Singapore Keeps Eye on Kabul after Aiding Refugee Pull-Out

We hope Afghanistan doesn’t become an epi-center for terrorism again – PM Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore Air Force had dispatched an A330 multi-role Tanker and Transporter aircraft, not to Kabul Airport, but to Qatar to pick up a clutch of refugees who had arrived there from Kabul.

By Ivan Lim

During the last acts of the United States’ precipitous retreat from Afghanistan in mid-August, Singapore got a piece of action —helping in the historic, if chaotic airlift of thousands of Americans and Afghans fleeing the Taliban forces closing in on the capital, Kabul.

US President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out ahead of his Sept. 11 deadline, led to the unexpected rout of the Afghan government and its defence forces, collapsing literally like packs of moth-eaten cards.

Putting a brave face on the debacle, Biden claimed “mission accomplished” in suppressing Islamic terrorist threats to the US, and in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the master-mind behind the Sept 11, 2001 incident in which Al Qaeda operatives hijacked commercial airlines and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, killing almost 3,000. That heinous act had triggered the all-out US invasion of Afghanistan to eradicate the jihadists. .

The Republic of Singapore Air Force was nimble in dispatching an A330 multi-role Tanker and Transporter aircraft, not to Kabul Airport, but to Qatar to pick up a clutch of refugees who had arrived there from the Afghan capital, desolate and exhausted, and send them onward to Germany for settlement.

Singapore’ role in the airlift was motivated by a common concern, as PM Lee Hsien Loong put it: “US intervention had stopped terror groups from using the country as a safe base for 20 years. For this Singapore is grateful.”

However, the Singapore leader also sounded a word of caution. “We hope Afghanistan doesn’t become an epi-center for terrorism again.”

While there is hope that a Taliban government might moderate its extreme Islamic model of running the country, there is concern about the influence and role of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now morphed into ISIS-Khorasan and the rump, robustly active, of Al-Qaeda in the country.

Playing its part in the long US-led war to defeat the jihadists in Afghanistan, Singapore had deployed Singapore Armed Forces personnel to serve the International Security Assistance Force (ISA) from 2007-2013 – to help train Afghan military and rebuild key government institutions.

And for a good reason, Afghanistan is a key battlefront in the global fight against terrorism. Extremist ideology has often been exported to South-east Asia and posed security threats.

The Al-Qaeda had spawned offshoots in South-east-Asia, including the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) based in Indonesia. Its mission was to create an Islamic caliphate comprising Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Philippines, Brunei and Singapore.

Singapore was an early JI target in December 2001. Its plans included hijacking a plane, crashing it into Changi Airport, bombing United States, Israeli, British and Australian embassies, and setting off explosives on trucks simultaneously in the city.

The plots were foiled with the arrest that month of 15 suspects and their detention under the Internal Security Act. But in October 2002, JI carried out a suicide-bombing attack in Bali at the touristic Kuta night-club that killed over 200 Australians, Britons and Australians and Indonesians – that attested to the lethal terrorist threat it posed.

In 2006, a blow to the JI came when Indonesia extradited an Afghanistan-trained bomb-maker, Mas Selamat Kastari, who acted as a Singapore cell leader.

The JI group appeared crippled for good until Mas Selamat made an audacious escape from a detention centre on February 27, 2008. A massive manhunt failed to find him till the following April 1 when he was captured by Malaysian police in the neighboring Johor state. …

The foiled plots and the Mas Selamat’s escape have been etched in the public psyche, serving as constant reminders of the terrorist threats facing Republic.

The US retreat has paved the way for the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in Afghanistan has raised concerns over the likely rise in terrorist attacks in South-east Asia, not least in Singapore.

Security experts believe the clear and present dangers have grown ominous with the installation of a hardline Taliban government in Kabul that included Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a co-founder of the movement and Mr. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who heads the Haqqani militant group.

Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister, K. Shanmugam, told the media on the eve of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, that Afghanistan had been “a safe haven for training, access to weapons, people became hardened and radicalized even more.”

While there was no immediate threat to the republic, “the Internal Security Department surveys the landscape, what’s happening elsewhere, both in the region and further afield, including Afghanistan,” he said.

He cited the Sept 3 incident in Auckland where an Islamic State-follower stabbed and wounded six people before being shot and killed by police.

In comments on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, PM Lee spoke of the “lone-wolf” attackers who have been radicalized on the Internet.

Enlarging on this point, Senior Minister coordinating national security told the media: The Internet creates more opportunities to be radicalized through the echo chamber effect,

“The Internet has also accelerated the process from a few years to a few months. This has sped up the timeline for conducting attacks, particularly those by lone wolves, making it more challenging for security agencies to detect and pre-empt them.”

Meanwhile, the ISD has flagged the emergence of self-radicalized individuals and far-right extremists as new terrorist threats.

In its Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2021, the ISD noted that in the past two years, 14 out of 16 people slapped with terrorism-linked orders were self-radicalized.

The first woman to be detained under the ISA for radicalism in June 2017 was identified as Syaikha Izzah Zahrah Al Ansair. At 22, she had offered to be a ‘martyr’s widow” for the ISIS and had planned to travel to travel to Syria with her child. She has been rehabilitated during her detention through religious counseling and has been released.

Religious counseling by Muslim scholars has been part of the authorities’ tools in dealing with individuals who fell under the spell of jihadist ideology preached by ISIS agents.

In March this year, a self-radicalized 20-year-old Muslim, inflamed by the Israeli-Palestine conflict, was detained for plotting to attack Jews at a synagogue.

In the first case of an individual influenced by far-right extremist ideology, 16-year Christian was detained last December for plotting to attack two mosques in a copycat plot to mark the second anniversary of the  massacre of Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Thus far, Singapore has been able to pre-empt young self-radicalized actors from carrying out violent attacks, thanks to tough laws. A key law is the Internal Security Act that allows for detention without trial of those who posed threats to social order and security.

A additional piece of legislation is the (Terrorism) Suppression of Fund Act to make it an offence for people to provide material support to terrorist groups

The Act was invoked on Sept 9, when a radicalized Singaporean, Mohamed Kazali Salleh, 51, detainee was sentenced to jail for three years and 10 months.

Ivan Lim

Ivan Lim is a senior journalist of Singapore and former President of South Korea-based Asia Journalists Association.


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