot seem to be the main reason for the surge in foreign fighters. After all, there are instances of many being new religious converts or simply purchasing copies of ‘Koran for Dummies’ and ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon. Rather, it is the quest for identity, a yearning to escape the monotony of everyday life and experience new thrills that perhaps explains the surge.
In 2008, MI5 classified documents were leaked to local media, stating that ‘far from being zealots, most foreign fighters do not practice their faith regularly and lack religious literacy.’ This is compelling evidence enough that the Islamic State truly isn’t Islamic. Most see joining the IS cause as very much like a summer camp, providing much needed entertainment, without the booze. Many make enquiries on jihadi forums with questions pertaining not to warfare and weaponry, but on practical advice for living in the Middle East.
More tellingly, a failure of European governments to successfully integrate Muslim communities into their fold and the failure to implement civic education have all contributed to the calamity Europe faces today- an identity crisis in Muslim youths. Muslims feel an identity void back home, and hence gravitate towards the notion of ‘pan-Islamism’. Furthermore, the economic predicament Europe finds itself faced with does little to alleviate social ills like radicalization. Reportedly, Turkish youths have become prime targets for recruitment, being offered carrots of high salaries and a sense of fulfillment carrying Kalashnikovs. Would such thrills clearly offer a stark contrast in comparison to the dull monotony of blue collared jobs in supermarkets or petrol kiosks? Such menial tasks pale in comparison to the adrenaline rush one gets from being in the battlefield, and perhaps, fulfilling their goal of becoming ‘jihadi martyrs’.
Here in Asia, especially in comfortable, pristine Singapore, it has become a tendency for us to drop our guard and turn complacent. After all, our country’s efforts in the fight against IS are minimal, contributing mere refuel tankers and imagery mapping systems. Our country is renowned for its ruthless efficiency, pristine landscapes and exemplary security standards.
I believe it is precisely such mindsets that will allow terror to win the day. Inevitably, we may become appreciative of the safety our country enjoys, as a result of the myriad of news of terror attacks globally while our little red dot remains insulated from such assaults. Yet, this is not the time for us to get complacent. We should remain vigilant and on the lookout for such threats, especially because unknown to many, the prospect of terror looms very real here in South East Asia. In fact, militants from Malaysia and Indonesia are known to have formed fighting units in Syria and could expand their reach and appeal to affiliates, such as the Abu Sayyaf group in Mindanao, which has already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, as well as the infamous Jemmyah Islamyah (JI). There remains palpable concern at these fighters upon their return. After all, such members have had direct combat experience, radical indoctrination by IS clerics, and thus, could become the vanguard of a fighting force that would reach Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Singapore has also encountered several instances of ‘lone wolves’ and vulnerable segments of the community falling prey to IS propaganda online. Such individuals have come under greater scrutiny and surveillance by government officials for fear of turning their radicalized behavior into outright, violent outbursts. So one may ask, is Singapore adequately prepared to deal with the prospect of a terror threat? Amidst our multicultural society, how can we seek to strike a balance between countering terror and fostering social cohesion? Here, Singapore has taken an approach that has earned the admiration and respect of its international counterparts as a model worthy of emulation.
Singapore, like Western governments, also has legal provisions under its Internal Security Act allowing for the detention of terror suspects without trial. Yet, what differentiates its success story in ensuring the moderation of religion lies very much with its multicultural approach and building a sense of statehood, identity and ensuring all Singaporeans are stakeholders in their future, regardless of their religion. Economics, too, inevitably plays a part. Sterling economic growth rates, coupled with a government that takes a nurturing approach to education by promoting lifelong learning are also one of the reasons why there is little rationale for members of society to feel disenfranchised with the current social order. Because everyone feels appreciated and take pride in their everyday lives, there is little prospect of turning to radicalism to seek escape and a ‘greater purpose’.
