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Singapore Uses Jihadist Rehab to Justify Indefinite Detention of 'Self-Radicalized' Teen

A 19-year-old accused of planning to join the Islamic State is being held under a controversial law that allows suspects to be kept in “preventative detention” for two years without trial.
Photo by Wong Maye-E/AP

Authorities in Singapore knew M Arifil Azim Putra Norja'I was an impressionable young man. They had been monitoring the 19-year-old for some time, after someone tipped off the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) about his increasingly erratic behavior. The MHA found digital traces dating back to 2013 of blueprints for homemade IEDs, searches on the best way to travel to Syria, and multiple views of Islamic State-linked propaganda.


Yet, after Arifil allegedly became the first known "self-radicalized" Singaporean with plans to join the Islamic State (IS), officials took the post-secondary student into custody under a state security law that allows the government to hold suspects in "preventative detention" for two years without trial.

MHA officials announced Arifil's detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for "terrorism-related activities" on Wednesday, also revealing the teen's alleged plans to carry out attacks on home soil — including assassinating government leaders — if his efforts to join IS soured. At the same time, authorities also reported they had detained another unnamed 16-year-old Singaporean and were investigating the minor's involvement in activities linked to terrorism.

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At least 64 people have been detained under the ISA since January 2002 for their involvement in terror-related activities, according to Singapore's The Straits Times. Arifil is one of the youngest to be detained under the law.

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technology University, told VICE News that the Singaporean government justifies the lengthy detentions under the ISA by citing its efforts to rehabilitate alleged terrorists.

Gunaratna said a team of counselors, social workers, and Muslim clerics, who form part of a so-called Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), provide social, spiritual, and psychological education to suspected terrorists, who are then released after they have been deemed "rehabilitated" and safe to return to society.


Each ISA detention is subject to a review by a board of detention officials who study the cases and determine whether the individual poses a continued threat — similar to the detainee reviews undertaken at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and other US prisons, Gunaratna said. Singaporean detainees are also encouraged to spend time with their families during rehabilitation, Gunaratna said.

At least two-thirds of ISA detainees have since been released after being deemed rehabilitated, The Straits Times reported. Few former detainees have publicly spoken about their experiences.

One man, who calls himself Abu Harith, held for several years for allegedly aiding the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, told The Straits Times he was surprised by the "constant support" he received from "doctors and psychologists, and members of the community who volunteered their time to counsel me" during rehabilitation. His story was published in a RRG 10th anniversary commemorative book in 2013.

Yet critics argue that detention without trial under the ISA violates international human rights. Amnesty International claims officials have also detained people for more than the city-state's legally prescribed time — sometimes for nine years or longer. Another former detainee, Teo Soh Lung, detailed her detentions in 1987 and 1990 in a book. Her experiences differed vastly from Harith's description. Teo, an activist and lawyer, became known as a prisoner of conscience after her detention. She was one of 16 accused of being part of a "Marxist plot" for working with the opposition party during an election.


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The two most recent detentions have brought to the tiny, Southeast Asian nation the same realities currently faced by France, the US, Australia, and other countries struggling to stem the flow of some 20,000 foreign fighters who have already journeyed from their homes to join militants in Iraq and Syria. Last month, neighboring Malaysia arrested dozens suspected IS sympathizers.

The arrests of teens in Singapore are "a stark reminder that we are not insulated from what happens around the world," Edwin Tong, deputy chairman of Singapore's government parliamentary committee for Home Affairs and Law, said in a statement. "Youths today are very impressionable, not yet mature enough to differentiate what are ideals and what is practical and reality. They are highly connected to the Internet, they are tech-savvy."

Singapore, a former British island colony with a population of 5 million, is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, according to a 2014 Pew report. Roughly a third of the nation is Buddhist, while Christians (18 percent), unaffiliated Singaporeans (16 percent), and Muslims (14 percent) also make up large portions of society.

"Terrorism remains a serious global threat. But it is not just a problem that is 'over there' in some other countries," Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, said after the arrests were announced. "It is also a problem that is 'over here', in our region, and here in Singapore as well."

The MHA noted in its statement that Arifil had also attempted to recruit several other youths to help him carry out the planned attacks, but none agreed to join him. None of those people informed authorities about Arifil's intentions. This reinforces the need for all Singaporeans to "play our part," Teo Chee Hean said.

"If you know or suspect anyone who is becoming radicalized, please notify the authorities early," he added.

This sentiment was backed by Singapore's Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, who posted a note to Facebook that said, "We must do our utmost to reach out to young people who are in search of answers to problems confronting their generation."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields