Commentary: How far should we go to identify radicalised individuals?

Commentary: How far should we go to identify radicalised individuals?

As the threat of terrorism looms large, Singapore should welcome a stronger response says RSIS' Dr Jolene Jerard. But how do we ensure we do not compromise on our community space, values and bonds that we hold, she asks.

How much culpability do family members have when it comes to turning in a radicalised indvidual? (File photo: Singapore Police Force)

SINGAPORE: On Monday (Jun 12), the Ministry of Home Affairs announced the first Singaporean woman to be detained for radicalism under the Internal Security Act. Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, a 22-year-old mother of one was a contract worker at the PAP Community Foundation Sparkletots pre-school.

Given the spate of attacks around the world over the past few weeks and the heightened threat level in Singapore, it is not surprising that countries including Singapore have doubled down to increase focus and scrutiny on potential terrorist threats.

Yet, the ability to preserve security is dependent on whether authorities have an early indication, allowing for sufficient time to prevent or manage the impact of a threat.

A key question is, how far are we willing to go to put in place safeguards? In doing so, how do we ensure we do not compromise on our community space, values and bonds that we hold dear?

Indonesia's elite anti-terror squad investigates a suicide bombing attack near a busy Jakarta bus station that killed three policemen in May. (Photo: AFP/Fernando)


In light of the recent arrest, one might ask, should there be additional vetting for individuals working with children?

My view is that any approach to step up additional vetting of our educators is a knee-jerk reaction that misses the forest for the trees. Much as we feel vulnerable if such a situation arises, studies have shown that there is no one single profile of terrorists or potential terrorists.

Since 2014, Islamic State has sought to recruit a broad range of individuals with specialised skillsets. They have called for skilled professionals, especially “judges and those who have military, managerial and service skills, as well as doctors and engineers in all fields” to join the new caliphate.

Islamic State further highlighted in 2015 that in addition to those in combat roles, it needed a plethora of people with different skillsets. It mentioned press officers, doctors, chefs, individuals who could man checkpoints, administrative staff, teachers and even fitness instructors.

A radical militant waves an Islamic State flag in Raqqa in June 2014. (Photo: REUTERS)


Recently, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam also came out strongly to highlight the importance of family members alerting authorities to individuals suspected of being radicalised. He had said that family members should not feel like they were “ratting” on their loved ones but see it as a way to help them.

Perhaps by extension, the burden and responsibility of reporting, is one shared not just by the family and the individual’s close circle of friends, but may also extend to his or her larger community, which may include colleagues that he or she works alongside.

Knowledge that an individual may be radicalised should mandate a response.

Yet, when family members or loved ones confront the individual, he or she may deny these allegations or take extra precautions to cover up his or her actions, especially if he or she feels cornered.

Threat indicators are built on a pool of knowledge and data points learned over time. So it is a judgment call at the end of the day, based on the actions of the individual who has every incentive not to reveal their true intentions if they have indeed become radicalised.

In this case, the view that Izzah had turned over a new leaf when she “stopped wearing the niqab and started listening to music and watching films” led to the decision by her parents to refrain from alerting the authorities. Yet, her parents were wrong, because she was instead becoming more radical and adept at concealing her activities.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam. (File photo: TODAY)

Was this ill intent on the parents’ part or a misguided assessment based on an assumed change initiated by an ostensible shift in Izzah’s behaviour? By extension, did we look at the group of people that she was in touch with outside the circle of her family?


For family members, friends and the community alike, the difficult choice often arises from the tenuous assumption that being misguided does not equate to the individual being dangerous. The process of reporting and the sense of stigmatisation that follows present an added layer of pressure.

Prioritising the safety and security of the individual is key. So it is useful that the Home Affairs Ministry highlighted that through early reporting, individuals “could be steered away from the path of radicalisation and may not need to be severely dealt with under the law”.

Indeed, accountability for reporting individuals needs to be considered under the broad umbrella of building national frameworks for resilience against radicalisation, and these should begin at the micro level.

What we need is a concentric cycle of continuous engagement, where self-awareness at the individual level and social awareness at the level of family, friends and the community of what radicalism entails, what the tell-tale signs are, and how to manage the situation can be improved through better education.

The worse thing to do is to shut the individual out or give them the impression that they are being isolated.

Building a climate of care and concern can help reduce the element of fear arising from consulting relevant authorities. Making available to family and friends channels for counselling and guidance, without implying that the individual has been “compromised” when these channels are exercised, will be an integral strategy.

It is precisely when individuals are on the fence of radicalism that we need to sway them to the right side.

So let’s keep open doors for communication to empower family members and friends to seek help to safeguard the lives of their loved ones before they hurt others or themselves.

Dr Jolene Jerard is a Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

Source: CNA/sl