Terror groups leveraging on Covid-19 to preach hate online
MHA reveals this after arrest of radicalised Bangladeshi worker, 26, and deportation of another 16 foreigners
Even as Singapore remains in the throes of a global pandemic, the threat of terrorism is still very much alive as radical ideologies continue to spread in cyberspace, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said yesterday.
Agreeing, terrorism expert Remy Mahzam said movement restrictions due to Covid-19 have encouraged extremists to ramp up efforts in the cyber domain to recruit people who may be spending more time online.
There has also been a resurgence of terrorist attacks over the Charlie Hebdo controversy in France.
In the wake of all this, the Internal Security Department has hauled up 37 people, including 14 Singaporeans, since September for suspected radical inclinations, inciting violence or stoking unrest online.
One of them, Bangladeshi worker Ahmed Faysal, 26, was arrested under the Internal Security Act on Nov 2.
He become radicalised online in 2018 and wanted to fight in Syria for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He also bought knives with plans to kill Hindu police officers in Bangladesh.
Of the other 22 foreigners, 15 Bangladeshis and a Malaysian have been deported.
The majority of the 37 made posts supporting last month's beheading of a French teacher in Paris and other terror attacks, or incited violence against France or its president Emmanuel Macron for his defence of Charlie Hebdo's caricature depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.
The 14 Singaporeans are aged between 19 and 62. Four are women. They include housewives and a student. None are religious teachers.
MHA said preliminary investigations have not surfaced any indication that they pose an imminent terrorism threat.
The ministry warned that spending more time online during the pandemic could inadvertently expose more people to radical ideologies.
It added that terror groups have been quick to capitalise by framing the pandemic as divine retribution and urging their followers to carry out attacks.
Mr Remy, an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University, said the recent slew of counter-terrorism investigations is no surprise, given the volatile and violent extremism backdrop amid the pandemic.
"The economic stagnation and lengthy recovery period provide an opportunity for violent extremists as well as far-right groups to expand their support base," he added.
Speaking at a Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) seminar yesterday, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said online radicalisation is a serious concern.
"I don't know enough to say whether Covid-19 has made it worse... Over the last few years, we have noticed increased self-radicalisation online."
"If you couple that with the fact that more and more people are going online, and now maybe they have a little bit more time as well, it is a situation to be worried about."
But he said this also presents opportunities for community and religious leaders to go online and preach the true nature of their religions.
In an earlier speech, he said RRG's work on the counter-ideology front is even more important amid the pandemic.
The non-profit group trains religious teachers to counsel those influenced by or who are misguided by radical teachings.
RRG has stepped up counter-radicalisation efforts, publishing videos to raise awareness and organising virtual events to sensitise people to extremist messages proliferating online in the wake of the pandemic.
Its vice-chairman, Dr Mohamed Ali, said yesterday that concerns of intensified radicalisation efforts virtually has also pushed RRG to form a social media committee to look into strengthening its online engagements via platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp.
A Facebook spokesman said the firm has invested billions in machine learning and artificial intelligence to proactively remove more than 99 per cent of terrorism-related content.
She said: "This is an ongoing effort and we continue to work with partners and experts to stay ahead of those seeking to spread hate and violent extremist content."