Singapore: Continuing Threats and Progress in the War on Terror

Publication: Spotlight on Terror Volume: 3 Issue: 1

The following is an interview with Mr. Michael Eng Cheng Teo, the High Commissioner (Ambassador) of Singapore to the UK. He is concurrently accredited as Ambassador to Ireland. Mr. Teo is also a former commander of the Singapore Air Force. The interview was conducted by Terrorism Monitor editor Mahan Abedin and took place on 16 December 2004 at the Singapore High Commission in London.

Mahan Abedin: How would you characterize the terrorist threat to Singapore?

Mike Teo: Terrorism is a real threat to Singapore. Everybody knows that Southeast Asia is a major arena in the war against terrorism. The terrorist threat that plagues our region is the gravest security threat that we have faced since the days of the communist insurgency in Malaysia. As a multi-racial and multi-cultural country, Singapore faces an added challenge. As you know, 15% of our population is Muslim and we know that the primary terror threat is posed by Islamic extremists. This has the potential to create distrust and fear amongst the different communities. Beyond the physical damage they could inflict, the terrorists pose a threat to the social and cultural cohesion of our country. The long-term solution is to mobilize the Muslim community and leaders to protect themselves from succumbing to the distorted terrorist ideology.

MA: You say terrorism is a major threat to Singapore, where is the hard evidence for that?

MT: The hard evidence comes from the people that we have detained. There have been three major sweeps against suspected terrorists netting large numbers of suspects. These were in December 2001 and January 2002, September 2002 and January 2004. The people detained were all Muslims.

MA: Were they all indigenous to Singapore?

MT: Yes, they were all citizens of Singapore.

MA: Could you provide some fresh information and perspective on the foiled terrorist operation in December 2001?

MT: I am not sure whether I can provide a fresh perspective on that particular operation. However I can tell you that in our discussions with other intelligence agencies, we have discovered that Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has been liaising closely with the al-Ghuraba cell in Pakistan. This Pakistani network has been providing important consultative services to JI.

MA: When did this Pakistani connection come to your attention?

MT: After the detention of the 15 suspected terrorists in December 2001.

MA: Did the foiled operation of December 2001 really have the scope and magnitude that was widely attributed to it?

MT: It was clear that these operatives were planning to hijack an airplane and crash it into Changi airport. They planned to rig six trucks with three tons of explosives each and simultaneously crash them into six locations in Singapore. The targets included the British and U.S. embassies and subway stations frequented by westerners. Bear in mind that the amount of explosives used in the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995 was 2 tons, in our case they were planning to use 3 tons against each target.

MA: That was essentially a JI plot, right?

MT: Yes. And let me add that a Canadian national of Arab origin, Mohamed Mansour Jabarah, who was an al-Qaeda agent, was dispatched to Singapore to assist the local JI in their selection of targets for the planned operation of 2001. He has since been captured by U.S. forces. There was also an Indonesian bomb expert named Rathur Rohman al-Ghozi who was involved in the MILF. He was assisting the local JI network and was eventually shot dead in the Philippines.

MA: What about the arrests in January 2004 that you mentioned earlier?

MT: We detained 12 people who were overwhelmingly members or supporters of JI. One or two of them were members of the Filipino MILF.

MA: What were they suspected of?

MT: They were helping JI cells in Singapore and the region.

MA: Were they planning to attack targets in Singapore?

MT: Probably, but not necessarily only Singapore. JI has a regional focus.

MA: The Singapore government claimed in September 2002 that at least nine militant groups, led by JI, had united to create instability in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Is the so-called Rabitatul Mujahedin still in business?

MT: Yes. As far as we are concerned the Rabitatul Mujahedin is a loose coalition of regional Islamic militant groups formed in 1999 by alleged JI spiritual leader Abu Bakr Baasyir and former JI operational leader Hambali. It appears to be dormant right now, but it can be revived at any time since all the personal linkages between the members of the various groups are preserved. JI could leverage such ties for terrorist attacks or logistical and financial support.

MA: JI is principally an Indonesian organization, is there an Islamic militant group that is wholly indigenous to Singapore?

MT: The vast majority of the operatives that we have detained are Singaporean JI members. They were indigenous to Singapore.

