Protecting Singapore against terror attacks

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12 May 2016 | TECHNOLOGY
Melayu 华文

Protecting Singapore against terror attacks

STORY // Koh Eng Beng
PHOTO // PIONEER Photographers & courtesy of Republic of Singapore Air Force
English 华文

With the threat of terror attacks at an all-time high in recent years, counter-terrorism will be one of the Singapore Armed Forces' (SAF's) key priorities for the new work year.

Gunmen and suicide bombers hit Orchard Road, Raffles Place MRT station, Marina Bay Sands, and other locations across Singapore almost simultaneously. There is chaos and screams of panic can be heard as survivors flee from the scene of carnage.

The indiscriminate shootings and attacks in the heart of the city leave many dead or injured. Major roads are choked with stalled traffic. Emergency hotlines are overwhelmed.

Standby forces from the Home Team and the SAF rush to the various locations. At Raffles Place MRT, crack teams from the SAF Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) storm in to where armed and masked terrorists are holding civilians hostage. After a brief stand-off, they gun down all the terrorists and free all hostages, including dozens who are seriously injured.

Never let down your guard

Senior Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) leaders and SAF commanders watched this mock terror attack video at the MINDEF Workplan Seminar on 28 Mar. The annual MINDEF Workplan Seminar is a platform for senior leadership to discuss security challenges and set the direction for MINDEF and the SAF in the new work year ahead.

At the seminar, Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen used the video to highlight one of the SAF's most urgent priorities: protecting Singaporeans from terror attacks.

Terror group Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) has carried out violent attacks across the world. Last year, Dabiq, the English-language newsletter published by ISIS, named Singapore among the "enemies of the Islamic State" and called on followers to wage jihad in their own lands. It aims to establish a wilayat, a province of its "caliphate" in this region.

Nearby, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta have been singled out as targets. Many Southeast Asians have joined the cause of ISIS. Last May, authorities arrested two Singaporean youths who were radicalised by ISIS. Separately, four Singaporeans were arrested in March this year for involvement in armed violence overseas.

A Sunday Times poll in March showed that three in four Singaporeans believe that it is only a matter of time before Singapore is hit by a terror attack. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said recently that it is not a question of "if" but a question of "when".

The terror threat is clear and present, and the SAF must be ready to act decisively, said Dr Ng. In the aftermath of a terror attack, Singapore's response could either inspire confidence and unity, or cause Singaporeans to lose heart.

He added that terrorists would examine how the nation reacts on the day after and from there assess if Singapore is a target with a soft underbelly that they can continue to wreak damage on, or a hard target to avoid.

What would happen the day after an attack? "We can imagine Singapore to be changed irrevocably But if the Home Team and the SAF respond decisively, we can limit the extent of the tragedy," he said.

An invisible enemy

Dr Ng noted that the SAF had, over the past fifty years, developed a robust defence against conventional threats, but dealing with extremist threats was a different ball game.

He dwelled at length on the difficulties that the SAF would have to be prepared for in the fight against terror, especially against a well-organised force like ISIS that has significant financial resources and an attractive ideology that resonated with certain disaffected people.

Dr Ng said that the SAF needed to understand that dealing with terrorists would be different from conventional enemy forces.

"If your unit is mobilised (to deal with a terror attack), how would you respond? The terrorists won't wear uniforms or insignias; they blend into the crowd."

Noting that the Brussels attacks took place despite heightened alert and security measures, Dr Ng said that the SAF must build the right capabilities in order to face the threats squarely.

More vigilant & responsive

Chief of Defence Force Major-General (MG) Perry Lim, who also spoke at the Workplan Seminar, elaborated on the SAF's counter-terrorism efforts.

Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, the SAF has been deploying its ground-based air defence units on a 24/7 basis. It also patrols key installations such as Jurong Island, Changi Airport and Sembawang Wharves.

The SAF has also contributed to the international effort to tackle the threat of terrorism at the source. Last year, it deployed Intelligence Fusion Officers, an Imagery Analysis Team (IAT) and a KC-135R air-to-air refuelling tanker to the Middle East to help in the fight against ISIS.

Over the years, the SAF and other key security agencies have been sharpening their response to terror attacks through large-scale exercises such as Exercise Northstar and Exercise Highcrest.

At the heart of the SAF's counter-terrorism capabilities is its High Readiness Core which comprises the SOTF, Island Defence Task Force, Air Defence Task Force, and Maritime Security Task Force.

These task forces conduct counter-terrorism and other contingency operations as well as safeguard homeland security and Singapore's skies and waterways, respectively.

Today, terrorist forces such as ISIS fighters are well-trained and capable of carrying out multiple attacks across different locations all at once.

In the Paris attacks last November, gunmen and suicide bombers hit a concert hall, stadium, restaurants and bars almost simultaneously. Security agencies in Singapore have studied the multi-shooter attacks closely.

To prepare for multiple terror strikes, the Home Team is working with the SAF to create a joint coordination centre helmed by personnel from both agencies, said MG Lim.

And to enable security forces to get into areas of operations fast, the SAF will improve its mobility in urban areas. It will also have more tactical and ground sensors to gather intelligence.

Besides the immediate focus on terrorism, MG Lim laid out long-term challenges that the SAF will face in 2030. The security environment, he noted, is likely to be fraught with uncertainties arising from terrorism, nationalism, and the balance of power between the United States and China.

Against this backdrop, the SAF has to continue its 3rd Generation transformation, build up capabilities with better cyber and information defence, precision weapons, data networks, and greater integration among different platforms, he said. MG Lim also reminded commanders to build character, cohesion and commitment in their people.

Giving confidence

Dr Ng noted that the SAF had demonstrated its abilities last year through multiple exercises and operations, and won the approval and trust of Singaporeans.

In a 2015 survey on the Government's performance, Singaporeans gave a high approval rating of 97 percent for deterrence and national security.

Last year, the SAF was mobilised to carry out several humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations such as the Nepal earthquake relief effort and aerial fire-fighting operations in Indonesia.

The SAF also excelled under pressure when it organised national events such as the Golden Jubilee celebrations, and the State Funeral of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

These hard-won successes, Dr Ng said, "gave the public a glimpse of what the SAF is capable of, short of fighting in a real war".

But the bottom line is: when called upon, the SAF must give the assurance that it is ready to protect Singaporeans from terror attacks, he concluded.

"If the SAF has a 'hard shield', and 'decisive sword', it will deter would-be terrorists. We have a lot of work ahead of us to deal with this new challenge, even as we remain vigilant against traditional security challenges.

"But I am confident that if each and every SAF community pulls together, we will succeed."

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