“No one is born a terrorist,” says Professor Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR). As an anti-terrorism expert, he works with Singapore’s national security agencies, law enforcement authorities and military counterterrorism units to reduce the likelihood of a terror attack.

Singapore has a unique approach to terrorist activity, seeking to help potential terrorists integrate back into society. “If a government can build an effective rehabilitation program, you can transform almost all terrorists,” Gunaratna says. He should know: he has successfully rehabilitated terrorists and insurgents from conflict zones all over the world.

Lessons for ASEAN

rohan gunaratna As terrorist cells shift their focus from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, regional governments must adapt their approach. “The Asia Pacific region, especially east Asia, is traditionally very peaceful. But the threat of terrorism, unless managed, will grow,” he warns.

Governments must share data and train together, he believes. “Indonesian counterterrorism officers could be serving in Malaysia; Malaysian counterterrorism officers could be serving in the Philippines, so that we can exchange our personnel between different agencies.”

This should also happen more within governments themselves. Agencies from across the public sector should work and train together, he says. “This training goes across the spectrum – law enforcement military and national security agencies.”

While governments have developed preventive strategies that work well against Al Qaeda-style terror cells, it is harder to counter the new approach taken by ISIS. This is why the sharing of technology is essential: modern terrorists harness technology more readily than previous generations of terrorists. For example, 90% of terrorists are spending time online, but governments have been slow to respond. “Governments are crawling, while terrorists are sprinting in cyberspace,” he says. This allowed ISIS to use social media to recruit 40,000 Syrian fighters.


Governments are crawling, while terrorists are sprinting in cyberspace.

How it works in Singapore

The public sector must team up with Muslim organisations to prevent extremism, Gutnara says. “Muslims are very mainstream, but there’s a tiny minority who have been misguided and misled by extremist and terrorist groups. What is important is that we work closely with the Muslim communities,” he says. “They are our friends, and trusted and equal partners. Unless we work with them, we can never win this fight.”

Singapore excels in this community engagement, he believes. As a multi-racial society, the government keenly focuses on community engagement, working closely with Muslim leaders and government agencies. “Through community engagement, they prevent terrorist ideologies from taking root in Singapore by countering extremism and promoting moderation.”

But some are still tempted by violent, extremist teachings. To counter this, “Singapore has developed a very elaborate system to de-radicalise them from extremists to moderate citizens who are productive and useful,” he says.

Clerics visit prisons to try and change the beliefs of these individuals, promoting peace. The Religious Rehabilitation Group is the main organisation spearheading religious rehabilitation efforts in Singapore, and is a close partner of Gunaratna’s ICPVTR.

The six facets of rehabilitation

The ideal rehabilitation model takes a six-pronged approach. It focuses on the religious, social, vocational, educational, creative and psychological issues that cause extremism. Singapore practises three of them: religious, social and psychological.

Religious rehabilitation involves sustained engagement, where the cleric understands the mind of the imprisoned terrorist and slowly starts to deradicalise him. Educational rehabilitation involves “work with teachers, who are by nature very patient,” Gunaratna says. “They can build knowledge and understanding of the terrorist population.” Also, terrorists tend to isolate themselves and social and family rehabilitation help them reconnect back with their communities and societies.

Vocational rehabilitation essentially helps to re-skill terrorists. “In the case of Singapore, we do not have vocational rehabilitation, because almost all of the terrorists here have employment. But in many countries, those who join terrorist and extremist groups are unemployed,” Gunaratna says. Rehabilitation can take the form of teaching them fishing, farming, agriculture, and computer skills, for example. Often, he says, it’s the private sector that offers such programs.

“When you become a terrorist, you close your eyes to the outside world,” Gunaratna remarks, and prison is an ideal environment for creative rehabilitation – introducing song, dance, art, puppetry and literature that will open the minds of terrorists. “Sri Lanka uses dance and music in their programmes; Pakistan provides young members of the Taliban with books on the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah,” Gunaratna explains. And the Cebu prison in the Philippines uses the power of the late, great Michael Jackson for this purpose, he adds.

Finally, psychological rehabilitation involves finding out what went wrong and removing the hatred in terrorists’ minds. This is conducted by trained psychologists.

The length of the whole process can vary, and it is “based on the involvement of the detainee in terrorism and extremism and also, how well he or she progresses in rehabilitation,” says Gunaratna. “Some people have been released after a few months because they made good progress; others could be in for over five years.”

Does it work?

Singapore’s programme is considered the “gold standard” of terrorist rehabilitation all over the world, says Gunaratna. Governments from South Asia to the Gulf and most recently, even Africa, have sought to emulate the nation’s success. It’s all in the numbers: “From 2001 to 2013, just over 60 terrorists were arrested, and today, only four remain in custody, while two have relapsed,” shares Gunaratna.


Just over 60 terrorists were arrested, and today, only four remain in custody.

However, trans-boundary counterterrorism strategies are going to be just as important as efforts of particular nations. Terrorists are not just operating as singular groups anymore, but networks spanning across countries, he says.

“In the Rohingya areas of Myanmar, it is imperative for the international community to work with Bangladesh and Myanmar to give citizenship to the Rohingyas and make sure that they do not drift towards extremism and terrorism,” remarks Gunaratna. “If governments are unwilling to do this now, in the next one year, we will have a full-blown insurgency in Myanmar.”

Nations must focus on big and small. The big is about working across nations, while the small is about using everything from puppetry to psychological analysis to guide people back into society.

“There may be a very small percentage that you cannot rehabilitate, but I believe that through investing in and developing the right interventions, you can transform people to abandon extremism and embrace peace.”

Image by ICPVTR