Sunday, December 19, 2021

Dark shades, beige berets, submachine guns: The police counterterrorism unit made up mostly of NSFs

Police officers from the Protective Security Command (ProCom) clearing a room. (Photo: Calvin Oh/CNA)

Aqil Haziq Mahmud

19 Dec 2021

SINGAPORE: On Dec 29, 2019, Inspector (INSP) Herman Mohamed Sidek was on a regular patrol with three other police officers – all full-time national servicemen (NSF) – near Paragon shopping centre when he heard a loud bang in the direction of Lucky Plaza nearby.

“We thought that something exploded,” the 43-year-old regular from the Protective Security Command (ProCom) told reporters on Thursday (Dec 16). “So, my first thought was to run (to the incident).”

Having spent more than two years in the counterterrorism unit, INSP Herman knew he could not rule out an attack, especially as it was a Sunday with big crowds. Many migrant domestic workers typically gather near Lucky Plaza on their day off.

“In this unit, we are taught to never rule out a hostile vehicle, meaning a car ramming into public areas,” he said. “The crowds that we usually see, it’s a pattern, so we roughly have already made an assessment before that.”

Near the exit of the Lucky Plaza car park, INSP Herman saw a mangled car on the road and twisted pedestrian railings overhead.

The car had ploughed through the crowd and railings before plunging several metres onto the lane below. It was hard not to fear the worst, but the officer stayed calm.

“We saw someone sitting (on the road), and we established that was the driver,” he said, adding that the man looked dazed. “After that, we knew that it was a road traffic accident.”

Being first on the scene, INSP Herman checked if the driver was injured and found a victim pinned under the vehicle. The officers then detained the driver and waited for colleagues from the Traffic Police to arrive.

The crash killed two women and injured four others, all of them Filipino domestic workers. In September, the driver was jailed for two years and six months for dangerous driving.

While the incident was not an attack, INSP Herman said “it’s never a relief” as there were casualties involved. Either way, he was prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“That is what I'm trained for and that is what I'm going after,” he added. “If it is a hostile vehicle incident, then we treat it as a hostile vehicle incident, because we are weapon-ready.”


With the heavy responsibility of responding to possible terror incidents, one might assume that ProCom would largely be made up of elite regular officers.

Its officers protect critical infrastructure like industrial refineries, soft targets like the Orchard Road shopping belt and high-profile events such as the National Day Parade. They also engage in counter-drone operations.

But the unit is, in fact, made up mostly of NSFs - more than any other unit in the police. The police declined to give exact proportions due to operational security.

“If you give them the adequate training and support, they can be as good or even better than the regular officer,” ProCom commander Assistant Commissioner of Police (AC) Devrajan Bala said at a briefing on Thursday.

“That has been our experience working with NS officers.”

These NSFs are trained to take on leadership roles, use higher-firepower weapons and perform deterrence patrols.

Some, like Senior Staff Sergeant (NS) Muhammad Khairul Kamisan, even choose to extend their NS liability.

“Not only am I protecting the industries that are vital to the sustainability of our essential services, but also the livelihoods of my friends and family,” the 37-year-old said.


ProCom’s roots can be traced to the Key Installation Unit, which had a similar mission and was under the police’s NS department. In July 2016, after the police reviewed its NS scheme, ProCom was carved out as a standalone specialist unit.

This was crucial to optimise resources and support counterterrorism efforts amid manpower challenges and an increasingly complex security climate, the police said in a media release on Sunday.

Five years later, the terrorist threat has evolved to include lone wolf attacks using simple weapons like machetes or knives, and AC Devrajan said ProCom is “very sensitive” to these trends.

“We evolve our tactics as we look at the threats that are emerging in the environment,” he said. “If you look at major events, you see concrete blocks, you see (police) with weapons. You can only assume what we are going to do.”

AC Devrajan said ProCom officers can carry weapons like the Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun and M4 Carbine rifle, with an effective range of up to 50m and 300m respectively, to hit targets farther away.

“In some areas, we see them with the mid-range weapons, in some areas we don’t. We have our own risk metrics to decide how we project the presence,” he added.

It is hard to miss ProCom officers patrolling public areas in fours, with their dark shades, beige berets and larger weapons. They are trained to spot signs of suspicious activity, such as if a person is dressed appropriately for the weather, or if a vehicle looks heavier than it should.

ProCom officers patrolling the Marina Bay area. (Photo: Facebook/Singapore Police Force)

NSFs posted to the unit must go through an “intensive” four-week protective security specialisation course, the police said.

This includes weapons training and tactical modules like security searches in urban environments, as well as fighting in built-up areas. To cap it off, they complete a route march while carrying about 17kg of combat equipment.

At ProCom’s base in Ulu Pandan on Thursday, officers demonstrated how they would respond to a hostile vehicle situation on a crowded street.

As four officers patrolled the street, a car careened down the slope and slammed into three dummies, flinging them onto the road. Three “attackers” armed with a pistol and knives got out of the car and started shooting and stabbing people before entering a building.

The officers rushed to the scene, MP5s ready, and maintained a tight formation as they took out one attacker near the building entrance. During a brief respite, the officers quickly switched their berets for helmets.

Soon enough, a police car arrived with sirens ringing. Another four ProCom officers emerged, already decked in helmets and bullet-proof vests. The reinforcements stormed the building and eliminated the gunman on the ground floor. At the same time, the first responders climbed a floor, cleared a room and arrested the final attacker who had surrendered.


Still, the unit is not all about anticipating and neutralising threats.

In February, it launched an engagement group that aims to reach out to more than 200 stakeholders, including places of attraction like the zoo and Gardens by the Bay, to help them better prepare against terrorist threats.

The group gives advice on how these places can beef up security measures. This may involve assessing whether they have sufficient CCTVs, fences that are tall enough or a competent security team.

ProCom officers have also conducted table-top exercises with these places and joint foot patrols with their in-house security teams.

Moving forward, ProCom is looking at using technology as a “force multiplier” to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of counterterrorism patrols, police said.

“We are testing to see if robots can replace some of the physical patrols that we do,” AC Devrajan said, adding that these developments are still in their infancy.

“Beyond robotics, we’re looking at surveillance, using sensors to pick out things that happen on the ground without us even being there. These are some of the things that we hope to put in in the future.”

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