- The Threat of Terrorism and Extremism:"A Matter of 'When', and Not 'If' "
The Rising ISIS Threat: Physical and Ideological Dimensions
The counterterrorism front proved a busy one for Singapore in 2016. By far the biggest story of the year involved the so-called Batam rocket plot. In August, media reports emerged of a plan by a cell of Indonesian militants associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to fire a rocket from Batam island—south of Singapore—at the iconic Marina Bay Sands (MBS) complex on Singapore island itself. The five-man cell was colourfully called Katibah Gonggong Rebus (KGR), meaning "Boiled Snails Cell" in Bahasa Indonesia. It appeared to be influenced by the incarcerated extremist cleric Aman Abdurrahman, but operationally directed by a Syria-based Indonesian ISIS militant called Bahrun Naim, also an associate of Aman's, and had intended to launch the projectile from a point on Batam island called Habibie Hill, about seventeen kilometres from Singapore's shoreline and eighteen kilometres from MBS. Investigations revealed that the Batam cell leader, Gigih Rahmat Dewa, had coordinated the planned strike with Bahrun Naim via social media. Planning for the attack reportedly began in October 2015, and in addition to Singapore the cell had intended to attack Indonesian targets such as an international seaport in Batam, shopping malls, and other places in the archipelago using suicide bombers. A month later, Indonesian police reported the arrest of one Leonardus Hutajulu, also linked to the KGR cell, who had apparently planned to seek employment on Sentosa Island, a tourist attraction in Singapore, though it was unclear whether this was linked to the MBS plot. It further emerged that [End Page 335] Nur Rohman, a suicide attacker who had targeted a police station in July in Solo, Central Java, was also linked to the KGR cell. Some reports suggested that the KGR cell members did possess some technical skills that could have enabled them to build a rocket capable of striking Singapore's MBS from Batam; in any case, the cell may also have relied on expertise brought in from outside Batam by Bahrun Naim. One of Bahrun Naim's protégés, Dodi Suridi, had been able—based on information gleaned from YouTube—to build and successfully test-fire a makeshift rocket launcher employing a plastic tube, potassium nitrate extracted from fertilizer, and other substances. Most analysts, however, expressed scepticism that the KGR cell would have been able to build or easily acquire the military-grade rocket system necessary to be able to hit MBS from Batam, such as the Russian-built Katyusha or Grad, or Chinese-type WS-1E rockets. Still, some observers conceded that a home-made rocket could also have been launched from a boat nearer to the Singapore coastline.1
The ISIS threat in 2016 manifested itself not merely in the physical sphere, but ideologically as well. This was driven home on several occasions throughout the year. First, on 20 January, Singaporeans were alerted to the arrests under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of twenty-seven radicalized Bangladeshi foreign workers employed in the local construction sector. They had been arrested between 6 November and 1 December 2015 for being involved in a "closed religious study group" that "subscribed to extremist beliefs and teachings of radical ideologues like" the late al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as the extremist ideological output of ISIS—exemplified by its members' support of the Sunni terror group's drive to kill members of the Shia minority sect of Islam. The group had viewed video footage of children being trained in "terrorist military camps" and had in its possession literature graphically demonstrating various methods of "silent killings". While some of the radicalized Bangladeshis had plans to join ISIS in the Middle East, a number also contemplated returning to Bangladesh itself to wage war against the government and had sent donations to domestic extremist groups in that country. While twenty-six of the group's members were repatriated, one was jailed for attempting to flee Singapore illegally on learning of the arrests of other group members.2
That was not all. Four months later, in early...