Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the International Conference on Terrorist Rehabilitation and Community Resilience

26 March 2013

 

Mr Eddie Teo
Chairman, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)

Mr Barry Desker
Dean of RSIS

Ustaz Ali Mohd and Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan
Co-Chairmen of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG)

DPM Teo Chee Hean

Mr S R Nathan and Mr Wong Kan Seng

Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1.     I am delighted to join you for the International Conference on Terrorist Rehabilitation and Community Resilience, organised by the RSIS and the RRG.

RELIGIOUS REHABILITATION GROUP

2.     This Conference also marks the 10th anniversary of the RRG. The RRG has played an invaluable role in keeping Singapore safe from terrorism. The idea for the RRG arose after we arrested members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in Singapore in December 2001. We realised from our investigations that just arresting the JI members was not enough. JI members had mis-interpreted key Islamic concepts, and convinced themselves that terrorism was “righteous” and “legitimate”. We needed to counter, at source, this radical and wrong-headed misinterpretation of Islam. We had to offer convincing alternative interpretations of key doctrines central to this ideology. We also needed an effective rehabilitation programme and support structure to help those who had got involved with terrorism integrate back into society after their release.

3.     Several respected religious scholars and teachers volunteered to work with the Government on this important challenge. It was a brave move. At the time, this was an experimental approach to religious rehabilitation. No one could foresee how it would pan out. The ulamas took a leap of faith, and took the risk of being seen as lackeys of the Government. They were convinced this was the right thing to do, and necessary to arrest the spread of religious extremism. They subsequently became the founding members of the RRG in 2003.

4.     The RRG set to work to counsel and rehabilitate the JI detainees. They identified core Islamic doctrines that had been mis-interpreted, and developed religious texts to counter them. Their first publication (“Islam – Religion of Peace and Salutation – the Path Towards Enliving the True Jihad”) refuted the JI’s mistaken definition of jihad as “war” and as a “religious obligation” for all Muslims. Its second manual dealt with other religious concepts that had been distorted by terrorist ideologues, like al wala’ wal bara (love for Muslims and hatred for non-Muslims) and takfir (declaration of apostasy).

5.     Over the years, RRG counsellors have helped terrorism-related detainees understand how they had been misguided by the radical ideologues. Every terrorism-related detainee in Singapore who has been released from detention has undergone counselling as part of his rehabilitation. Most have since settled back with their families, found jobs and integrated back into Singapore society. Several are still adjusting, and continue to be counselled by the RRG. A few hard-core elements remain in detention and will be counselled when they are receptive.

6.     Beyond the JI group, the RRG has also counselled other terrorism-related detainees like MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) members and self-radicalised individuals. It also educates the wider community on the dangers of terrorist mis-interpretations through public talks, its website and its Facebook page. These efforts sensitise the public to the terrorist threat, and strengthen our immunity to extremist views in the broader community.

7.     The RRG has fulfilled our hopes, though its mission continues. I thank all RRG members for their tremendous contributions. Special thanks go to Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi, who have co-chaired the RRG since its inception. They steered the RRG through uncharted waters, and established a strong foundation for its continued success. My appreciation also goes to pioneer members like Ustaz Ibrahim Kassim and Ustaz Mohamad Rais, who are still volunteering in the RRG.

8.     Over the last decade, several respected asatizah who were involved in the RRG Resource Panel or served as RRG counsellors have sadly passed on, such as Ustaz Ahmad Sonhadji Mohamad, Ustaz Syed Ahmad Muhammad Semait and Ustaz Hassan Mustakim. They and their contributions will always be remembered.

9.     I also wish to thank Mr Wong Kan Seng who was the Minister for Home Affairs when the RRG was formed. He gave the RRG his fullest support, and backed it up with all the resources of the Government. I am glad that Mr Wong is here to celebrate this occasion with us.

10.     The RRG’s journey is comprehensively recorded in its 10th anniversary commemorative book. All of you have received copies. I hope you will enjoy reading this informative and inspiring publication.

CONTINUING THREAT OF TERRORISM

11.     In the broader fight against extremist terrorism, the world has also made much progress. Many Al-Qaeda (AQ) leaders have been neutralised, including Osama bin Laden himself. AQ’s ability to mount major operations has been diminished. In Southeast Asia, many JI leaders and operatives have also been neutralised. For example, master bomb-makers Noor Din Mohd Top and Azahari Husin have been killed, while Operations Chief Hambali and former spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir have been arrested.

12.     However, extremist terrorism remains a real and potent challenge. While JI’s organisation has been disrupted, the underlying structures supporting terrorism in our region are still in place. Some pesantrens continue to propagate radical ideology. Training camps still exist, such as the one uncovered in Poso in Central Sulawesi last November. In parts of some countries, separatist struggles have created lawless conditions where extremist terrorists can establish training camps and safe havens.