MA: But is there—to your knowledge, an organization—however small—that was wholly formed and developed in Singapore?

MT: Not to our knowledge. The Singaporeans that we have detained were motivated by broader international themes and grievances.

MA: Are you saying that the Muslim community in Singapore does not have the resources or the motivation to spawn Islamic militant groups?

MT: They do not have to have independent capabilities to be a threat to Singapore. We know that they receive their logistical, financial and spiritual support from outside. The center of gravity is outside Singapore.

MA: What are the primary grievances or motivations of the Singaporean terror suspects?

MT: They are ideologically animated by pan-Islamic concerns. They believe in using force to facilitate the restoration of the Caliphate. They have ideas of forming a regional caliphate covering Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and maybe even northern Australia!

MA: Are they principally interested in forming a regional Caliphate?

MT: That constitutes the initial aim. But the broader objective may be to create a universal Caliphate.

MA: Are there any local social and economic grievances—specific to Singapore—that propels some individuals towards JI?

MT: None of the people detained were from poor or marginalized backgrounds. That is the real worry; the fact that political and militant Islam can attract people from relatively well-off backgrounds. They have bought into the idea of an Islamic Caliphate. They see images from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on TV. They believe there is injustice against Muslims globally. As part of the ummah, they feel they have to respond.

MA: Singapore’s Muslim population is principally of Malay ethnicity, right?

MT: By and large they are Malays. But there are also some Muslims of Indian origin.

MA: So their primary point of reference—as far as Islamic intellectual and cultural ideas are concerned—is Malaysian and Indonesian Islam.

MT: Yes, because of proximity to these countries. For instance, when Abu Bakr Baasyir fled Indonesia, he settled in Malaysia. However there are wider issues and grievances that influence these people.

MA: How would you assess the threat posed by JI as we speak today? To what extent are its fortunes tied to the fate of Abu Bakr Baasyir?

MT: It is a real threat. Singapore has been able to contain and neutralize the operatives in the country. But the problem is that the center of gravity is not in Singapore. Look at the recent bombings in Jakarta; that shows that they must still be active in Indonesia. They may not be able to do what they had originally planned, such as the 6 truck-bombs, but they are still capable of periodic, well-timed attacks. For instance, the bombing of the Australian embassy was timed to influence the course of the Australian elections.

MA: How big is JI?

MT: We don’t know the extent of their membership. It would be foolhardy for any government to think that just because a few leaders have been detained or killed, JI has been significantly depleted as a result. They may be recreating themselves. For every one captured or killed, there may be three or more taking his place.

MA: How central is Abu Bakr Baasyir to JI?

MT: We know he is the spiritual leader and the center of gravity for the organization.

MA: But operationally speaking he was not very relevant; would you agree?

MT: Hambali was the main operations man. But to what extent Baasyir was linked to specific attacks remains to be seen.

MA: Do you think his incarceration could make matters worse?

MT: Why would that be the case?

MA: It could turn him into a martyr and thus accentuate the grievances of his supporters.

MT: If the Indonesian government could prove that Baasyir was linked to any one of the terror attacks of recent years, then the Indonesian people would expect to see him incarcerated.

MA: But that is the problem, isn’t it? I mean a lot of Indonesians seem to like this man.

MT: Some of them are still in denial.

MA: Another problem is that in terms of Indonesian political Islam, Baasyir—historically and comparatively speaking at least—seems to be part of the mainstream.

MT: That may have been the case before the recent terror attacks. But after Bali and the Jakarta attacks, when Indonesians themselves became victims, it became much more difficult for mainstream leaders to associate themselves with this man and his militant ideas.

MA: Do you think Indonesia can give Baasyir a proper and fair trial?

MT: They are trying their best to ensure that happens. But as far as Singapore is concerned Abu Bakr Baasyir represents a grave symbolic and actual threat and needs to be neutralized.

MA: What threats does JI pose to Australia? Are they planning to attack Australians in their homeland?

MT: The volition is there, but whether they have the capability remains to be seen.

MA: Is there a lot of security cooperation between your government and the Australians?

MT: Yes, we are cooperating with a number of governments.

MA: What has been the impact of Hambali’s capture in August 2003?

