SINGAPORE – The police and some churches in Singapore have bolstered security measures for the Easter weekend, in the light of a suicide attack on an Indonesian church on Sunday (March 28) as well as two foiled terror plots in the Republic in recent months.
The authorities and experts said there were no signs of the extremist group behind the attack in Indonesia – the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) – posing an immediate threat to Singapore.
But they stressed the continued importance of community vigilance against the spectre of the “lone wolf” actor.
The attackers in Indonesia were a married couple who tried to enter a Catholic cathedral’s compound on a motorcycle as a mass was ending on Palm Sunday – the start of Holy Week celebrated by Christians, leading up to Good Friday and Easter this Sunday.
They were stopped by church security at the gate before detonating a bomb that injured 19 and killed themselves.
In March, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said security in places of worship may have to be stepped up, the same day the Internal Security Department (ISD) announced that it had detained a 20-year-old Muslim for planning to kill Jews. This was weeks after a Christian teenager was picked up for a plan to target mosques.
A Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) spokesman told The Straits Times the police have already enhanced patrols at places of worship during this Easter period, and will continue to ensure emergency forces can reach any location as quickly as possible should there be an incident.
Places of worship have also been reminded to review their security measures and contingency plans.
Mr Lawrence Jeremiah, who oversees security at the Church of the Holy Spirit, has increased the number of wardens in his team by four, from the usual 17.
“These four will not do anything except eyeball every parishioner who comes into the church,” said the retired armed forces member.
The Catholic Church of Singapore said in a statement to ST that it has advised its churches to keep a heightened vigilance, with some parishes to perform random bag checks.
The National Council of Churches noted that Covid-19 measures have brought an added level of security, with worshippers having to register or buy tickets online due to a 250-person cap on congregation sizes. They also have to undergo SafeEntry check-in at limited entry points.
Mr Yaniv Peretz, whose international security consulting firm Lorin provides counter-terrorism advice to places of worship, said one way to minimise their vulnerability as “soft” targets is to constantly monitor social media feeds or online forums. The presence of hate groups or threatening posts would then show sentiments that may pose a possible threat, he said.
The MHA spokesman said there is no specific intelligence at this juncture that an attack in Singapore was being planned by the JAD group, which is loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In 2019, three Indonesian women became the first foreign domestic workers in Singapore to be detained by the ISD for donating funds to advance JAD and ISIS causes. They were later jailed for financing terrorism.
Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said JAD remains heavily Indonesia-centric. “The more likely concern locally would be the possibility of low-tech knife attacks by lone actors.”
The two recently-thwarted terror attacks in Singapore are a case in point, he said.
The 20-year-old had planned to use a knife and the teenager, a machete.
This Easter, congregations should keep in mind the national counter-terror movement SGSecure’s mantra of staying vigilant. “The idea is to remain alert but not alarmed,” he said.
MHA reiterated the critical role played by the community as “eyes and ears on the ground”.
Senior pastor Christopher Chia said his Adam Road Presbyterian Church would be reminding congregants to be more watchful.
The Catholic Church said it is also key to spot disordered and radical behaviour within its own ranks, noting: “Terrorism is an ideology of self-serving dissent that can come from violent elements in any religious organisation.”
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