Don’t Count Your Conspiracies Before They Are Hatched

The latest wave of arrests under Singapore’s Internal Security Act, which allows detention in secret and without trial, has attracted scant news coverage and even less comment. That alone shows how the mere mention of the words “war on terror” and “Islamic extremism” can bring the media, regional and western alike, rushing to judgment based on official assertions and a generalized fear of Islam rather than proven facts.

It also demonstrates the ease with which Singapore continues to bask in western approval despite draconian security laws and its tight rein on the media. On June 9 Singapore revealed that five people, four allegedly associated with Jemaah Islamiyah, had been detained. These included a 28 year-old Singaporean Malay lecturer, Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader who was said to be a “homegrown” and “self-radicalized” jihadist not attached to JI.

Basheer had purchased an air ticket for Pakistan, where he allegedly planned to contact the militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and join the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement. He was said to have traveled to an unidentified country in the Middle East last year to study Arabic, and by December ``had decided to embark on `militant jihad' immediately,'' it said. Basheer was arrested in an unidentified Middle Eastern country and returned to Singapore.

The local media has assumed his guilt and taken to asking why and how it should be that a local law graduate who, according to the Straits Times, had been a singer in a rock band, was radicalized when he could have lived the “Singaporean dream.” Abdul Basheer, the stories said, partly raised his jihadi temperature by reading radical Islamic texts on the Internet. The Internet duly erupted with suspicious bloggers betting the authorities would use Abdul Basheer’s story as a pretext to seriously curtail access to cyberspace, where bloggers have been giving the government fits. There is no evidence yet of such a crackdown, however.

The reality is that unless presented in court and allowed to speak freely, no one will know what Abdul Basheer believes or what, if anything, he was planning to do. Even then, given Singapore’s history of show trials where detainees confess to various conspiracies as a condition of release, one will never quite know what is reality and what is staged for political effect.

But that does not stop so-called academic experts from restating the Singapore government line as though it were an obvious truth. Take Zachary Abuza, associate professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston, who is billed as “one of the leading scholars on terrorism in Southeast Asia,” author of one book and innumerable articles. Late last year, for example, he was in Australia at the invitation of the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council playing up Islamist threats in the region and beyond.

Abuza was quickly on the Singapore case, writing June 13 in Counterterrorism Blog, a Washington-based website of uncertain progeny which promotes the “war on terror”. He repeated the Singapore claims as established facts and proceeded to elaborate on them.

Apart from the case of Abdul Basheer, the Singapore announcement should have attracted attention for other reasons. First, the four alleged JI members were said to have left Singapore in 2001. It seems unlikely that they came back voluntarily, at least if they had anything to hide. So it looks as though they might have been “rendered” – the polite word for kidnap and forced deportation – to Singapore without any chance of a court hearing. Given that the US is one of the leading perpetrators of such illegalities, it is no wonder that the western media has refrained from looking into this case. It is unclear which country “rendered” Basheer but since it was said to be a Middle Eastern country, the implication is that it was an Arab one, not Pakistan.

Singapore also announced that five people earlier arrested as JI members had been released. The official line was that this showed, in Abuza’s words, Singapore’s “level of success with its rehabilitation program for JI members.” The government itself said that because of rehabilitation they “no longer posed a security threat.” Others might wonder whether these arrests, like others, have been made on scant evidence or simply to create a sense of fear to justify draconian security measures, maintain a high level of public concern about Islamists or keep the local Malay community in a defensive state.

While there is no doubt that Islamic terrorism is a reality in nearby parts of the world, as evidenced by the horrific bombings that have shaken Bali and murder and assassination in Southern Thailand and the Philippines, Singapore has a long record of using so-called threats to justify police state tactics. These latest arrests have been taken up by so-called terrorism experts to illustrate the “continued JI threat.” The post-9/11 world has spawned a group of such academics who have become minor celebrities in their own right as a result of their ability to advance opinions as facts and generally play up the Islamic threat, always eager to attach Al Qaeda and JI labels to local insurgencies such as in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand, both of which go back decades before Al Qaeda was invented.

The counter-terrorism industry is a large one and thrives on rumor and speculation as much as fact. It is also prone to being fed “intelligence” that serves a propaganda function. Singapore is a hive for such activities given its politics, local concerns about Malays and Islam, tame local media and a foreign press corps that knows enough to steer clear of critical coverage of Singapore’s political and social issues.

One example was in 2002 at the height of post 9/11 hysteria when even Malaysia was being accused of being an Al Qaeda base. Considerable international coverage was given to a huge story, supported by documents and other “evidence” in Singapore’s Straits Times, about an Indonesian terror network. Indonesia’s Tempo, a publication long noted for its independence and investigative credentials, looked at the allegations in detail and found that key names and places in the Straits Times story were utterly fictitious.

The line between fact and propaganda can never be identified unless the media is free and the courts are open. Given Singapore’s long record of abusing civil liberties, the Basheer case needs close examination by the outside world.


Open letter to Dr Abuza,

Please allow me to step in. ‘Courage’ is an emotive term, perhaps more suited to the playground than the world of intelligence, counter-terrorism and the state’s obvious needs to both protect its citizens while maintaining a recognizable narrative of its actions and intentions. I, for example, take no issue with the Singapore or any other governments’ desire to counter threats to both their people and their own often more partisan interests. This is what governments do, with some ultimately more answerable to their behaviour that others depending upon the structure and strength of their legislative and legal systems - and the ‘courage’ of individuals to challenge orthodoxy at the risk to career or even liberty. It is axiomatic and functional in this world, often necessarily so, that the ‘cloak of anonymity’ remains an essential tool for the agent, the interrogator, the informer and the executioner. Raising doubts over the behaviour and intention of the state and its organs with imperfect information will obviously carry risks. In the case of the piece we’re considering this could involve sanctions against a named individual who criticised the Singapore Government (and yourself) – no doubt a noble act - but also a foolish one. The ‘courage of one’s convictions’ has a fine ring to it in an open academic or intellectual setting – but in the area you choose to occupy it has another and far darker meaning. And this is where I believe the true criticism of this piece lies. You have established a reputation as an academic observer of terrorism in Southeast Asia. Your blog is most readable and packed with incident. However, it rarely disrupts the official version of events laid out by the governments and their agencies. Nothing wrong in this, except that as an academic I would expect you to offer a more balanced and forensic approach to the official history than you appear willing to do. As for raising the tattered slur of ‘conspiracy’ when challenged – this brings us back to the language of the playground rather than the serious business of trying to gauge and react to the threats we all face. Anyone can generate fear - but it takes ‘courage’ and persistence to nurture and defend reason.

Gavin Greenwood