13.     On the wider scene, AQ still wields considerable ideological influence in many countries, including in Africa and Asia. It is adept at opportunistically exploiting local political developments to win over new sympathisers. For example, AQ is taking advantage of the civil war in Syria. AQ’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called for jihadists to join the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Two Malaysians who likely responded to his call were caught in Lebanon trying to join the rebel troops in Syria.

14.     The terrorism threat has also morphed, posing greater challenges to security agencies. Terrorist splinter groups like the Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia have multiplied. These groups exploit extremist sentiments or profess allegiance with AQ even when their objectives differ. Their fragmented, nebulous nature makes them harder to pin down and neutralise.

15.     Self-radicalisation is a growing phenomenon. The Internet makes it easy for a person to immerse himself in narrow or extremist groups online. Jihadist sites and sermons by charismatic radical ideologues are just a mouse click away. A person can become radicalised after repeated exposure. This is true of all sorts of radical and fringe groups, and not only radical jihadists. Singaporeans are not immune to this danger; several Singaporeans have been radicalised by terrorist ideology through the Internet.

16.     Fortunately, Singapore has not suffered a terrorist attack in recent years. Credit must go to our Home Team for keeping Singapore safe, and the RRG for countering the wrong-headed ideologies that motivate the terrorists. But the threat has not disappeared, and we remain a target. From time to time, we hear reports of terrorists in our region wanting to attack Singapore or Singapore assets in our neighbourhood. We must never let our guard down.

THE ROAD AHEAD

17.     What can we do about the terrorist threat?

Deepen Communal Trust

18.     First, we must strengthen trust between our ethnic groups. Trust is the foundation for any society, especially a multi-religious, multi-racial one like ours. It underpins our social interactions, and helps build resilience so that people will come together and help one another should attacks occur.

19.     We regard terrorism as a national threat that endangers all Singaporeans, not just specific communities. Terrorist attacks not only damage physical infrastructure; they can also destroy the social fabric that binds societies together. We have seen this happen in many countries, where attacks have heightened suspicion between communities, or caused outright hostility against minorities or new arrivals.

20.     Singapore has experienced first-hand damaging racial conflicts, more than once. We have therefore worked hard to build communal trust by enshrining racial harmony as one of our key values, and ensuring all races progress with the nation. But trust must be continually sustained and nurtured. That is why our first priority after uncovering the JI network was to explain the facts of the case to community leaders and the public, so as to dispel misapprehensions and fears, and make sure that our communities would stand with one another. We established the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and launched the Community Engagement Programme, to build trust and resilience should crises occur.

Enhance Operational Capabilities

21.     Beyond building trust, we must also build strong operational capabilities. We cannot afford to assume that no terrorist threat will materialise. We need to be able to pick up intelligence leads, pursue them thoroughly, and nip emerging threats in the bud. Keeping Singapore safe is a constant cat-and-mouse game, as terrorist organisations become more sophisticated.

22.     Good operational capabilities require people, organisation and networks. We need intelligence officers to pick up on suspicious activities, IT analysts to track terrorist activities online, and financial experts to follow the money trail. We need an organisation which can piece together the story in time, and act on it decisively.

23.     Of course, successful counter-terrorism operations also depend on the trust of the community. It is not possible to deploy officers or surveillance equipment everywhere. The community is a far more effective early warning system, provided it trusts the government and the security agencies, and is willing to cooperate with them. It was in fact information volunteered by a local Muslim that alerted the authorities to the existence of the JI in Singapore. This was how the Government could thwart the terrorists’ suicide bombing plots, unravel the Singapore JI cell, and thereafter disrupt the regional JI network. We must never lose this important operational capability.

Strengthen International Co-operation

24.     Finally, we need close international security cooperation. Terrorism is a global threat, and terrorist groups do not respect international borders. Therefore counter-terrorism forces must also collaborate internationally. Developments abroad can have serious implications at home. Conversely, timely sharing of intelligence on terrorist suspects can disrupt terrorist plans and operations in other countries, making the world a safer place for everyone.

25.     In Southeast Asia, countries shared information on the JI network, leading to the arrest of hundreds of JI members and associates across the region. Such close security cooperation also led to the capture and repatriation of Singapore JI fugitives who had fled overseas to avoid arrest.

26.     International cooperation also includes sharing experiences at conferences like these. Singapore is happy to share our experiences where useful, and learn from countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia and Malaysia which have significant experience in terrorist rehabilitation. Our individual circumstances may vary, but we share a common responsibility to keep our people safe from terrorists. I hope that you will make use of the Conference to interact with one another, and build new friendships.

CONCLUSION

27.     Terrorism is a scourge against humanity. While great progress has been made combating terrorism, the threat has by no means disappeared. Let us remain vigilant and strengthen our defences against terrorism, and work together to keep our people safe for many more years.

28.     I wish you all a fruitful Conference!