Wednesday, March 30, 2011

20 years after SQ117, terror threat looms larger

Mar 29, 2011

By Francis Chan

IT HAS been 20 years since Singapore experienced a full-scale act of terrorism on home soil.

On March 26, 1991, four hijackers, later established as leftist supporters of the Pakistan People's Party, took control of Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 as it took off for Changi Airport from Kuala Lumpur.

They demanded, among other things, the release of 11 political prisoners held in Pakistan; and to speak to former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Fortunately, the authorities here were able to bring that hostage crisis to a close, shooting dead the hijackers without loss of innocent lives.

Since then, the relative peace enjoyed by Singapore, in part due to the Internal Security Department (ISD) and other agencies foiling acts of terrorism, have lulled people here into a false sense of security.

For instance, thousands ignored a parked car emitting smoke last November during a mock-attack exercise. Codenamed 'Times Square', the drill was modelled after an attempted bombing in New York last May, when the police discovered a bomb in a car after a street vendor alerted them to the smoking vehicle.

Only 52 people bothered to call the authorities during the exercise here, which was conducted at nine different locations islandwide from 8am to 7pm.

There are, however, good reasons for Singapore to maintain, if not raise, its guard against terrorism.

On March 19, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that threats to the home and overseas environment have not 'drastically improved' in the last decade. This is despite ramped-up counter-terrorism activities by security and intelligence agencies the world over in recent years.

'My conclusion was that we're lucky we haven't been hit,' he said.

The terror threat to Singapore today is larger than in 1991. It has especially intensified after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.

With the 10th anniversary of that attack coming this September, security experts and analysts are already warning of a spike in terrorist activities led by Islamic militant organisations like Al-Qaeda and its splinter groups to mark the occasion. Singapore may well be on the radars of some of these groups.

Senior Minister S. Jayakumar, who until last November was also Coordinating Minister for National Security, said Singapore was not the target of the Pakistani hijackers in 1991.

'We just happened to get caught as a transit point... (but) today, Singapore is an 'iconic' target for terrorists as became clear from the JI's failed plans,' he said.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), believes Singapore remains under threat from the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Al-Qaeda.

The acting head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the RSIS said Singapore's close ties with the United States, Western Europe, Israel, China and India are viewed as indications of its 'anti-Islamic character' by Islamic extremists.

'And Singapore's economic success and ability to nullify whatever threat that has emerged is also viewed with envy, with the belief that if the Republic is hurt and harmed, it would stop being an 'icon' of success,' he added.

In fact, Singapore has already had a few near-misses, as it was the target of terrorist groups like the JI on a few occasions in the last decade. As recently as May last year, the Indonesian authorities disclosed that Orchard MRT station had been marked as a target on a map seized from the home of terror suspect Ahmad Sayid Maulana, who was shot dead during a raid in East Jakarta last year.

Some people sceptical of the terrorist threat have asked how Singapore ended up as a target of Islamic terrorist groups like the JI and Al-Qaeda in the first place.

Ms Susan Sim, a former intelligence analyst and diplomat, cited a 2010 interview with Ali Imron, one of the Bali bombers, who gave an insight into how Singapore came under the radar of JI operational chief Hambali.

According to Ali Imron, Hambali wanted a spectacular attack as JI's follow-on to Sept 11. And thus the plot to set off six truck bombs in Singapore against foreign and local targets was hatched in 2001.

But when the truck bomb plot was foiled by the ISD, Hambali tasked Mas Selamat Kastari to come up with a suicide attack on Changi Airport using a hijacked plane, said Ms Sim, now vice-president (Asia) with New York-based strategic consultancy The Soufan Group.

Citing other sources familiar with Hambali's confessions after his arrest in Thailand in 2003, Ms Sim also said Hambali admitted to receiving funding from Al-Qaeda for 'a big attack in Singapore'.

Closer to home, the radicalisation of Islamic extremists remains a concern among political and Islamic leaders here, which is why the work of the Religious Rehabilitation Group in reintegrating radicalised individuals must continue.

Without being unduly paranoid, there is thus a need for the average Singaporean to be more vigilant about the terror threat. At the end of the day, as the New York smoking-car incident illustrated, foiling a terrorist attack should not be the preoccupation of only counter-terrorism agencies. An observant bystander can also make a difference. That's you and I.

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