Commentary: The end of the decade – how the world has become a less safe place

Commentary: The end of the decade – how the world has become a less safe place

We used to think of security threats as direct harm to human lives but all that has changed this decade, says Dr Graham Ong-Webb.

The London Bridge attacker, a recent example of a lone-wolf terrorist, was shot dead by police.
Scenes on the London Bridge after a lone-wolf attacker was shot dead by police. (Photo: AFP/Niklas Halle'n)

SINGAPORE: Generally understood as the freedom from potential harm, security has played a critical role in ensuring the survival and advancement of societies through the ages.

Security is central to our well-being to the extent that it is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations (UN), and recognised as a fundamental prerequisite to the pursuit of all other goals of human endeavour.

At around the same period the Charter was established in 1945, psychologist Abraham Maslow proffered in his now famous “hierarchy of needs” that our security and safety are only second to our biological ones. 

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As Maslow argued, an adequate provision of security creates the space for societies and individuals to focus on achieving economic, social and cultural progress that could unlock humanity’s self-actualisation.


Classically, security is said to be achieved when threats ranged against people are either defeated or when the vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to such threats are reduced through protective measures.

However, the traditional doctrine constituting security has become obsolete. Rapid technological developments and disruptive innovation have created new means for terrorists, criminals and dissenters to harm our well-being.

Several threats we face today cannot be neutralised, unlike the threat of total, all-out war by a conventional enemy, where traditional strategies of deterrence and retaliation with overwhelming force can be employed. Instead they should be thought of as security risks that can only be mitigated.

All these have the common aim of bringing a country to its knees by creating fear, disrupting moving parts that are essential for a well-functioning society.


One such security risk that targets innocent civilian lives is terrorism, particularly the new version of terrorism manifested by the Islamic State (IS) terrorist network that had captured lands in Syria and Iraq around 2014.

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The group has utilised a blend of low- and high- technologies to generate simple but widespread attacks that will likely become a model for future terrorist groups to emulate.

The IS recognised that security agencies around the world have learned to adapt to the large-scale terrorist attacks carried out by Al Qaeda over the course of the 2000s - many of which required a significant amount of planning, financial resourcing and training of trusted operatives as demonstrated by the 9/11 attacks.

Many of these Islamic State fighters are now heading home.
 Fighters of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist network that had captured lands in Syria and Iraq since 2014

Instead, leveraging on the social pervasiveness of digital media to recruit as many followers as possible, the IS has moved to a more decentralised system of terrorist attacks by indoctrinating citizens in target countries all over the world, and advocating the use of easy-to-carry-out knife attacks and vehicular ramming of citizens to create public fear and anxiety.

Comprehensive crib sheets on how to carry out such attacks are circulated online. These attacks themselves require literally no concrete planning, financial resourcing, or training—signatures that intelligence agencies try to pick up to detect an impending assault.

To date, IS’ new small-scale model of threats have produced over 50 knife attacks and nearly 30 vehicle ramming operations across the world. In comparison, major attacks attributed to al-Qaeda in the 2000s amount to about 20 incidents.

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The 9/11 attacks alone resulted in about 3,000 deaths, over 25,000 injuries, and caused at least US$10 billion in infrastructural damage. Terrorist groups are moving towards a strategy of a larger quantity of smaller attacks over a few big hits.


Another security risk is the proliferation of commercial off-the-shelf technology such as drones.

These aerial vehicles, which have flooded the market, have been used by terrorist groups such as the IS, criminals, and other bad actors to attack or harass people and are difficult to detect.

Since 2016, the IS has been using modified quadcopter drones drop small bombs onto human targets in the Middle East.

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In September this year, British police seized a modified drone seized from an IS supporter's home that was intended to be used in an attack against a military installation in the country. In May last year, a criminal syndicate launched a swarm of drones to obstruct a hostage raid by a Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) rescue team.

Drones may not always be delivering gifts
Drones may not always be delivering gifts AFP/AMOS GUMULIRA

Unauthorised drones flown by errant operators or individuals with malintent have also endangered people or disrupted our commercial airspace.

In January 2015, a drone accidentally crashed into the compound of the White House, after evading the White House’s radar that was calibrated to warn of much bigger threats, such as airplanes and missiles.

In December last year, a drone attack caused a shutdown at London's Gatwick Airport, with about 1,000 flights cancelled or delayed and about 140,000 passengers affected. In June this year, unauthorised drones caused flight delays and disruptions at Changi Airport.

Going forward, the greatest danger posed by drones flying near airports is the possibility of mid-air collisions with aircraft, which would be catastrophic and erode trust in commercial air travel.

