SINGAPORE: Singapore’s security agencies have been on heightened alert since early September following terrorist attacks in Europe and in other parts of the world, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Tuesday (Nov 24).
As part of the "heightened security posture", investigations into 37 people have been initiated by the Internal Security Department (ISD). Some of the investigations were undertaken jointly with the Singapore Police Force (SPF).
"While a handful of these individuals had commented on the same discussion threads on social media, the majority of the cases are not connected to each other," said the ministry in a press release.
There is no indication that any of them were planning attacks or protests in Singapore, it added.
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"Since the republication of caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammad by French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Sep 1, there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in France," noted MHA.
The attacks include the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his class two of the cartoons.
Attacks such as those in Saudi Arabia and Austria also signal a threat against French or Western interests, the ministry said. A "palpable anti-France climate" has developed in several countries, with large protests, calls for boycotts and an increase in terrorist rhetoric online.
"In view of the deteriorating security situation, the Home Team has been on heightened security alert since early September and had also stepped up its security measures to pre-empt copycat attacks in Singapore," MHA said.
16 FOREIGNERS REPATRIATED
The 37 Singaporeans and foreigners who were investigated “attracted security attention for suspected radical inclinations, or for making comments which incite violence, or stoked communal unrest", said the ministry.
"In particular, these individuals … supported the beheading of Samuel Paty, and subsequent attacks in France and elsewhere, or incited violence against France or French President Emmanuel Macron in retaliation for the French government's defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. A few had made derogatory remarks against Muslims."
Fourteen of them are Singaporeans – 10 men and four women, aged between 19 and 62.
"Most of them had, in response to the recent terror attacks in France, made social media postings which incited violence or stoked communal unrest," said MHA.
In response to CNA's queries, an MHA spokesperson said the Singaporeans include homemakers and a 19-year-old student, and that none of the 14 were religious teachers. Investigations into these individuals are ongoing.
Of the 23 foreigners, 16 have been repatriated after ISD completed its investigations. The remaining seven foreigners are still under investigation.
Among them was a Malaysian who intended to travel to Syria or Palestine to join in armed violence. The other 15 are Bangladeshis, most of whom were working in the construction industry, and made social media postings which incited violence or stoked community unrest in response to the terror attacks in France.
One of the foreigners under investigation is 26-year-old Ahmed Faysal, who was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act following investigations into "terrorism-related activities". MHA said Faysal is not linked to the incidents in France.
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The SPF and the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) have enhanced their security measures and patrols and the ISD has ramped up counter-terrorism investigations.
"These recent developments in Europe and in Singapore remind us that the threat of terrorism is still alive, notwithstanding the military defeat of ISIS and the dismantling of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq," said MHA. "The Home Team remains vigilant and will not hesitate to take firm action against any individual who advocates violence."
TERRORISTS "CAPITALISE" ON COVID-19 PANDEMIC
In response to CNA's queries, the MHA spokesperson said terrorist groups have been "quick to capitalise" on current events and issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to "further their violent agenda".
"For example, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have framed the COVID-19 pandemic as divine retribution against the West, and urged followers to carry out attacks," the spokesperson added.
"With many people spending more time online during the pandemic, this has inadvertently increased their exposure to radical ideas."
Community partners, such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group and the Inter-Agency Aftercare Group, have stepped up their counter-radicalisation efforts.
These include organising virtual events "targeting various audiences", such as the local Muslim community, students, youths and foreign workers, to "sensitise them" to the extremist messaging that has spread online in the wake of the pandemic, said the spokesperson.
THE CHANGING THREAT OF TERRORISM
Speaking at the 16th Religious Rehabilitation Group Seminar held at Khadijah Mosque on Tuesday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the "shape and nature" of the terrorism threat has changed since last year.
While the Islamic State has lost much of its physical territory in several countries and had key leaders killed, they are now a covert network, noted Mr Shanmugam.
"Its propaganda on social media continues to radicalise and inspire attacks around the world, including here in Southeast Asia," he said. Counter-terrorism efforts in the region have reduced the number of attacks, but the terrorists are adapting, he added.
Following the killing of Mr Paty, French President Emmanuel Macron defended the right in France to publish caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammad.
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"That speech then got a very strong counter-reaction from Muslims around the world, and some describe the actions of France as Islamophobic," said Mr Shanmugam. "Jihadists have jumped on it, they have called on followers to attack French interests and to attack anyone who insults Islam and the way they define as insulting Islam.
"We all know jihadists don't represent Islam, you have people like that in every religion who will resort to violence. So it's not a problem with any particular religion, but you will always have people like this. It's a question of how do they deal with them."
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
While both Singapore and France are secular and guarantee freedom of religion, Singapore achieves this differently, said Mr Shanmugam.
"France says that they prefer to achieve it by taking a hands-off approach, we are interventionists, we intervene. We take the position that the right to speak freely ... goes with the duty to act responsibly," he said.
"Free speech for us stops at the boundary of giving offence to religion. There is a fence, that fence protects religious sensitivities. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, if they were here, they would have been told to stop. If they didn't stop, ISD would visit them and they would be arrested," Mr Shanmugam added.
"We believe that we can build a multi-religious, multi-racial society based on trust. And only by taking a firm stance against hate speech and dealing with all communities equally and fairly. "
The MHA spokesperson said an advisory has been issued, and it is "tailored to the context of the recent developments in France".
Issued by MHA, the Singapore Police Force and the Ministry of Manpower, the advisory cautions foreign workers and domestic workers against "bringing foreign politics into Singapore", and against participating in anti-France activities.
It also reminds them not to make remarks on social media that incite violence or offend other groups of people.
"Foreign worker imams (religious leaders) and foreign worker ambassadors have also helped to disseminate similar messages to fellow residents in the dormitories," said the MHA spokesperson.
The advisory is available in Bengali, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, Tagalog and Tamil.
Speaking to the media after his speech, Mr Shanmugam said the Government maintains secularity in a number of ways. This includes making sure policies are neutral and fair to all, while protecting all religions and guaranteeing freedom of religion.
"We intervene (to) try and support religious harmony. But working with the different religious groups, institutions, supporting them, working with them, trying to bring them all together ... it's work in progress, so far I think it's been a positive experience."
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Ahmed Faysal is not one of the foreigners who has been repatriated.