Singapore’s defense minister warned Wednesday that the Islamic State poses a “clear and present danger” to Southeast Asia, with trained foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq potentially linking up and formalizing ties with local groups to execute attacks.
“We see the threat of Islamic extremism as a clear and present danger in our region,” Ng Eng Hen said at an event organized by the Center for New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Framing the Islamic State as just the latest manifestation of a terror threat that has consumed the region since the September 11 attacks and the rise of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Ng said the risk was that foreign fighters from the Islamic State returning from Syria and Iraq could link up with local groups in Southeast Asia.
He noted that Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of JI now behind bars in Indonesia, and the Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine rebel group, had already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State back in 2014. Furthermore, Ng said, previously jailed JI militants could once again join forces with the Islamic State following their release.
“The danger is the link up and formalization [of ties] between these groups,” he said.
As it is, within the region Ng said Malaysia had already reported over 100 foreign fighters – including some from its armed forces – with Indonesia reporting more than 500 and Singapore “a handful” of people as well.
“They have sympathizers, they have foreign fighters who are trained, who have motivation, the means and who have a common vision,” he warned.
Ng’s comments are just the latest in a series of comments from top officials in the region that suggest growing alarm about the Islamic State threat. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in May in Singapore, the city-state’s premier Lee Hsien Loong pointed to the same troubling trends of local radical groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and attacks being plotted in the region. As I reported then, Lee had also raised the alarming prospect of the group establishing a base in Southeast Asia (See: “Singapore Warns of Islamic State Base in Southeast Asia”).
To counter the threat, Ng said that Southeast Asian governments ought to prioritize intelligence sharing. But he also highlighted the importance of deradicalization – an approach that has been central to Singapore’s own counterterrorism efforts.
As I reported previously, the city-state has been sharing its success in deradicalization with other states, including the key role of the Muslim community and religious organizations in such efforts. The prime example is the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a non-governmental body of religious scholars that helps counter extremist ideologies through counseling, publications and speeches. In April, Singapore even held a symposium focused on this particular aspect of counterterrorism (See: “Singapore Kicks Off New Counterterrorism Symposium”).
In his comments, Ng stressed the importance of involving the community in such efforts so they felt invested in the fight against extremism.
Ng delivered his remarks as part of a trip to the United States. On Monday, Ng signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (See: “US, Singapore Ink New Defense Pact“). That agreement also noted that Singapore had granted Washington permission to fly P-8 Poseidon aircraft out of the city-state from December 7 to December 14 (See: “US, Singapore Agree Spy Plane Deployment Amid South China Sea Tensions“). The Diplomat understands that further regular deployments are to be expected.