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'Handful' of Singaporeans went to Syria to join conflict: DPM Teo

A "handful" of Singaporeans have gone to Syria to participate in the conflict, and several others who intended to do so were detected before they could proceed. One has been detained under the Internal Security Act.  

SINGAPORE: The Syrian crisis has raised the threat of terrorism in Singapore. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean gave a sobering picture in Parliament on Wednesday (July 9) on the impact of the crisis to the country and why the developments go beyond security concerns and threatens social cohesion.

The Syrian civil war has been raging since mass protests broke out against the Bashar al-Assad government in 2011. The conflict has grown into a security concern for many countries including Singapore. As many as 12,000 foreigners may have already gone to fight in Syria, and the number is growing. A handful of Singaporeans have joined in the conflict too, Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, revealed that a handful of Singaporeans have gone to Syria, to take part in the conflict.

“The Government knows of a handful of Singaporeans who have gone to Syria to take part in the conflict. One of them is Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali (Haja), a naturalised Singapore citizen of Indian origin. He brought his wife and three children then aged between 2 and 11 with him,” he said. “Another female Singaporean is believed to have gone to Syria with her foreign husband and two teenaged children. The whole family is taking part in the conflict in various ways, either joining the terrorist groups to fight, or providing aid and support to the fighters."

Several others had intended to travel to Syria or other conflict zones to engage in jihadist violence, but were detected before they could proceed with plans. Self-radicalised lawyer Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader has been detained under the Internal Security Act, while Zakaria Rosdan and Khairul Sofri Osman have both been issued Restriction Orders.

There are others who have expressed interest to join in the fight, and are currently under investigation. "We have established that they had been radicalised by the videos, articles and social media postings online. They subscribed to the sectarian-religious or ideological rhetoric that calls for engaging in militant jihad in Syria," said Mr Teo.

DPM Teo said the flow of foreign fighters into Syria poses a threat to the country as there are parallels between the current crisis and the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s. That war drew thousands of foreign fighters and led to the creation of Al-Qaeda. The Al-Qaeda, through Jemaah Islamiyah, had planned terror attacks on Singapore.

"The foreign fighters in Syria may similarly return from the conflict proficient in terrorist skills,” said Mr Teo. “They may undertake terrorist activities in their home countries or overseas, or at the very least provide logistical and operational help to terrorists whom they befriended in Syria. This has already happened. UK and French nationals who returned from fighting in Syria have already targeted Central London and the French Riviera respectively."

There have also been examples of foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria via Singapore, and extremists from neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, trained in Syria.

"The presence of former foreign fighters in our region - whether they originate from South-east Asia or elsewhere - is a security threat to us. The threat is magnified if these returnee fighters are Singaporeans. Indeed, any Singaporean who assists violent organisations like the Al-Nusra Front, IS or any other violent group, would have demonstrated a dangerous tendency to support, or resort to, violence to pursue a political or ideological cause. They would thus pose a real threat to Singapore's national security," said Mr Teo. 

He also pointed to a possible impact on social cohesion - as seen in what happened after Singaporean JI members were discovered. "If more Singaporeans are discovered to have gone to fight or support the fighting in Syria, or to harbour intentions of doing so, it may cause disquiet on the ground, and give rise to mistrust and tension between our communities."

The challenge, he said, is to counter the radical propaganda. This is where religious and community groups will have to step in. The Internet has also been a real game-changer in the Syrian conflict, with many recruited as militants because of what they see and read online.

"Some foreigners have been lured by the sense of ‘adventure’ as marketed by the extremists online. Others are attracted by the ‘jihad cool’ factor, with selfies of fighters posing with weapons,” said Mr Teo. “Youths, who are the primary users of social media, are particularly vulnerable to such propaganda."

He said Singaporeans who wish to help can give humanitarian aid, but advised them to first check with the Islamic Religious Council on the local organisations to turn to. That is because some foreign humanitarian organisations are covers used by radical elements to raise money or to recruit fighters.

Mr Teo will meet religious leaders from various faiths on Thursday (July 10) to discuss the issue, so that the community can tackle any potential fallout together.

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