SINGAPORE: The authorities' approach to rehabilitating radicalised individuals have had to be adjusted as more young people have picked up terrorist ideology.
The profile of those dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for terrorism-related activity has changed significantly since the first Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detentions, said the Internal Security Department (ISD) on Wednesday (Feb 3).
Before the first self-radicalisation case was detected in 2007, the two youngest people dealt with under the ISA for JI-related involvement were aged 20 and 21, said ISD.
Since 2015, Singapore has dealt with seven radicalised youth between 16 and 19 years old.
It was announced last week that a 16-year-old Singaporean boy was detained under ISA after making detailed plans to attack two mosques on the anniversary of New Zealand's Christchurch attacks.
Under the rehabilitation approach, while priority is still given to addressing the ideological misconceptions leading to radicalism, attention is also being paid to “non-ideological factors”, in particular for youth.
These include their sense of belonging and identity, critical thinking skills to help identify radical rhetoric and mental resilience in coping with stress, ISD said.
Efforts are also being made to enable young detainees to continue with their education where practicable.
“This was assessed to be critical in keeping these youths motivated and focused,” said the ISD, adding that it works with their families, schools and other stakeholders to create a conducive environment to facilitate their studies.
In addition, a mentoring programme was introduced in 2016, in which a mentor would see through a youth's rehabilitation needs after their release to ensure they stay focused on "pro-social goals". This is to provide additional social support to mitigate their risk of re-engaging in terrorism-related activities, said ISD.
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Giving an update on the seven youths dealt with under ISA since 2015, the agency said one has been released on restriction order (RO), while the restriction orders for two others have been allowed to lapse.
A person on restriction order is not allowed to change his place of residence, employment or travel out of Singapore without ISD approval.
He or she also requires approval for activities such as addressing public meetings or being a member of any organisation or group.
ISD added that of the 129 Singaporeans who had ISA orders issued against them for terrorism-related conduct since 2002, 88 were detained while 41 were given restriction orders.
Of the 88 detainees, 68 have been released, with most of those detained making progress in their rehabilitation.
“For those who have been released from detention or issued directly with ROs, most of them are gainfully employed, while the younger ones are pursuing their studies,” said the ISD.
“They have good social support and remain resilient to radical influences,” it added.
ISD noted that these individuals are also subject to “a rigorous supervision regime" that allows for early intervention should they show any signs of going back to radical ideology or re-engaging in terrorism-related activities.
“We are mindful that there is no foolproof system, and efforts are made to continuously refine and adapt our rehabilitation approach with the evolving environment,” said the ISD.
YOUTH SUCCESS STORIES
On Wednesday, the agency highlighted several success stories in its work with young people, such as two who did well in their Institute of Technical Education (ITE) studies while on restriction orders.
Both are now in polytechnics, and their restriction orders have been allowed to lapse. One of them won an award for being the top performer in his ITE course, said ISD, while the other plans to pursue a degree after getting his diploma.
The ISD highlighted the case of Daniel (not his real name), who was 15 years old when he was first investigated in September 2017, after posting defaced pictures of President Halimah Yacob on social media and calling on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to behead her.
Investigations at the time found that Daniel had been radicalised by pro-ISIS propaganda in social media channels and groups, said ISD.
Given his age and the assessment that he did not pose an imminent threat, he was not initially dealt with under the ISA but instead was given counselling.
Despite these efforts, Daniel remained "staunchly supportive" of ISIS, even after the fall of the terror group’s caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2019, said ISD, adding that he was then arrested and detained under the ISA in January last year.
ISD described the detention as a “sobering wake-up call” for Daniel, who had just finished Secondary 3 when he was arrested.
“While in detention, ISD worked with his school and three Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) volunteers, who are also MOE-trained teachers, to see that Daniel’s education could continue. The teachers tutored him and guided him in his self-studies,” said the agency.
The RRG is a group of 46 volunteer Islamic scholars and teachers who provide religious counselling to those detained under the ISA and conduct outreach against extremist ideas.
Arrangements were made for Daniel’s tutoring to continue through video conferencing during last year’s COVID-19 “circuit breaker” period, it noted.
Daniel’s academic performance improved and he scored four distinctions for the five subjects he took during his GCE N-Level exams last year.
“When he shared the news of his examination results with his parents during their regular family visits, he told them that he had always felt like a disappointment to them in the past, but now felt that they could be proud of him. He also said that his excellent results would not have been possible if he had not been detained,” said the ISD.
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RRG secretariat member Muhammad Mubarak Habib Mohamed said Daniel was impressed with the efforts the authorities had been made with regards to his educational progress.
"He told me... that he was very surprised that the Singapore Government, despite the plans that he had and the comments that he had made about Madam Halimah the President, they still put in the resources in order to ensure that he gets a good education," said Dr Mubarak.
The ISD also noted that Daniel - who did not previously understand basic Islamic tenets - was receptive to religious counselling and had “begun the process of rejecting radical ideology”, while a psychologist was working to address issues such as emotional and self-esteem issues, which had contributed to his vulnerability to radicalism.
“The involvement and support of Daniel’s parents have been critical to the good progress he has made thus far in his rehabilitation. They visit him regularly every week, and view his detention as an opportunity for him to focus on his studies and improve his outlook on life,” said the ISD.
“Daniel has also been assigned a mentor, an RRG volunteer, to help him stay focused on his rehabilitation and guide him in developing pro-social skills,” it added.
However, rehabilitation efforts only work if the individual is open to change, said ISD.
“While we have highlighted the more successful rehabilitation cases so far, there are others for whom the rehabilitation has made no headway,” it said.
“The same facilities are availed to them, but they have chosen not to cooperate with the rehabilitation stakeholders and to continue to see them as the ‘enemy’.”
RRG READY TO LEND EXPERTISE TO OTHER RELIGIOUS GROUPS
In response to questions from the media, ISD said it previously detected two cases of recidivism among individuals placed on ROs, who had been influenced by radical propaganda associated with the conflict in Syria.
They were detained for a second time and have been released on RO again after going through rehabilitation.
In Daniel’s case, ISD noted that he still has to go through reintegration into society after his rehabilitative process while in detention.
“But the path he has chosen – and it is his choice to be receptive to those trying to help him and to take ownership of his future – is a promising one, if he is able to persevere and not veer from it, especially after his release from detention,” it said.
RRG secretariat member Salim Mohamed Nasir - who leads the group’s school outreach efforts - told reporters on Wednesday that members of other religions had told him that the RRG’s efforts were an example in tackling religiously motivated extremism, and said the group is ready to lend its expertise to other religious groups if needed.
“We will be able to share our experiences from day one with JI all the way to self-radicalised individuals and how we approach different individuals or different groups in tackling these kinds of problems,” he said.
For the 16-year-old boy who plotted to attack two mosques, ISD said it is working with the National Council of Churches to identify a suitable Christian counsellor. The boy is a Protestant Christian of Indian ethnicity.
Although the teenager had been influenced by far-right ideologies, inspired by Christchurch attacker Brenton Tarrant, ISD said violent Islamist extremism remains the dominant terror threat here.
"Apart from the case of the 16-year-old youth, we have thus far not seen any signs that far-right extremism has gained significant traction in Singapore," said ISD.
"Nevertheless, should the threat environment evolve to the point where far-right extremism is assessed to resonate to a greater extent here, the Government is confident that we can count on the relevant religious and community organisations to step forward in the same manner that the RRG and ACG (Inter-Agency Aftercare Group) had done so in the past, to work with the Government in a whole-of-society effort to tackle the threat to Singapore and Singaporeans," it said.