Furthermore, a proactive stand in tackling radicalism by the very religious community whose religion has been perversely hijacked, has made Singapore stand out. Without much government prodding, the Muslim community took the initiative and proactively sought to capitalize on their religious credibility to directly counter the fallacious interpretations of Islam and counsel radicalized individuals. This culminated in the formation of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), bringing together leading Islamic scholars and imams to provide counsel to detainees and correct their indoctrinated beliefs. Because the Islamic community has taken ownership of the issue and encumbered themselves with the responsibility of weaning at-risk individuals off radical ideas, this has also helped immensely in fostering social cohesion in Singapore, where the manifold cultures and religions need to be delicately handled. By doing so, other communities began to understand the vital work they were undertaking and that religious extremism represents a reprehensible twisting and perversion of Islam; that violence and massacre are a travesty of the peaceful, revered religion. Through the outreach to the wider community to defend their religion, the group has helped eradicate false assumptions or misgivings held by the general public that Muslims subscribe to terrorist ideologies.
Of course, with the rise of the internet age, IS has also adeptly utilized and harnessed the power of social media to spread its radical ideology. Indoctrination today comes through platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Governments have only begun finding ways to counter such novel activity on the Internet. Here, the sterling work of NGOs like the RRG must be enhanced, and governments must collaborate with these groups to ensure that while dissemination of such information may pervade the internet, individuals do not fall prey to such indoctrination by constantly undermining the message of extremist groups through a more active presence online, in mosques and in schools.
In the event of a terror attack, I believe Singaporeans have the social maturity to exercise fortitude and show solidarity with one another. Essentially, while we do have a plethora of religions and ethnicities, the government has over the years, fostered such great understanding and a sense of identity about what it means to be Singaporean that this has ensured the social fabric that holds society together maintains its durability. We should, however, take a leaf out of Sydney’s book, where the actions of its citizens are indeed worthy of emulation. In the aftermath of the Sydney café siege, one would expect the Muslim community to bear the brunt of abuse, blame and stigmatization by the wider ‘White’ Australian community. However, many came out in support of the Muslim community to show solidarity with not just the victims of the siege, but also with the wider Muslim population. The hashtag ‘#illridewithyou’ was created in response to a video of a Muslim woman who was too ashamed to wear her veil in public and took it off while riding on public transport, telling Muslims everywhere that they shouldn’t have to feel ashamed for the actions of a minority who hijack their religion for political motives. The hashtag was also symbolic of the maturity and goodwill Australians have amidst the chaos of a terror attack.
The sudden, meteoric rise of the Islamic State certainly left the world in stunned silence. However, it is heartening to know that in the face of such brazen acts of terror, the world has not sat back and watched, and has in fact, taken proactive steps to counter the Islamic State on a multi-frontal approach. The focus on the war in Syria and Iraq against IS may centre around the ubiquitous air strikes conducted by the US and its allies, as well as the assistance being provided to local militias in Iraq, such as the Kurdish Peshmarga. However, such military maneuvers, while remaining pivotal in weakening IS as a military unit, are merely stop-gap, provisional measures effective in the short term. It is salient to note that while IS may eventually suffer defeats on the battle plains of Mesopotamia, it has endless potential recruits that could fill its ranks and eventually reinvigorate the organisation. Furthermore, despite the array of sweeping counter-terrorism laws, especially in Australia which has borne the brunt of criticism, there remains loopholes in laws and enforcement cannot remain watertight. Eventually, a multi-pronged approach, one that is durable and will eventually vanquish the scourge of terrorism, is needed. I believe ultimately, our society needs a rethink. We need to become more accepting of our everyday heroes; those who perform jobs that we assume are menial, low-skilled and looked down upon. Behind every transaction, there is someone directly involved in making our day brighter. Recall the young Mcdonalds server who just served you at the cashier? Yes, he deserves a pat on the back, a simple appreciation for helping to brighten up your day. Governments too, need to focus on the youth and improving social infrastructure. As the saying goes, ‘the book is always mightier than the sword’. For too long, governments have neglected the very fact that education forms the key pillars of societies today. Education serves as the very supply lines that provide society with the leaders and thinkers of tomorrow. By providing every youth with education, governments are providing these very youth with the much needed drive, determination and passion to succeed and play constructive roles in society. It is through greater inclusivity, fostering social cohesion and a sense of shared stakehood in the future that governments must now strive for. The time is ripe for governments to seize the opportunity to have a rethink of their social policies. Whether or not they choose to do so, remains to be seen.