On 12 September, the Straits Times reported that a Malaysian man has taken his Singaporean family to participate in the Syrian civil war. It is an inevitable development of globalisation and the evolution of terrorism. It is becoming increasingly easier for people to identify with extremist ideologies across the Internet, use information communication technologies to link up with terrorists of varying stripes, and use the global transportation network to travel to war zones. Britain, Australia and the United States have also seen their citizens signing on with extremists in the Middle East. As these new recruits gain expertise and experience overseas, the question is: what will they do when they come home?
The age of the global guerilla is coming. The global guerilla is an individual who uses the technologies of globalisation to undermine it. He connects with fellow believers over the Internet, learning the tips of the trade and making connections, then travels to conflict zones using air transportation and linking up with contacts on the ground. At the most basic level, he participates in a war that has little to do with his country, then returns home armed with skills and experience, and possibly a network of fellow believers, spreading the war elsewhere. More strategic guerillas will identify and target the complex structures that underpin society, such as energy, food, transportation. In 2013, for instance, unknown gunmen fired upon power transformers in Silicon Valley, knocking out an electrical substation. The intention is to use attacks to trigger failure cascades with long-lasting effects, which can include knocking out the power grid through attacking transformers, shutting down an oil refinery by blowing up the pipes, or sparking a food crisis by infecting crops with disease.
The hallmark of the global guerillas is their blend of high technology, low profile and smart targeting. They will use technology to make plans, link up with contacts, recce targets, and find reference material. They know that the intelligence services of the world will use technology to track them, so they will do everything they can to avoid being detected, such as repurposing household goods, staying off the Internet, using cash and open-source encryption, and remaining quiet. The technologies and infrastructure of globalisation are so complex that disruptions to goods and services at the local level will have knock-on effects at the regional, national and international level. This combination leads the global guerilla to employ cheap, almost undetectable attacks with a very high return on investment.
The state can’t be everywhere at once. A state that is sufficiently large to protect everywhere at once is a state likely to be paralyzed by its own bureaucracy. While there is value in obtaining and exploiting intelligence, global guerillas get to choose the time and place of attack. As the actor, they need merely wait until security profiles are reduced in a given target before striking. As the reactor, the state must constantly play catch-up.
Singapore is especially vulnerable. Singapore’s economy rests heavily on entrepôt trade. A huge number of maritime and aerial trade routes must by necessity cut through the borders of multiple states, and pass through the no-man’s land of international airspace and waters. No single state can guarantee security in this complex geopolitical environment, and even a regional partnership will have to overcome a great deal of political friction before it can begin operations. Despite the police’s best efforts, it is difficult if not impossible to secure the coastline and beaches from unauthorised intrusion 24/7. Singapore needs to import almost all of its food and water supplies from overseas, opening multiple avenues of attack — consider the impact of introducing crop diseases to food imports, or salmonella to random food suppliers. Consider also the possibility of a Uighur terrorist trademark: driving a large vehicle to run down and crush pedestrians, then jump out and stab everybody in sight.
I think it’s a question of when, not if, Singapore experiences a catastrophic terrorist attack. It would likely come in the form of either a homegrown extremist, operating solo or as a small cell, or a party of global guerillas who have received training overseas and have likely seen combat. Such a catastrophic attack would target the above-mentioned risk areas, potentially causing mass casualties, loss of core income and business, and disruption of critical services.
I also think it’s not feasible to rely solely on the state. While I’m confident the security services will do their best to secure Singapore against terrorism, the global guerilla holds every advantage. The authorities might have detected the jihadi family mentioned in the Straits Times report, but they might not be the only extremists out here. It is a sad truism that one does not know what one does not know, and that in the field of intelligence and counterterrorism, you can’t be certain of your victories. Only of your failures, in the wake of mass deaths.
It is easy to say that the solution is community outreach, countering extremist ideologies through dialogues and press releases, and to use social engineering techniques to paint terrorism in a negative light. This approach may even work, as pat of an integrated strategy. However, for as long as there will be diehard trolls on the Internet, there will be people who will not respond to the soft touch of reason and rhetoric. If a wannabe extremist chooses not to respond to dialogue, especially if said extremist is in the wild instead of in a cell, and if the state cannot catch him in time, count on his attack to succeed.
The global guerilla is a super-empowered individual who utilises loose networks and technology to execute his attacks. To counter him, it’s often wise to study and adapt his techniques.
The global guerilla seeks to create failure cascades. These cascades are possible through a lack of resilience or antifragility. The answer, therefore, is to develop resilience and antifragility. This means learning critical survival skills; stockpiling food, water, batteries and medicine; having a network of friends you can count on; and developing the awareness and self-defence skills necessary to detect, avoid, evade or defeat an attack in progress. At the community level, it means developing contacts, learning emergency protocols and skills, building up trust, and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.
It is fine and well to talk about preventing terrorism and countering terrorist ideology, and indeed many commentators have written at length about such things. However, one also has to have a plan for the possibility that these approaches will fail, that the global guerilla will be able to execute an attack. The question, then, is how to structure your life so that even in the event of a catastrophic attack, the individual and the community can pick up the pieces and resume daily life as soon as possible.