Monday, May 11, 2009

Terrorism: Re-arrest of terrorist leader a wake-up call for Singapore and Malaysia

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Mas Selamat Kastari, said to be a leader of the Singapore branch of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), who escaped from a high security detention centre of Singapore on February 27,2008, and had remained undetected since then, is reported to have been traced by the Malaysian police after he had remained in hiding for nearly 14 months and re-arrested. According to media reports quoting the authorities of Singapore and Malaysia, he was found and re-arrested on April 1,2009, in Johor Bahru in Malaysia.

2.In a statement issued on May 8,2009, Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry said: "Mas Selamat has been arrested by the Malaysian Special Branch (MSB) in a joint operation between the MSB and the Internal Security Department (ISD)." Wong Kan Seng, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, who is also in charge of Home Affairs, told the media that the news of the arrest was not announced earlier in the interest of operational secrecy.

3. The Malaysian authorities apparently took the precaution of not announcing his re-arrest in order not to alert other members of the JI, who are still in hiding and for whom they are searching. Moreover, a premature announcement of the arrest might have enabled the JI to destroy evidence relating to the movements and activities of Mas Selamat Kastari since his detention.

4. According to Wong as quoted in the local media, Mas Selamat had swam across the Straits of Johor using an improvised flotation device to escape from the north shore of Singapore after he escaped from the detention centre last year. According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, information about the re-arrest of Mas Selamat on April 1 was first conveyed by the Malaysian authorities to Wong and then he himself was informed by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on April 11,2009, when the two met at Pattaya in Thailand prior to the abandoned ASEAN summit. The summit was abandoned due to disturbances caused by the supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.Prime Minister Lee said that the Singapore authorities had honoured a Malaysian request to keep the information a secret, but the decision to announce it was made after the "Straits Times" had come to know of the re-arrest and started making enquiries about it on May 7.

5. The Malaysian authorities have not announced how and where they managed to trace him and the circumstances under which he was re-arrested. All that is certain till now is that he is still under the custody of the Malaysian Police who are still interrogating him. It is evident from the available details that his re-arrest was made possible by human intelligence derived from the interrogation of some other suspected JI members arrested recently and not from technical intelligence.He was apparently observing communications security.It is reasonable to presume that the Singapore authorities would also be involved in the interrogation. The involvement could be either by deputing a Singapore officer to personally participate in the interrogation or by sending a list of questions of interest to the Singapore authorities for being used by the Malaysian team interrogating him.

6. However close counter-terrorism co-operation between two countries may be, they do not immediately allow officers of another country to join in the interrogation. They prefer to get a questionnaire from the interested State and elicit answers to those questions. When the Americans arrested Hambali of the JI in Ayuthya in Thailand in August 2003, they did not allow the Indonesian police to join in the interrogation for a long time. Similarly, in the interrogation of arrested Al Qaeda suspects having knowledge of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft to Kandahar in December,1999, the Americans avoided associating an Indian officer with the interrogation.

7. Such interrogation of a freshly-arrested or re-arrested terrorist suspect is generally done in three phases.The immediate first phase is devoted to finding out whether the arrested person had any knowledge of impending and imminent terrorist strikes and the identities of those involved in the planning for the strikes so that they could be arrested and the planned terrorist strike thwarted. The fact that there have been no subsequet arrests of a significant nature shows that Mas Selamat was apparently not aware of any impending and imminent strike.

8. The second phase will be devoted to re-tracing his movements and activities since the moment he escaped from the Singapore detention centre. This would help in establishing the identities of those who had helped him in escaping and crossing over and in protecting him after he crossed over. Terrorist organisations usually have two types of sleeper cells---- the operational cells which plan and carry out a terrorist strike and logistics cells which provide the back-up in the form of safe sanctuaries, collection of funds and materials required for the operation etc. The escape of Mas Selamat, his crossing over to Johore Baru and his remaining untraced for 14 months show clearly the presence of a trans-ASEAN network of JI logistics cells, which have not been unearthed by the local authorities so far. Was he remaining in Johore Baru all the time or was he travelling in the region? That should be a question of crucial interest.

9. The third phase will be devoted to establishing in detail how he escaped and remained undetected in order to identify security deficiencies in Singapore and Malaysia, which he exploited to escape and remain underground for 14 months. Two security deficiencies are obvious. The first deficiency arises from the fact that despite the security alert ordered by the Singapore Police he managed to swim across to Johore Baru. How did he get hold of his floatation device? Did he swim across immediately after his escape or did he remain in hiding with a sympathiser in Singapore for some days and cross over after the Police had reduced their alert? This is an important question. Answers to this would show whether there are still untraced logistics cells of the JI in Singapore.

10. The second deficiency arises from the fact that after crossing over he remained undetected by the Malaysian Police for 14 months. Malaysian media reports have alleged that he was arrested in a small Chinese majority town called Skudai in the Johore Baru area. How his arrival and presence there did not raise any suspicion for 14 months? In India, we have the system of village chowkidars (guards) started by the British Police before 1947. An important task of the chowkidar is to alert the police about the arrival of any suspicious person not belonging to the village. Does Malaysia have such a system since it was also under the British? If so, why this system failed?

11. The location and re-arrest of Mas Selamat speaks well of the efficiency and professionalism of the Internal Security Department of Singapore and of the Special Branch of the Malaysian Police. It also speaks disconcertingly of deficiencies in their security procedures of which the JI is aware and which Mas Selamat was able to exploit. (10-5-2009)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

Related i On Global Trends article
:Terrorism: Singapore recaptures leader of Islamic group linked to the 2002 Bali bombings
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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