MT: His arrest was an important counter-terrorism success as he was a central figure in JI planning and operations. Hambali was also the key link between JI and al-Qaeda.

MA: But since his capture JI seems to have increased its operations in some areas.

MT: Just because he was detained, that does not mean that JI was mortally wounded. But his capture may have in fact diminished some of JI’s capabilities.

MA: Al-Qaeda has proven it has the capability to replenish its losses relatively quickly. Can the same be said of JI?

MT: Whether Hambali—in his capacity as the key link to al-Qaeda—has been replaced by another individual, we simply don’t know. But due diligence requires us to work on the premise that he will be replaced some time in the future, if not tomorrow.

MA: Has Hambali been cooperative in detention?

MT: I don’t even know who is holding Hambali or where he is being detained.

MA: Do regional intelligence services—in particular the Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian agencies—have the capability to anticipate leadership successions and other major events in JI and other militant organizations?

MT: Clearly it is the responsibility of the regional intelligence services to monitor the activities of these networks.

MA: But to do that effectively you need a truly in-depth understanding of the wider issues—in particular religious and ideological issues—that influence these networks. Is this kind of in-depth knowledge available to the Singaporean government?

MT: I think a sense of just how extensive these regional networks are or how strongly some people believe in extremist Islamic ideology, only emerged after 9/11. We knew the problems were there, for instance the Malaysians detained potential terrorists well before 9/11; but it was the attacks on the U.S. that alerted us to the magnitude of the threat.

MA: Aside from JI do you feel threatened by any other Islamist organizations or activities in Indonesia? For instance do the problems in the Moluccas or wider ethnic and religious tensions in Indonesia, worry your government?

MT: Beyond Indonesia, take the case of southern Thailand or the Philippines for example. Wherever there are serious local issues and tensions—be they separatist or religious or ethnic—these can create instability in our region. All of these problems can potentially affect Singapore.

MA: Is the brewing insurgency in southern Thailand particularly worrying to your government?

MT: It is unsettling for all the governments in the region. At the last ASEAN meeting, the Thai prime minister held private meetings with both the Malaysian and Indonesian leaders to discuss the problems. The Thais have committed to working with Malaysia and Indonesia to resolve the problem. The region is concerned with the situation in southern Thailand.

MA: Just one final question on Indonesia. How does extreme proximity to the largest Islamic country in the world impact on Singapore’s foreign and national security policies?

MT: Like any two neighbors where one is very large and the other is small! (laughs) From time to time there will be difficulties. But we have to look ahead. The Indonesians have held very successful democratic and free elections and they are getting on top of some of the sectarian, religious and separatist issues that have historically plagued their country.

MA: But it seems to be a country wracked with instability; whether it is separatist movements in Aceh and elsewhere or religious conflicts in the Moluccas.

MT: It is somewhat excessive to say that Indonesia is wracked with instability. They are trying to move beyond the Suharto legacy and recover from losing East Timor. But it is not a country about to spin out of control. Recent developments suggest that the situation in Indonesia will be more favorable in the future.

MA: You mentioned ASEAN earlier, what role does this organization play in regional security? I ask this in the context of a 2002 Heritage Foundation report that states: “ASEAN’s bedrock principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members has fostered an institutional aversion to applied counter-terrorism cooperation.” Would you agree with that statement?

MT: That is a very sweeping statement. In the wake of the 9/11, Bali and Jakarta attacks, ASEAN has taken steps to forge a stronger political consensus against terrorism and increase the level of practical cooperation. I will give you some examples. There was a declaration to combat terrorism in November 2001. There was also a declaration in November 2002 condemning the Bali attack and attacks in the Philippines.

MA: But these are just statements…

MT: If you are saying that more could be done, you are probably right. But ASEAN is trying to forge closer cooperation between the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of different countries and taking other practical steps, such as capacity building, law enforcement cooperation, information sharing and establishing common databases. These are all very important steps. And remember the countries we are speaking about are very diverse, from a 200 million strong Muslim country, to smaller countries like Buddhist Laos and Burma.

MA: But the key to security in that region— at least as far as your government is concerned—is the United States, right?

MT: The United States is of course a key factor inasmuch as it is the only country with the military capability to promote security in different regions of the world and prevent adventurism on the part of any government or other international actors. But within the region, ASEAN has a central role to play.

