By Lim Yu Hui
On 2 May 2011, Barack Obama authorized a Navy Seals operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. Like other world leaders, Lee Hisen Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, expressed relief at the demise of one of America’s most wanted terrorists. However, he was quick to caution against letting the guard down, opining that the threat of terrorism was still very much alive in Singapore and the region.
Indeed, in 2001, Singapore was the target of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group motivated by the desire to create a Daulah Islamiyah (Islamic state) in the Southeast Asian region by resorting to violence and acts of sabotage and subterfuge. JI had intended to bomb a shuttle bus ferrying American military personnel and their families, American military vessels, embassies, high commissions, and commercial offices housing American companies. As evidence of their commitment to a path of destruction, JI operatives had already sought to procure 17 tons of ammonium nitrate for the purposes of bomb manufacture.
The plots of JI were uncovered by the Internal Security Department, whose swift actions ensured that the terrorist schemes were thwarted and all conspirators arrested under the Internal Security Act. The news that a terrorist plot has been uncovered was aggravated by the revelation by the authorities that a video tape surveying the Yishun Mass Rapid Transit train station was discovered in the Afghan home of Mohamed Atef, a close aide of Osama bin Laden. Investigations subsequently revealed that Singaporean JI members had been making visits to al Qaeda in Afghanistan to receive instruction on using weapons and explosives and to witness the success of the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.
The primary question for Singapore after Osama’s demise is whether Osama’s death will fundamentally alter the manner in which terrorist cells operate in Singapore or even bring about its demise. Given the strong association that Jemaah Islamiyah shares with al Qaeda, it is reasonable to argue that if Osama’s death were to adversely affect al Qaeda in terms of a loss in leadership, it would also affect JI’s activities.
Colonel John Maraia of the US Army opines that “[Osama] had evolved from an operational leader into a symbolic one”, and that Al-Qaeda operates without his “day to day input.” This point is crucial – if the Colonel is right, al Qaeda remains a potent force, even as it is temporarily weakened by the loss of an important figurehead. Furthermore, consistent with Colonel John Maraia’s analysis, Osama’s death will be quickly seized upon by the al Qaeda and its associates to spur retaliatory action: Osama’s demise will be characterized as martyrdom and his symbolic status cemented.
The crucial point to note is that other leaders of al Qaeda (for example Mohamed Atef) possess decision making powers to direct operations and it may be argued that unless this layer of leadership is obliterated, al Qaeda remains operational. In June, al Qaeda confirmed that Ayman al-Zawahiri would succeed Osama. This suggests that, facially, leadership renewal within al Qaeda is taking place and ‘normal service’ can be presumed to resume soon.
As argued above, whether the JI remains operational in Singapore will largely depend on whether al Qaeda is left in a state of disarray following Osama’s death. The analysis suggests that al Qaeda remains viable and hence its association with JI continues. It must be noted that al Qaeda’s association with JI goes beyond the symbolic. JI members have admitted to briefing the al Qaeda leadership on their plans; al Qaeda’s leaders had shown interest in directly leading operations in Singapore, and their own operatives were sent on reconnaissance missions in Singapore for this purpose. Furthermore, JI members are sent to Afghanistan so that they may be exposed to jihadist movements and to receive training from al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s role therefore is not peripheral; on the contrary, its role in building the capacity of JI is crucial.
Singapore must maintain its vigilance and a high level of readiness to respond to any potential terrorist incident. The demise of Osama may prove to be a psychological blow to al Qaeda and its associates but it may also provide the necessary fodder to fan ideological flames and stoke anti-American sentiments. Singapore must continue to monitor activity within and without its borders and cannot assume that the terrorist threat has lowered due to Osama’s death. Singapore most certainly should not assume that JI has lost its backer. On the contrary, it must prepare for the chance, however minuscule, that retaliatory action is now being planned and targets are being identified. The words of PM Lee are instructive, “we must not take our eyes off, because if we do, then something untoward could easily happen to us.”
Lim Yu Hui
Research Intern, IPCS
email: [email protected]