A few days ago, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) of King’s College in London published an in-depth analysis of the deradicalization program carried out in Singapore in the last seventeen years, entitled, Deradicalisation in Singapore: Past, Present and Future.
The author is Dr. Shashi Jayakumar, Head of Centre of Excellence for National Security and Executive Coordinator of Future Issues and Technology at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (Singapore).
Those who study counter-radicalization and de-radicalization are usually familiar with what has been done in Singapore, as it is often considered an extremely interesting case study with more than one positive element.
The latest ICSR report represents one of the most detailed assessments of the Singaporean program, analyzed with clarity and incisiveness.
According to some estimates, the multicultural city-state of Singapore — within about 700 square kilometers — has the most diverse population on earth.
The main religions represented are Christianity (18.8%), Buddhism/Taoism (43.2%), Islam (14%), and Hinduism (5%).
As a matter of fact, the country has not seen any terrorist attack perpetrated by Al-Qaeda or, later, the Islamic State (Daesh). The proximity to Indonesia, however, has always kept the alert level quite high.
Indonesia has repeatedly been targeted by the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other violent extremists; the deadliest terrorist incident in the country was the Bali attacks of October 2002, which killed 202.
Both the proximity to the less secure neighbor, and an increasing degree of homegrown radicalization in Singapore, led the city-state to act to fight radicalization with vigor and long-term planning.
Islamism in the Far East
The Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Group) stemmed from the Darul Islam (DI, the House of Islam) network, which emerged in Indonesia in the 1940s as an Islamist anti-colonial movement against Dutch rule.
After independence, however, Darul Islam focus shifted to the “internal enemy”, following a cycle that is identifiable in many other countries of the MENA region and Asia. The movement concentrated its struggle against the non-theocratic Indonesian government, which the DI accused of being anti‑Islamic, portraying itself as the vanguard capable of paving the way for the implementation of Islamic law (the shari’a).
As often happens within the jihadi milieu, there were factional splits. The Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) was established in January 1993 by senior DI member Abdullah Sungkar, who broke away from the rest of the DI leadership. By the end of the 1990s, the JI had three mantiqis (regional groups), encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Dr. Jayakumar reminds readers that the Singapore JI cell was started and, until 1999, led, by the charismatic Ibrahim Maidin, a self-taught Singaporean religious preacher, who had previous experience in Afghanistan, where he had mingled with mujahedeen from different countries.
Deradicalization in Singapore
Among the different deradicalization experiments carried out worldwide, Singapore stands out mainly thanks to the fact that the government proved to be quite farsighted compared to what happened in other countries.
Indeed, at the beginning of the 2000s, Singaporean authorities decided to invite senior Islamic scholars from institutions respected within the community to interview the detainees.
In that case, policymakers were able to act quite fast, choosing an approach in which religion played a major role and showing respect to the large Muslim community, which was overwhelmingly peaceful.
Religious scholars were given the primary task of assessing the ideology and the beliefs of the prisoners, and initial contacts by these senior clerics with the JI detainees showed that the detainees had a markedly archaic view of Islam and some of its key tenets, as well as an overwhelmingly exclusivist worldview.
This was the embryonic phase of the process, which led to the creation of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) in 2003.
The RRG had eleven members at the time of its inception in April 2003; that number was forty-six by 2019.
Since its formation, it has conducted over 1,500 counselling sessions for detainees and their families.
Moving with the Times
During the years, since jihadi strategies, tactics, and narratives widely evolved in multiple directions, de-radicalization programs had to evolve, too, in order to cope with new trends and deal with issues that were unprecedented in terms of quality and/or quantity, such as online radicalization of individuals with no formal or strong ties with structured jihadi organizations.
For these reasons, the RRG reviewed its pillars and manuals multiple times, the last one in 2015.
Consequently, the emphasis on the online arena was detected early and continued to increase. The RRG now has a strong presence on Facebook and YouTube.
Similar to articulated programs such as the Saudi one, the aim of the Religious Rehabilitation Group is to understand the detainees’ mindset, counsel them and, where possible, influence their mindsets with a view to making them candidates for release into society.
If religion and doctrinal awareness play a major role, Singapore was sure not to neglect the psychological components of both radicalization and deradicalization processes.
Psychologists in the public service interviewed those detained to find out why seemingly ordinary men with no criminal past were committing violence in the name of religion.
In the 2000s, CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) activities and insights that enjoy now a universal consensus were far from being widely understood and mastered, and this is where Singaporean farsightedness can be found.
The author of the ICSR Report recalls that psychological surveys conducted after their arrests suggested profiles of “high compliance, low assertiveness, low in the questioning of religious values, and high levels of guilt and loneliness”.
The assessment was that many of those detained were “psychologically pre‑disposed to indoctrination and control by the JI leaders and needed a sense of belonging without close attachments”.
Interestingly, the psychologists identified a number of positive shifts that in many cases took place during the course of rehabilitation:
1) Self re‑evaluation — including accepting that they were wrong in what they thought and did.
2) Environmental re‑evaluation — when they realize they were wrong in assuming their actions were supported by the Muslim community.
3) Formation of therapeutic relationships
4) Awareness of radicalization pathway — accepting and understanding their trajectory and how they were radicalized
5) Ideological rectification — realizing they had been misinterpreting key concepts in their faith.
6) Cognitive restructuring — developing mental skills that help them to avoid simply accepting information that confirm their biases;
7) Managing emotion and developing objectivity
8) Individual commitment — committing not to relapse in terrorist activity through making resolutions and post‑release plans to show their determination
Beyond the detainee himself, important work went into the social reintegration of the affected detainee’s families. Key issues included the state of mind of the spouse and children of the detainee, their immediate needs, and their own role in the rehabilitation process.
The priority was to make sure that radicalization and recruitment did not become a generational problem and, where needed, family members received dedicated counselling. Indeed, there were instances of detainees attempting to indoctrinate wives and children with radical thought. In some of these cases, female clerics (ustazahs) counselled the wife of the detainee.
As far as aftercare is concerned, a case officer is also assigned to the ex‑detainee to ensure that release conditions are complied with. The officer also monitors the proper continuation of religious counselling and religious classes and assists the detainee in getting employment.
Within the broader framework of prevention, efforts in Singapore have included moves to educate the community and promote the value of tolerance and the benefits of living in a plural, multicultural society. Similarly, important work is done by the RRG and its counsellors on promoting the Quranic concept of wasatiyah (moderation).