“The terrorism threat to Singapore remains high. The terrorist group ISIS continues to make news globally, with Indonesia suffering its deadliest ISIS-linked attacks in May 2018. While there has been no credible or specific intelligence of an attack being planned against Singapore since the last report, our security agencies continue to maintain high vigilance. Among others, we continue to detect Singaporeans, and foreigners working in Singapore becoming radicalised by terrorist propaganda. The public must continue to stay alert, and be prepared that an attack might one day succeed.” – Singapore Terrorism Threat Assessment Report 2019, Jan 22

After re-reading the book, ‘In the Skin of a Jihadist’ by Anna Erelle (not her real name), I decided to look up the terrorism threat for Singapore and the threat assessment report was the first result on Google search.

Terrorism and Singapore seems so distant; it seems that we are living in a bubble where the dangers such as ISIS will not touch us. Yet, in actual fact, the threat is real and that there have been people radicalized by these propaganda that they seek to move to Syria to join the war. In fact, there have been two families that managed to uproot themselves because they believe in the cause. So, is ISIS and Singapore really that distant?

‘In the Skin of a Jihadist’ follows the story of a French journalist who went online as a young girl, Melodie, as she investigated the stories of the European youths who willingly went to Syria to join ISIS. In her investigation, she was approached by an ISIS fighter, Abu Bilel Al-Firanzi, who seek to manipulate her into joining him at the war-torn country.

Anna’s interaction started when she shared a video of Abu Bilel on Melodie’s Facebook account. After sharing that video, Abu Bilel sent multiple messages to her, one in particular immediately asking her if she was thinking was going to Syria. Following those messages, Anna was told by him to converse with him via Skype and when she disregarded the message, Abu Bilel told her to get ready for her hijrah and that he would take care of her.

The interaction between her and Abu Bilel only lasted a month but in the brief one month, Abu Bilel managed to “convince” ‘Melodie’ to marry him online and plan her move to Syria. In that month too, she received messages from girls all over world genuinely contemplating to move to Syria, either to be with the men they had met online or because they truly believed true hijrah is to be there where the fighting is. Anna tried her best to convince those who was truly on the verge of departure to reconsider, by drafting copy/paste message and sending it to the girls.

“Salaam, sister,

Like you, I too lost hope and felt helpless in my country, whose laws are often incompatible with our own. Islam saved me from disillusion and despair. But being a good sister is first and foremost about behaving with dignity and discretion, and examining the lessons laid out in the Koran. It’s not about watching videos advocating nonsense. To do jihad is to work on the self and respect our religion’s percepts. It is to treat your neighbor – Syrian or otherwise – with goodness. Leaving to prove something doesn’t do anyone any good. Open your eyes: there are people all around you, your brothers and sisters, who need your help. If you feel lost, do as I have done, talk about it with your parents (imagine: I’m a convert), and think of the grief you will cause them if you leave. I once planned a trip like the one you’re considering. I was in contact with a lot of jihadists. I was convinced I was doing the right thing. And then I followed the advice I’ve just given you and today I’m happier than ever.

As a Muslim woman, reading the ways that this man tried to manipulate and brainwash her by twisting the words of the Noble Qur’an and the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) both infuriated and enraged me. How dare he use this religion as a way to bring hate and violence and intolerance when that was the complete opposite of what the religion actually is?? Yet a part of me marveled at how sly his words are; this man is the perfect example of how ISIS propaganda works.

Actual girls and boys have fallen into the trap of believing the words that they have sneaked away from their families to move to Syria. Abu Bilel manages to be Prince Charming one moment then switching to a possessive, almost terrifying man who expects his words to be followed through. Sweet nothings to cruel, abusive language and even, mundane conversations (he asked for boxers as the material found in Syria is not comfortable, whaaaaat????).

As I read, a part of me wonders is this how they all worked? Is this what the two Singaporean women who were radicalized came across online? Men, who expertly manipulated them into believing all that they said? But, isn’t that the trait of all abusive men, regardless of whether they are ISIS or not?

‘In the Skin of a Jihadist’ ended without any fixed conclusion. But being that it is a true story, almost like a memoir of the reporter, it seems fitting. This was back in 2014, during the rise of ISIS and before they managed to conquer Mosul and ISIS declared a world-wide caliphate. The reporter had a ‘fatwa’ written up about her and when I read what it said, it made me sick. This was not part of Islamic teaching. It was completely against everything I stood for.

At the same time, as a Singaporean Muslim and with the recent Christchurch shooting, it’s even more imperative that I, we, do not take our security lightly. It’s too easy for someone to slip through the cracks and be radicalized and threaten the country we hold dear. For all the short-comings, Singapore is the place we have always been safe and we have to work hard to continue keeping it that way.

In addition, there was the recent article that came out in Straits Times which shows that 15% of a random 1,800 people polled find Muslims threatening. While the numbers seem small (I actually don’t tbh), the fact that these views exist in Singapore means that we are not immune to the effects of the media from the other parts of the world. Islamophoic material online radicalized the Australian who carried out Christchurch attack. Who is to say that this is not possible here too? Hate materials online is easily accessed by anyone who is connected to the Internet. That just means nearly everyone is Singapore has access to these materials.

ISIS is a terrorist cell that works its propaganda primarily through social media and the web. With the launch of Digital Defence as an additional pillar to the five existing defence (did you know Islam also have five pillars of faith for the Muslims to follow? No? Well, now you do.), it’s apt that I revisit this book and write a piece on it.

It’s no longer being vigilant just in the streets, but also knowing what and who you are communicating with through the ‘Net.

We, as Singaporeans, no longer need tolerance but what we need is true understanding and acceptance of each and everyone’s differences to continue our harmonious way of life.

Occasional Writer for The Technovore. Usually go by Ms Siti in my daily life.