MA: Your government is clearly more in favor of greater U.S. involvement in regional security than other countries; would you agree with that?

MT: Not more so than other countries like Thailand and the Philippines. We supported the U.S. campaign in Iraq and see America as the preeminent power in our region and the wider world. We don’t see the United States’ military and economic power being decisively challenged by any other power in the foreseeable future. Our region—especially the smaller countries in our region—are more secure when there is an outside counter-weight to the regional heavy weights.

MA: Are the developments in ASEAN that you were discussing earlier largely the product of U.S. pressure?

MT: No! The U.S. clearly has an interest in regional security, but the regional countries have an even greater interest in ensuring their own security. As I said earlier, ASEAN has a central role to play in the region.

MA: Do you envisage China playing an important role in regional security frameworks?

MT: China is a rising powerhouse in Asia. It’s political and security interests will also be increasingly felt in the region. But China has its own problems with Muslim separatism. Indeed China has an important role to play in regional security. It has recently signed the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which commits it to working with members of ASEAN in a peaceful, consultative manner.

MA: How likely is a terrorist attack in Singapore in the near future?

MT: The possibility of an attack is always there. But currently we have no specific indication pointing to an imminent attack. But our intelligence agencies know that JI is anxious to exact revenge for the disruption of its networks in Singapore.

MA: What would be their likely targets?

MT: The hard targets would be foreign embassies, ports and airports and subway stations. Remember Singapore has the busiest port in the world. But these targets are well-protected and this makes attacks on soft targets like restaurants, bars and schools more likely. Therefore the challenge has been to enhance the protection of these sites.

MA: What about maritime terrorism?

MT: Maritime security is a key priority for the Singapore government. Half of the world’s trade passes through the Malacca Straits.

MA: A catastrophic attack there—aside from its material damage—would have a profound psychological impact; would you agree?

MT: Yes, if terrorists hijacked a large tanker and ran it aground near a port, the economic and ecological costs would be huge. Another nightmare scenario involves terrorists hijacking a cruise liner with more than 1,000 passengers. Very few governments could refuse to negotiate.

MA: That whole area is clearly a target-rich environment, not just the Malacca but the Singapore Straits as well.

MT: Yes, that is right.

MA: Surely the key question is whether proper security procedures are in place to minimize the risks.

MT: I can tell you about a range of actions that we have undertaken to tighten security in the Singapore Straits and territorial waters, such as naval escorts of selected high-value merchant vessels, intensified coastguard patrols of sensitive vessels, and routes mapped out for ferries and commercial vessels to keep them clear of sensitive installations. On the regional front, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have mounted coordinated naval patrols. On the broader international front, Singapore implemented the US Container Security Initiative in January 2003. We also cooperate closely with IMO member states on measures to enhance global maritime security.

MA: How long can you sustain these security measures, bearing in mind the costs?

MT: Much of these costs are already being absorbed. In any case, there is a real need to sustain these measures. Maritime terrorism is a real possibility and Singapore represents one of the key nodes of global maritime interests.

MA: Does Islamic terrorism pose an existential threat to Singapore?

MT: Singapore has had to deal with terrorist attacks in the past like the MacDonald House incident in March 1965. But those incidents were isolated and episodic. However the kind of terrorism that we are talking about is very different from our historical experience. Moreover the extremist ideology of the terrorists poses a serious threat to the social and cultural cohesion of Singapore.

MA: You are talking about a long-term threat to the cohesion and harmony of your multi-cultural society?

MT: Yes, that is right. We are fearful that elements in our Muslim community could become radicalized.

MA: What do you think of the material that the Jamestown Foundation presents to the expert community and the wider public?

MT: I have been reading the articles and the interviews for the past few months. Our people have found them very useful; particularly the interviews with some of the more prominent and interesting personalities.

MA: Is Jamestown material widely read by the Singapore policy-making community?

MT: Yes they are, by the key desks and organizations that are interested in the subject of terrorism. They find it useful because Jamestown facilitates the expression of alternative views on terrorism.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor. He has been a financial consultant and Middle East analyst in the UK for several years, and also contributes to the Lebanese Daily Star and Persian weeklies in London.