(c) Muhammad Haniff Hassan & Sharifah Thuraiya S A Alhabshi, RSIS Commentaries (19/2009), 23 February 2009.
Efforts in combating terrorism witnessed the fundamental role played by the general public and role of the authorities to steer public involvement. The current economic downturn may, however, distract the long paid attention to encourage public awareness through counter-ideological work.
On Wednesday, 30 July 2008, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a renowned Muslim scholar, recipient of India’s third highest civilian honour and the founder of Centre for Peace and Spirituality in New Delhi said in a press conference, “violence begins from mind and every violence has an ideology. The solution is to counter it by evolving another counter-ideology”. After two days, a blogger with the pen name Ashok, wrote: “For us in India, such terrorism needs to be combated and eliminated by intensifying all efforts, both at the administrative level by urgently beefing up our intelligence and security apparatus, and the political level by seeking a solution to real or perceived ‘injustice’ done to some sections”. Less than four months latter, 60 gunmen attacked Mumbai.
The Important Role of the Public
Political will, security forces, and the laws are insufficient means of terror prevention. There are three main reasons why the public plays a pivotal role in combating terrorism:
First, the main target of terrorist ideologies is the innocent public. Hence, the more intense public awareness to the danger of radical ideology, the less appeal the public will have towards the ideologies. In his article ‘Terrorists Are Made, Not Born: Creating Terrorists Using Social Psychological Conditioning’, Dr. Anthony Stahelski, a professor of psychology at Central Washington University, describes the finding discovered by sociologists and social psychologists that terrorist groups use conditioning techniques to transform ordinary people into terrorists.
Second, the country’s safety depends largely on the eyes and ears of the public in detecting terrorism threat. Being highly vigilant i.e. identifying potential threat and feeding information to authorities is an undisputedly expedient effort in mitigating terrorist threats and even preventing their attacks. Craig Gundry and K.C. Poulin, security consultants, wrote in an article, Public Awareness and The War on Terrorism, that all terrorist operations are preceded by a process of intelligence gathering and that citizens are always in an excellent position to recognize threat indicators associated with target surveillance.
Third, public involvement in combating terrorism is an important contributing factor to the success of the activities of counter-ideology. Personal relationships, be they social, familial or working makes dissemination of counter-ideology much easier, because the source is often more easily accepted than when done by the authority.
Economic Downturn and Public Vigilance
The above networks are premised on a positive world view that is confident and looking to expand. The new economic reality suggests that people will become more inward looking, focusing on meeting their and their families’ basic needs. Authorities will be facing the same dilemma; either to spend decreasing resources on meeting their population’s tangible basic needs, or invest in a more vague distant threat posed by extremism? The potentially toxic combination of an inward public and a distracted government opens political space for the extremists to take hold. If the downturn deepens, it is only natural for terrorist and extremist groups to exploit the increasing poverty and sense of socio-economic injustice for their own violent ends. People are going to seek simple answers to the complex situation impacting their lives. Extremists groups offer this.
The despair, outrage and envy that can contribute to violent reactions are already a concern. In September 2008, the British government warned that the economic slump could result in increasing support for radical Islamist groups and in fuelling terrorist recruitment. In a leaked government memo entitled ‘Responding to Economic Challenges’, it was written that “there is also a risk of a downturn increasing the appeal of far-right extremism and racism, which presents a threat as there is evidence that grievances based on experiencing racism are one of the factors that can lead to people becoming terrorists.”
The most effective way to detect, deter and prevent the above is through an intense awareness campaign working with grassroots activities. The prime message should encourage public involvement as it is an important contributing factor to prevent radical ideologies from taking root in the community. An alert and motivated public is the best defense. The obvious question is how can this be built in a world of decreasing resources? Fortunately, it already does.
Across the world there are already community leaders fighting extremism. However, the dilemma is that most of these efforts are supported by volunteers, which helps reduce the cost, but themselves are facing many of the same economic coercers as the general public. Financial constraints may force volunteers to devote less time to the effort, and thus undermine the general public commitment. Organizations such as the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) should be aware of the potential negative impact of the economic situation to their counter-extremism work. They need to remain focused on the critical mission of vigilance against extremism and not to get distracted by other issues. It is such a waste, if, after years of effort in counter-ideology, the body that is critical to maintaining public’s vigilance becomes distracted by the current economic downturn.
Focusing on the economy is vital at this time. But the nation needs to remain committed to educating the public on the dangers of terrorism and extremism. The authorities should take the initiative to keep reminding the public and community leaders about the threat of terrorism and educate them with the knowledge of threat indicators. They should do whatever is necessary in ensuring that ground efforts are at least maintained. Otherwise the impact of the economic downturn could have larger, devastating consequences.
What Can be Done?
Since the discovery of the JI plot in Singapore, the authorities have been organising briefing sessions for community leaders on developments and updates of security situation. It is hopeful that more of such sessions can be held in the coming months with a strong emphasis on the potential impact of the economic downturn. It should emphasize the need for public awareness of terrorism threat that may jeorpadise the overall national security and economic recovery. The community leaders need to play their part at the grassroots levels. Community leaders should be advised that campaigns and activities organised in the past to inculcate public awareness on the threat of terrorism and radical ideologies should not be reduced. Prior to the briefings, initiatives that suit the current situation could be identified and later on shared with the community leaders, while at the same time they are encouraged to be proactive and generate their own. Another round of new public awareness campaign in video and stills tailored specially to the current context can also be launched. The RRG should intensify its community engagement initiatives with more talks and forums for the community and more articles in mainstream media.
In his eulogy for the late Singaporean victim of Mumbai attack, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said: “That [ensuring no large scale terrorist attack to Singapore] is the job of our security authorities. But [it is] also the job of every Singaporean to be vigilant”. This should serve as a conclusive remark that Singapore could not afford to depend on another similar tragedy to motivate its entire citizens to remain vigilant and be more sensitive and serious about the threat of terrorism.
Muhammad Haniff Hassan is an Associate Research Fellow and Sharifah Thuraiya S A Alhabshi is a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.