While the main wing of Al Qaeda based in Pakistan’s tribal areas continues to draw its recruits, volunteers and supporters from the Arabic-speaking residents of West Asia and North Africa, with little command of the English language, its branch based in Yemen known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been drawing its adherents not only from the Arabic-speaking population of the region, but also from the community of Muslims in the English-speaking world who feel more comfortable with English than with Arabic.
Al Qaeda's recently started English web journal called Inspire is directed to the Muslims of the English-speaking world. It will serve the dual purpose of acting as the propaganda journal of AQAP and on line training facility for enabling self-radicalised jihadis in the English-speaking world to acquire expertise in the use of weapons and explosives and techniques of waging a jihad without having to visit the training camps of AQAP in Yemen.
The difficulties hitherto faced by self-radicalised Muslims of the English-speaking world due to their poor command of the Arabic language are sought to be removed through ideological and technical manuals and instructions in the English language.
The idea of propaganda, ideological indoctrination, motivation and self-acquired expertise through the medium of the English language seems to have been inspired by Anwar al- Awlaki, the ideological mentor of the AQAP, who is of US-origin and reportedly feels as comfortable with the English language as he does with Arabic unlike Osama bin Laden, his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders based in Pakistan and Yemen who feel more comfortable with Arabic than with English. Their poor command of English comes in the way of their direct communications with their followers in the English-speaking world.
Under the guidance of Awlaki, the AQAP is seeking to capitalize on the interest of self-radicalised elements in the English-speaking world to take to jihad. An example of such interest has come from Singapore where the local security authorities are reported to have detained for two years under the Internal Security Act a 20-year-old Singaporean Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, who has been described by Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as a full-time national serviceman in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF). He was actually detained on April 4,2010, but his detention has been officially revealed only now.
News agency reports giving the official account of his detention have given the following details of the case: Muhammad Fadil, who was a student in a local polytechnic before joining the SAF, had been surfing the Internet for jihadist propaganda material. It is not known whether he continued his Internet search for jihadi material even after joining the SAF. Most probably, he did. It is possible his interest in jihadi material had not come to notice before he joined the SAF. Otherwise, if it had come to notice even then, he might not have been taken into the SAF on a full-time basis.
According to the news agency accounts, he got radicalized through the Internet, convinced himself of his religious obligation as a Muslim to join other radicalized Muslims for an armed jihad and established online contact with Awlaki and expressed his wish to join him in his jihad. He was also reported to have contacted through the Internet an Al Qaeda recruiter whose identity has not been indicated by the Singapore authorities. He collected material on bomb-making through his Internet search and produced and posted a video justifying suicide bombing.
According to Singapore’s MHA, as reported by the news agencies, Muhammad Fadil did not undertake nor did he have any plans to undertake jihad-related activities in Singapore. He intended to pursue such activities in places like Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.
In response to media queries, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) has stated that Muhammad Fadil was a trainee undergoing section leader training in the Pasir Laba Camp at the time of his arrest. He attended but did not complete his polytechnic course prior to his enlistment for national service in September 2009.
According to the MHA, two other Singaporeans have been placed under Restriction Orders (RO) for two years from June 23, 2010. One of them is 44-year-old Muhammad Anwar Jailani, who has been described as an unaccredited religious teacher. He had distributed to his students, contacts and the general public numerous copies of CDs containing audio recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki's lectures, which called on Muslims to undertake militant jihad against non-Muslims and other "enemies" of Islam. The other is 27-year-old Muhammad Thahir Shaik Dawood. He runs a small business and is one of Muhammad Anwar's students who became radicalised mainly through his influence. Muhammad Thahir had allegedly travelled to Yemen to enrol in an educational institution run by an associate of Osama bin Laden. He also sought out Anwar al-Awlaki and other radicals with a view to participating in armed jihad overseas if the opportunity presented itself. While still in Yemen, he began to have second thoughts about the wisdom of undertaking an armed jihad, gave up his idea and returned to Singapore.
There are some loose-ends in the official account as given by the Singapore authorities. Some questions remain unanswered. Was Muhammad Fadil connected to these two individuals? When and how Muhammad Anwar developed interest in Awlaki? Was it also through the Internet or whether Awlaki’s men have been visiting Singapore? Did the authorities come to know of Muhammad Fadil’s self-radicalisation and interest in Awlaki independently even before Muhammad Thahir returned to Singapore and was questioned by the authorities or did Thahir tell them about Fadil during his questioning.
The case speaks well of the alertness of the Singapore intelligence and security authorities and their ability to detect radicalizing trends before they assume threatening proportions. At the same time, it should be a matter of concern that despite the prosperity of the Muslim community of Singapore and the interest taken by the authorities in promoting their welfare, there are elements which are amenable to extra-territorial indoctrination and inclined to take to jihad. Despite the confidence of the local authorities that Fadil wanted to wage jihad abroad and not in Singapore, one should not lose sight of attempts being made by the AQAP to recruit Muslims who can travel freely across the Western world and use them for acts of terrorism against the West similar to its attempts to blow up an American plane over Detroit in the US on Christmas Day by using a Nigerian student studying in London with a valid visa for the US.
Since 2001, Al Qaeda has shown an interest in organizing an act of terrorism in Singapore against a US ship touching at the local port similar to the attack on USS Cole at Aden in October 2000. Self-radicalised volunteers like Fadil would come in handy for such operations. Self-radicalised elements in the Singapore Muslim community may not have any grievance against the Singapore Government and may not let themselves be used by Al Qaeda against Singaporean targets, but they could be brain-washed by Al Qaeda to undertake operations against US or other Western targets in Singapore territory.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.