When I was in Singapore recently, I learned about two interesting anti-terrorism initiatives:
- Detained terrorism suspects on that island state are being cured of their militancy by Islamic counselling. Initiated in 2003, the program has entailed more than 500 sessions with the detainees and 50 with their families, so far. Of the 60 people arrested, 23 have already been released.
- Singapore has emerged as a regional centre for anti-terrorist training for security personnel, for monitoring suspected jihadist websites, and for developing ideas on how to anticipate and dissipate terrorist threats.
Among those involved is a Canadian, Tom Quiggin, a former Canadian military intelligence expert. He served in Croatia and Bosnia, at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and in the Privy Council in Ottawa before going to Singapore last year.
He is co-ordinator of the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Program of the School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
Another unit of the school is the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, where staffers Mohamed bin Ali and Haniff Hassan keep track of the religious rehabilitation program. It's the only one in Asia, others being in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Ali said the counselling came about spontaneously after the arrests of associates of Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I), the Indonesian-Malaysian militant group.
"Some ustads (religious teachers) came together voluntarily," said Ali. "They felt that the J.I. philosophy had to be countered."
Hassan said "the ustads did not claim any exclusive right to interpret the Qur'an," arguing only that the holy book expressly forbids violence against civilians.
The message slowly sunk in.
Engaging the militants on their own theological turf was "a bold and courageous move," said Quiggin.
As for the jihadist websites, he figures there are about 5,000, most in Arabic and some in English and the Bhasa language, advocating violent warfare.
"Less than 50 are hardcore. Most of the others are fellow-travellers, wannabes."
At the time of 9/11, there were about 5,000 active Al Qaeda members, he said. But after the United States invaded Afghanistan, "the number dropped to about 500, probably less. Then came the invasion of Iraq, which radicalized a lot of people.
"One of the unintended results of kicking Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan was that many went to the web, satellite phones and text messaging," Quiggin said.
They are "producing stunning recruitment videos in Iraq. The technology is only about a year behind MTV. The videos are put on the Internet, from where they are downloaded all over the world."
Among those drawn to the material are some alienated second- and third-generation Muslims in the West, including Canada.
What motivates the jihadists?
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"The bleeding wound called Palestine, plus Chechnya, Iraq and, lately, Afghanistan. Those are huge rallying points for radicals."
Peace in Palestine "wouldn't stop terrorism but it'd take away one of the great causes of radicalization. Plus, if Iraq was not happening, if Afghanistan were only half as bad as it is, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Why is the war on terrorism failing?
"You can't just militarize the problem. As the Brits say, `Here come the Americans, all gear and no brains.'
"George W. Bush's war on terrorism will kill us all ...
"Israel and America are trapped in a kind of World War II mentality: `We have more guns and gear than them. We can kill them quickly.'
"But this is asymmetrical warfare - the weak against the strong - which we can't win with power. You can have as many satellites as you want, you cannot win. The ultimate victor will be the one with the best knowledge and will.
"Hezbollah gets it. It drove the Americans out of Lebanon; it drove the Israelis out of Lebanon, and last year, it held Israel to a draw."
What should the West do?
Stop living in fear and relying on military adventures, Quiggin believes. Don't support excessive use of force to crush local dissent, as in Uzbekistan, southern Thailand and Pakistan; that only leads to more radicalization. Regain the high moral ground. Address the root causes of terrorism. Counter jihadist propaganda.
As for Canada, "it does not have a co-ordinated national strategy." And in Afghanistan, it is copying American military tactics "and we know that gets us," Quiggin said.
"About 90 per cent of our effort has been on guards, guns and gates, only 10 per cent on reconstruction. NATO troops (including Canadians) spend a lot of time and effort in force protection.
"The military does three things right now: defend ground, take ground, and impose order for a short time. Where's the peace dividend in all this for the Afghans?
"We are going backwards, in winning hearts and minds" - and, therefore, basically "biding time for 2009," when we hope to get out of Afghanistan.
Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday.
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