SINGAPORE: A 16-year-old Singaporean boy was detained in December under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) after making "detailed plans and preparations to conduct terrorist attacks" against Muslims, authorities said on Wednesday (Jan 27).
He planned to use a machete to attack Muslims at two mosques in the Woodlands area on Mar 15, the second anniversary of New Zealand's Christchurch attacks.
The teenager, who was not named, is a Protestant Christian of Indian ethnicity. He is the youngest person to be dealt with under the ISA for terrorism-related activities, the Internal Security Department (ISD) said in a media release.
A Secondary 4 student at the time of his arrest, he is the first detainee to be inspired by far-right extremist ideology, ISD added.
ISD stated that the teen was influenced by the 2019 terror attacks at two mosques in Christchurch.
“He was self-radicalised, motivated by a strong antipathy towards Islam and a fascination with violence,” ISD said.
“He watched the livestreamed video of the terrorist attack on the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Mar 15, 2019, and read the manifesto of the Christchurch attacker, Brenton Tarrant.
“He had also watched Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) propaganda videos, and came to the erroneous conclusion that ISIS represented Islam, and that Islam called on its followers to kill non-believers.”
READ: Religious groups asked to be more vigilant after teenager planned mosque attacks: Shanmugam
COPYING THE CHRISTCHURCH MOSQUE ATTACKS
ISD said the teen was found to have made detailed plans to attack the two mosques, and that it was “clear” he was influenced by Tarrant’s actions and manifesto.
He chose Assyafaah Mosque and Yusof Ishak Mosque as his targets because they were near his home, ISD said, adding that he conducted online reconnaissance and research using Google Maps and Street View on both mosques to prepare for the attacks.
According to ISD at a media briefing, the teen initially considered An-Nur Mosque instead of Yusof Ishak Mosque, but the latter was deemed closer to Assyafaah Mosque. He planned his travel route, identified mosque entrances and where to park his vehicle, ISD said.
To prepare himself for the knifing attack, the teen watched YouTube videos, ISD said, and was confident of hitting the arteries of his targets by randomly slashing at their neck and chest areas.
At the time of his arrest, the teen had found his choice of machete on Carousell and added it to his favourite listings, but had not bought it yet, ISD said
According to the listing, the Smith & Wesson machete cost S$190. He had intended to save up for the purchase and was confident of doing so in time for the intended attacks, ISD added.
Carousell's vice president of operations Su Lin Tan said later on Wednesday that knives not meant for culinary or domestic use are not allowed on the online marketplace and those listings have since been taken down.
"Carousell strictly prohibits any form of weaponry to be sold on its platform and will continue to further its efforts with both automated and manual moderation, to keep our marketplace safe," she said.
PLANNING THE LOGISTICS
Similar to what Tarrant did, the 16-year-old student had intended to drive between the two mosques and planned to get hold of a vehicle for use during the attacks.
He was cognisant of the need to travel quickly between the attack sites, according to ISD, adding that he had intended to steal his father’s credit card to rent a BlueSG vehicle after identifying a car-sharing station near his home.
He also had no driving licence but was confident he could “make it work”, ISD said at the media briefing.
Before deciding on the machete as his attack weapon, ISD said his “original plan” was to use an assault rifle similar to that used by Tarrant.
The teen managed to find a prospective seller via Telegram, but did not follow through after suspecting it was a scam when the seller asked for payment in Bitcoin.
He also checked the Arms and Explosives Licence requirements, and considered joining the Singapore Rifle Association.
“He nevertheless persisted to search for firearms online, and only gave up the idea when he realised that it would be difficult to get his hands on one given Singapore’s strict gun-control laws,” ISD said in its media release.
The teen also explored making a triacetone triperoxide (TATP) bomb, and setting fire to the mosques using gasoline, mimicking Tarrant’s plan.
“He eventually dropped both ideas due to logistical and personal safety concerns,” ISD said.
The teen had also bought a tactical vest from Carousell last November, intending to embellish it with right-wing extremist symbols. He also wanted to modify it so he could strap on his mobile device to livestream the attack, just like Tarrant did, ISD said.
READ: Singaporean who lost husband in NZ mosque attacks relieved at terrorist's life sentence
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TEEN WANTED TO SPREAD HIS IDEALS
In further imitation of Tarrant, ISD said the teen had prepared two documents that he wanted to disseminate prior to his attacks.
The first was a message to the people of France, which he drafted after the attack against Christians in a church in Nice in October last year. In the message, he called on the French people to “stand up for what is right”, claiming that “we cannot let them (Muslims) lurk in our bushes and wait for them to attack”.
READ: Three dead as woman beheaded in knife attack at French church
The second document, which ISD said was still unfinished when he was arrested, was a manifesto detailing his hatred for Islam and his belief that “violence should never be solved with peace”. The draft borrowed heavily from Tarrant’s manifesto and referred to the terrorist as a “saint”, ISD said.
ISD said the detailed planning and preparation attested to the teen’s determination to follow through with his attack plan.
“He admitted during the investigation that he could only foresee two outcomes to his plan – that he is arrested before he is able to carry out the attacks, or he executes the plan and is thereafter killed by the police,” ISD said.
