Terrorist groups have been increasingly targeting youths, with Singapore considered a “prized target”, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Wednesday (Jun 21).
Speaking at the Religious Rehabilitation Group’s (RRG) 18th annual retreat, Mr Wong said that while terrorism may not be at the top of many Singaporeans’ minds, the threat of radicalism and extremism remains high.
The RRG was formed in 2003, after Singapore authorities arrested members of the Jemaah Islamiyah group.
Global terrorist groups like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and Al-Qaeda continue to rebuild their strength and “remain determined to sow disorder and chaos” by conducting attacks in other countries, said Mr Wong.
“This includes Singapore, which is considered a prized target by terrorists,” he added.
The groups have become more sophisticated at using digital platforms like social media to spread propaganda and incite followers to conduct attacks.
“This has not only made extremist material easier to access, but it has also accelerated the process of radicalisation to a matter of months, or even weeks, because all of this now takes place behind a computer screen and it is much harder to detect,” said Mr Wong.
Terrorist groups have been increasingly targeting youths who are more impressionable and susceptible to influence, he said.
Apart from traditional social media channels, they have started to exploit online music streaming sites and gaming platforms that are popular with young people.
A 15-year-old boy was arrested in November 2022 and issued with a detention order for terrorism-related activities, making him the youngest person so far to be dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Mr Wong cited the case of another self-radicalised 16-year-old who was issued with a restriction order in January. The teenager had ventured into Islamic State-themed servers in popular online game Roblox, where he practised shooting ISIS enemies and took a pledge to an “in-game ISIS leader”.
“You can imagine this has created a very worrying trend – an increasing number of people dealt with by the ISD (Internal Security Department) are youths,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
Since 2015, ISD has issued ISA orders to 11 self-radicalised Singaporeans below 21. Some of them started their process of radicalisation from as young as 14 years old, he noted. Before 2015, there was only one case of youth radicalisation.
“The threat has also gone beyond Islamic extremism, because we have seen a broader range of radical extremist and violent groups active in spreading their ideologies online,” said Mr Wong.
For example, one of the 11 youths was a 16-year-old Protestant Christian who had planned to conduct attacks against Muslims at two mosques in Singapore, after he imbibed far-right extremist ideology, he noted.
“What all this means is that extreme and violent ideologies can radicalise any Singaporean, regardless of age, regardless of race or religion,” said Mr Wong.
“And this has serious implications for our society. The extremist and terror threat is far more insidious now, it can reside within our own communities. It will seek to exploit our racial and religious differences in attempts to divide us.”
It will not be possible to “completely insulate” Singaporeans from everything online, said Mr Wong.
“So our approach must be to inoculate Singaporeans against extreme ideologies,” he added.
“This is not something that the government or enforcement agencies can do alone. To succeed, we will need everyone to do their part. We need active and vigilant citizens who will all contribute to the safety and security of Singapore in their own ways.”
People must be equipped with the knowledge to identify and challenge extremist ideas, and spot indicators of radicalisation so they can seek help for family members or friends, said Mr Wong. Singapore must also evolve its rehabilitation methods so that it can help detainees to rejoin society, he added.
“The increasing array of extremist ideologies … will make rehabilitation more complex, more challenging. We must seek to better understand why some young people are attracted to these ideologies, and work with their families to help them reclaim their lives,” said the Deputy Prime Minister.
Singapore must continue to have strong community leaders who are deeply involved in this work, which means ensuring a steady renewal and rejuvenation of the RRG and its leadership.
“I also encourage younger asatizahs (religious teachers) to come onboard the RRG, and for those already within the group to play an even more active role,” he added.
“With the threat of radicalisation extending to young people in Singapore, we will need fresh perspectives and new ways of engaging our youth.”