Such disruptions not only stoke fear, they also intend to disrupt commercial activities and fracture business sentiments in the country.


With the advent of digital technology, and as countries become increasingly reliant on the flow of digital data and service to power their economies, this area can also be a new vulnerability.  

READ: Commentary: Islamic State militant group ran an info war ‘like a viral marketing campaign’

This decade was marked by the rise of by cyber-crimes, computer attacks, and online influence operations, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), against governments, corporations and individuals.

cyber attack
Australian intelligence determined China was responsible for a cyber-attack on its national parliament and three largest political parties before the general election in May. (AFP Photo)

Intelligent algorithms and deep-learning software that automate and improve speech recognition, machine translation, spam filters, and search engines are increasingly being used by cyber-criminals and terrorists to improve their ability to breach security systems, increase the volume and speed of attacks while preserving their anonymity.

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With the growing ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT)—to which there are currently about 200 billion smart devices connected to each other and to people— the impact of such breaches by bad actors could be widely felt, especially if they target critical installations such as transport infrastructure and utilities services to create outages and steal information.

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Corporate giants including Google, Facebook, Marriott, Equifax and Under Armour have lost critical user data owing to hacks over this decade.

The huge Equifax breach affecting 143 million people is the latest in a spate of cyber incidents
The huge Equifax breach affecting 143 million people is one example in a spate of cyber incidents which include ransomware attacks AFP/Andrew CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

Singapore too is no stranger to cybersecurity attacks as more of our data is placed on networks. SingHealth experienced one of the serious breaches in October 2018.


A new threat has also emerged as technology advances, one that threatens to undermine society’s ability to tell what is real and what isn’t, creating fear and divisions among people and fracturing the ability to take decisive action.

Deepfakes — using AI to superimpose one person's face or voice over another in a video—are beginning to play a role in social-media cybercrime.

In August this year, it was reported that criminals had employed AI-based software to replicate the voice of a UK-based energy company’s CEO to command a senior executive to make an urgent transfer US$243,000 to a supposed foreign supplier.

Deepfakes involving Donald Trump taunting another country and Nancy Pelosi supposedly slurring in her speech could also have far-reaching implications if used to spread disinformation, complicating domestic policy-making and foreign relations.

Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security looks at a "deepfake" video of
Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security looks at a "deepfake" video of former US President Barack Obama manipulated to show him speaking words from actor Jordan Peele on January 24, 2019, in Washington AFP/Robert LEVER

These could not only sway the upcoming 2020 US presidential elections, if not found to be deepfakes and disproved in time, but also deepen divides and damage trust over the long term.


Terrorism, drone threats, cyber-crimes, computer attacks, and online influence operations reflect that it is becoming increasingly challenging for societies to achieve security compared to the past.

The experience of the 2010s has reinforced the point that attacks, disruptions and breaches have evolved rapidly and added to our increasing security complexity and risks.

These will add new demands on security and law enforcement agencies around the world as they face these new risks.  

For one, they must outpace bad actors in the technological game of innovation. In addition to reducing vulnerabilities, investments must be made in risk and crisis management to blunt the impact of security incidents and other mishaps.

Second, agencies will also have to expand their capabilities in the detection, monitoring and pre-emption of such threats as their traditional methods and channels become inadequate.

patrolling device
A self-driving vehicle and surveillance drone on display at the launch of the Security Industry Digital Plan in Singapore. (Photo: Fann Sim)

On the technological front, surveillance radars, for instance, must be geared to detect small drones and not just aircrafts or missiles. 

On the human front, intelligence agencies must see how they can intercept knowledge of small-scale and “lone-wolf” attacks.

Third, laws must be updated to create the appropriate instruments and deterrents to deal with such threats.

In addition, deeply embedded within a risk-ready society is resilience.

Singapore has made significant investments to future-proof its people through efforts like the Total Defence initiative established in 1984.

The notion of psychological defence as one of now six pillars (“developing resilience and the strength to return to our normal activities as soon as possible after a crisis hits”) remind us that citizens must prevail over whatever newfound risks confront us as we venture forward.

Indeed, for all the new strategies, laws and technologies put in place to ensure Singapore remains safe and secure, what underpins security is the strength of a united people that think critically and respond to new threats decisively.

That key ingredient will remain essential in Singapore’s bid to combat these new security threats not only for the next decade but many more after.

Graham Ong-Webb is adjunct fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He also advisor to the Security Industry Institute at Temasek Polytechnic.

Source: CNA/ml