Speaking to reporters, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said it was “quite chilling” to hear the teen saying this to ISD officers.
“He went in fully prepared, knowing that he is going to die, and he was prepared to die,” he added.
According to ISD, investigations so far indicate that the youth had acted alone, with no indication that he tried to influence anyone with his extreme outlook or involve others in his attack plans.
“His immediate family and others in his social circles were not aware of his attack plans and the depth of his hatred for Islam,” ISD said.
Notwithstanding his age, the teen knew what he was doing, ISD said, pointing out that the “specificity” of his plans showed they were not just “random musings”.
The agency added that it received intelligence last November about a Singapore-based individual who wanted to attack Muslims in Singapore. The teen was arrested under the ISA on Nov 26 and issued with a detention order on Dec 23.
“He was assessed to pose an imminent security threat,” ISD said.
The case is a “worrying development”, said Mr Shanmugam, pointing out that since 2015, seven people under the age of 20 have been detained or given restriction orders under the ISA.
Before this case, the youngest person detained under the ISA was a 17-year-old secondary school student who had shown support for ISIS.
HOW HE WAS SELF-RADICALISED
Explaining how the 16-year-old was self-radicalised, ISD said he had a fascination with violent materials, and frequented sites and forums specialising in gore.
In late 2019, he viewed ISIS propaganda videos while surfing for violent material, and was particularly angered by an ISIS video showing an execution of Ethiopian Christians.
The teen “erroneously concluded” that Islam taught followers to kill Christians, ISD said.
Around the same time, ISD said an online image of Tarrant’s rifle piqued his interest. He found Tarrant’s manifesto and livestreamed attack video, with the latter giving him a “rush”.
“The anti-Muslim aspect of ideology resonated with him,” ISD added.
But the turning point was on Oct 29 last year, when the attack in Nice happened. The teen was convinced that an attack by Muslims on Christians would happen “sooner or later”, ISD said. This was when he started detailed plans for his attacks.
If the attack had succeeded, Mr Shanmugam said it would have likely incited fear and conflict between different racial and religious groups.
“If a person on a day decides that he is going to attack mosques, or churches or temples, our gun control laws mean people like him can’t kill a lot of people at one go,” he said.
“But carrying a knife and deciding you want to do something? It’s not going to be easy to prevent every single time.”
INVESTIGATION AND REHABILITATION PROCESS
Before the teen was arrested, ISD said his mother was present during an interview, with an Appropriate Adult engaged during the investigation period.
The teen was also allowed family visits during the 30-day investigation period, which is typically prohibited during the first 30 days, ISD said.
When asked if the teen will be charged with any crime, Mr Shanmugam said "a court process may not be the best way to deal with" such individuals, pointing out that some Muslims arrested under the ISA have not been charged either.
"In his case, it would be said in a court of law, that he was only thinking about it. He has planned it, but he hasn’t actually taken a step yet. So, in many countries, without laws similar to the Internal Security Act, you can’t move early until there is some further act of preparation," he explained.
"When it involves Muslims attacking Christians or Christians attacking Muslims, my own view is that a court process inflames passions even more. And the approach we’ve taken – which has succeeded so far – first, it allows us through the Internal Security Act, to move in much faster, and prevent it and nip it in the bud."
Given that the current rehabilitation approach is geared towards Islamist terrorism cases, ISD said the teen could require Christian religious counselling to correct misconceptions.
He will be given psychological counselling to address his propensity to violence and vulnerability to radical influences.
He will also be able to continue education while in detention, with mentoring to guide him on pro-social behaviour, ISD said.
"While in detention, he will undergo a holistic programme consisting of religious, psychological and social rehabilitation. A Christian religious counsellor will be engaged to help him correct the radical ideology he has imbibed," said an ISD spokesperson in further comments.
"He will be granted family visits and an aftercare officer will be assigned to his family to provide social and financial support if needed."
Mr Shanmugam said the rehabilitation approach is "constant regardless of whether you're Muslim or Christian".
"Our hope is to have the religious leaders talk to this boy, and hopefully get him to understand that this is not what Christianity is about, and that he has been going on a path, which is inimical to society. We hope he will understand that," he said.
"Likewise the Muslims we pick up, we talk to the religious leaders and counselled them, that's why the religious rehabilitation group helps a lot. And many of them have understood, renounced violence and have gone back to society."
For some detainees, Mr Shanmugam said it did not take very long for them to be rehabilitated, highlighting that some have been released after two or two-and-a-half years, or one period of detention.
"Some were very fixed in their views and continued to believe in violence, and it takes a longer period," he added. "So, how long it takes depends on the individual involved and the framework."
Mr Shanmugam said there’s a reasonable expectation, that he, like many other detainees, will eventually understand what their religion is about and be rehabilitated.
"So, the approach we have taken, offers a better path towards rehabilitation, as opposed to treating him like a criminal, charging him, and putting him in jail," he added.
"So here, with rehabilitation, my hope is that after a number of years, he can be released, and carry on with his life."
ISD said the case demonstrates yet again that extreme ideas can find resonance among and radicalise Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion.
“It is a threat to all of us and our way of life. We must remain vigilant to signs that someone around us may have become radicalised, so that we can intervene early to avert a tragedy," it stated.