Josephine Teo: COVID-19 is helping to fuel radicalisation

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An ISIS flag. (PHOTO: Associated Press)
An ISIS flag. (PHOTO: Associated Press)

SINGAPORE — The effects of the pandemic are inadvertently fuelling the potential for radicalisation, as people spend more time online amid the “echo chambers” of social media, and have less opportunity for face-to-face social interactions, said Second Minister for Home Affairs and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo on Thursday (26 November).

“Those interactions are now at risk. Terrorist groups are using this opening to push out more online content to attract more followers,” said Teo, who noted that Singapore has dealt with 29 radicalised Singaporeans under the Internal Security Act since 2015. Many of these individuals were influenced by extremist online materials.

One of them was a 17-year-old Singaporean detained in January for supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who had been radicalised by a foreign online contact who introduced him to pro-ISIS social media groups.

Despite religious counselling sessions and collaborating with his parents, he persisted in viewing pro-ISIS online content, leaving authorities “no choice” but to detain him.

“We must make every effort to deepen cross-religious and cross-cultural understanding and interactions. That is the one basic thing that is essential, we must get right,” said Teo, stressing that radicalisation is not limited to any religion or ethnic group.

“Radicalisation is a poison that can seep wherever there are cracks in society of a communal nature.”

Factors that play a part include environmental influences – family and community networks, as well as the internet – and the “outsized role” of social media, which allows for the creation of large echo chambers, where similar views are reinforced and amplified. The psychological and emotional state of individuals, who may be influenced by past traumatic experiences, also plays a part.

Teo added that the terror threat is not a faraway phenomenon; in Southeast Asia, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups continue to operate and remain active, and to spread their ideologies online. In Indonesia, some ISIS supporters have incited violence against France and French nationals, over France’s response to recent terror attacks.

And while there is no silver bullet, it will take the whole of society coming together to tackle the threat of radicalisation, said the minister.

Teo was speaking at the premiere of Seeking The Imam, a film on radicalisation by local non-government organisation Humanity Matters.

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