Singapore announced Friday that it would step up security measures across the prosperous island-state in response to a rising threat from the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Southeast Asia.
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, in unveiling the measures, said multi-ethnic Singapore had to prevent IS supporters and other radicals groups in neighboring and predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia from infiltrating its territory.
“The threat of a terror attack here is at the highest level in recent times, much more so than after 9/11 and the arrest of Jemaah Islamiyah members,” he said, referring to JI, a Southeast Asian group linked to al-Qaeda.
He said IS posed a “qualitatively different and much more dangerous threat” than al-Qaeda ever did in the region.
Singaporean officials previously said that the city-state was a target of militants because it hosts multinational corporations and is a regional financial center.
Just after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, Singaporean authorities arrested several suspected militants and foiled an attempt to carry out bomb attacks on U.S. and other foreign targets in the city-state.
“There are multiple layers of threats in this region – complex, interwoven, fusing religion with domestic political grievances, ranging from Myanmar to Indonesia,” Shamugam said at a ministry forum.
“And we are in the middle, an oasis of calm, and a prime target for all.”
He said Singapore would impose enhanced security checks at its borders – particularly its very busy border with Malaysia – increased vigilance at Changi International Airport and government buildings.
He said 10,000 closed-circuit cameras would be set up at public housing estates and multi-story garages to stave off the threat.
“We have several possible Molenbeeks around us,” the minister said, alluding to neighboring countries and a district of the Belgian capital Brussels, which was home to militants involved in IS-claimed attacks in Paris that killed 130 in November.
As many as 145 million out of 200 million people who enter Singapore annually by land, sea and air pass through two checkpoints on the Malaysian border, Shanmugam noted.
“It is no longer a question of whether an attack will take place, but really, when an attack is going to take place in Singapore, and we have to be prepared for that,” he added.
Even though Singapore has been well equipped and prepared to deal with terror threats till now, “the nature of the threat has changed, and we have to evolve some new tactics based on what we saw in Paris and Jakarta,” Shanmugam told reporters separately on Friday, referring to a terrorist attack in downtown Jakarta on Jan. 14 that left eight dead, including four suspected assailants.
He said in his speech that Singapore faced threats from home-grown radicals in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as from Southeast Asians who have returned from or are coming home from combat tours with IS in the Middle East.
As many as 1,000 people from Southeast Asia – mainly Indonesians and Malaysians who “are willing to die” – have travelled to Syria or Iraq to join IS and some of them have joined the ranks of Katibah Nusantara, an IS combat unit led by Southeast Asians and made up exclusively of Malay-speaking fighters, he said.
Southeast Asians in Syria and Iraq also have been encouraging supporters of IS in their home region to mount terror plots in Southeast Asia, Shanmugam said.
The situation is more challenging in Indonesia because, in addition to home-grown radicals and those returning from abroad, Indonesia has weak anti-terror laws and authorities there this year are set to release 150 people convicted on terror-related charges who have not yet been de-radicalized, according to the minister.
He cited the example of how Singapore had previously detained four Indonesians who were passing through the city-state while in transit to Syria. Singapore deported the four, but Indonesian authorities had to release them because they lacked legal grounds to hold them.
In Malaysia, authorities last year foiled seven terror plots and arrested more than 100 people with suspected links to IS. The suspects included government officials such as commandos, police officers and civil servants, Shanmugam said.
“In Malaysia, there is also a substantial threat posed by ‘clean skins,’ people with no criminal records and not under the scrutiny of security agencies,” according to the minister.
“They come together through social media. In April 2015, Malaysia arrested 12 militants, all clean skins. If they wanted to travel, they could get past many immigration counters undetected.”
The move to introduce new security measures came two days after the Home Ministry announced that four men had been arrested and detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA) on suspicion that they planned to fight in conflicts in Yemen and Syria. The law allows Singapore to hold suspects without trial or monitor and restrict their movements.