Concerns over terrorism rise in SEA from Afghan fallout: S’pore minister

SINGAPORE (CNA) – Many security agencies are concerned that the Taleban takeover in Afghanistan could lead to more terrorism in the region, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Friday.

This is because Afghanistan had, under the previous Taleban regime, provided a safe haven for potential terrorists from Southeast Asia, including from Singapore, he said.

“If you ask what do would-be terrorists need or what helps would-be terrorists go out and do bad things: A safe haven, a place where they can train, a place where their minds can be hardened and radicalised even more,” Shanmugam told reporters ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States (US).

“And previously, what happened with ISIS and Al-Qaeda was that there were such safe havens. Afghanistan provided a safe haven for training persons from Southeast Asia, including from Singapore; and it provided a safe haven for training, access to weapons, people become hardened because there’s training on fighting, and that makes it very dangerous.”

He added: “Will that happen again? A lot of people fear that. I fear that that might happen again.

“So yes, I think the prospect of increased terrorism in the region, I think many security agencies and serious people are concerned about it.”

Foreign countries had on Wednesday greeted the makeup of the new government in Afghanistan with caution and dismay after the Taleban appointed hardline veteran figures to top positions.

A Taleban fighter stands guard on the tarmac at the airport in Kabul. PHOTO: AFP

The new acting Cabinet includes former detainees of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, while the interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is wanted by the United States (US) on terrorism charges and carries a reward of USD10 million.

On the security situation in Singapore, Shanmugam said: “In day-to-day terms, I would not say that the events in Afghanistan have led to an immediate increase in the security threat – but this is a strategic issue; it’s a mid-term to a longer-term issue and we’ll need to be prepared for that.”

“But meanwhile, the Internal Security Department surveys the landscape, what’s happening elsewhere, both in the region and further afield, including Afghanistan. And of course we map that against what we need to do in Singapore, and that’s an ongoing thing.”

Shanmugam also touched on the September 3 terrorist attack in Auckland, when an Islamic State-inspired extremist known to authorities stabbed and wounded at least six people at a shopping mall supermarket before being shot dead by police.

New Zealand police said they did “absolutely everything possible” to monitor the extremist before the attack. Shanmugam said the man, who had purchased knives and researched on bomb-making online, had been under police surveillance since 2016 and was arrested twice between 2017 and 2018 for other offences. He was released from custody two months ago.

“There were very clear signs that he wanted to carry out a terrorist attack, but under New Zealand’s current terrorism laws, he could not be picked up or charged for checking on how to make bombs and purchasing knives,” Shanmugam said.

“I mean, many people purchase knives so you need to be able to link it to an intention.

“But even though they could link it to his intention, that wasn’t enough to pick him up, charge him in court.”

The minister said New Zealand is now looking at amendments to strengthen its counterterrorism laws, adding that the events there had set him “thinking on the contrast” with Singapore.

“In Singapore, this man would have been detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

“He would not have been released two months ago, and we would have tried to rehabilitate him early, and he may well be living now,” he said.

“Every country has to find its own way to deal with this challenge. For us, the key is to make sure the social and economic policies help keep good opportunities for all, and make sure that people feel that they have a stake in the country. That helps to keep extremism and radicalism to a very limited number.