In September 11, 2001, a series of coordinated attacks through hijacked planes by Islamic extremist group Al-Qaeda against the United States takes place, resulting in the deadliest terrorist attack in history. Close to 3,000 lives perished on that day.
In the same month, plans to attack embassies and other Western-linked institutions in Singapore were being carried out and almost came to fruition in December 2001.
The planned attack consisted of mounting six truck bombs, each with three tonnes of ammonium nitrate to simultaneously attack six US-linked locations in Singapore.
For comparison, the truck bomb which brought down the World Trade Centre building in Oklahoma City in 1995 was rigged with two to three tones of ammonium nitrate.
The attack was thwarted after a local tip off to the Internal Security Department (ISD) resulted in the arrests of the terrorists involved.
Attack targets in Singapore
Singaporean members of a radical, regional Islamic group called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) had been planning a series of suicide bomb attacks in Singapore, guided by foreigners from Al-Qaeda.
The earliest plans to attack targets in Singapore date back to the mid-1990s, long before the events of September 2001. Preparations for attacks intensified after the US twin towers attack.
The plans were:
- Plan 1 - Mount multiple truck-bombs against US-related targets
- Plan 2 - Attack US personnel in shuttle buses at Yishun MRT station
- Plan 3 - Attack US naval vessels and personnel
- Plan 4 - Attack US assets/personnels at Paya Lebar Airbase
- Plan 5 - Attack Singapore American School and US/Israeli companies
- Plan 6 - Attack key installations in Singapore
Of the 6 plans, three were relatively well-developed and operationally ready to be carried out. They were Plan 1, Plan 2, and Plan 3.
In making these plans, JI members relied heavily on video-reconnaissance of the targets, usually making recordings over several visits.
The JI also considered several other Singapore targets for the attack but did not proceed beyond the reconnaissance stage:
- Water pipelines (Bukit Timah Nature Reserve - Hindhede Road, Johor-Woodlands Causeway, PUB Woodlands Water Booster Station, Bukit Panjang Service Reservoir - Fajar Road, and Bukit Timah Water Works - opposite Kandang Kerbau Hospital)
- Changi Airport and Biggin Hill radar station
- Mindef Headquarters at Bukit Gombar
- Various MRT stations including the Operations Control Centre
- Jurong Island
- Ministry of Education HQ at North Buona Vista Drive
In one particular plan, JI member Syed Ibrahim reportedly tailed a Mindef officer in late 2001 from the ministry's Bukit Gombak headquarters all the way to Tampines, presumably where the officer resides.
The plan was to evaluate the feasibility of placing explosives in the officer's car and detonating them while the car entrered the headquarters.
Planning the attack
After the twin towers attack on September 11, 2001, Malaysian JI leader Faiz Bin Abu Bakar Bafana (Faiz) contacted his brother Fathi Abu Bakar Bafana (Fathi) to link up with Singaporean JI members Ellias, Adnan and Nazir to assist a foreign "friend" code-named "Mike" - later identified as Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian bomb-maker.
"Mike" met with all three Singaporean JI members and instructed them to assist another Al-Qaeda operative code-named "Sammy" in a terrorist plan.
Sammy was later identified as Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, a Canadian-Arab. He was the liaison person between Al-Qaeda and Southeast Asian operatives.
The plan to mount muliple truck-bombs against US-related targets was the most developed and determined plan by JI and was scheduled to be carried out in December 2001 or January 2002.
In October 2001, Sammy arrived in Singapore from Kuala Lumpur and met the Singaporean JI members along with Mike. The meeting took place near a hotel in Newton area and subsequently at a secluded carpark in Marina South to discuss the plan.
Sammy's plan was to use six truck-bombs to attack the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy and the US naval bases in Singapore, and from the suggestions of the Singaporean JI members, the Australian and British High Commission as well as several commercial buildings housing American companies.
Pictured: Handwritten notes on bomb-making were seized during the arrest of a Singapore JI member.
Singaporean JI members will be tasked with conducting reconnaissance and setting up the logistics while Sammy would bring his own people down to Singapore to rig the bombs at a secured warehouse.
The Singaporean JI members will then leave Singapore when another batch of foreigners (believed to be Arabs) will arrive in the city state just a day before the planned attack to drive the trucks and carry out the bombings.
The attack was to be effected between 8am and 10am.
The Singaporean JI members were paid a total of USD 11,000 (paid in two batches) to cover expenses incurred in their preparations.
After the meeting, Mike tasked Ellias to obtain 17 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical substitute for TNT.
Ellias subsequently managed to locate a friend who could procure the chemical required.
However, Ellias was arrested by ISD on 9th December 2001 before he could complete the purchase, after a local tip-off.
Adnan and Nazir were also arrested along with several other JI members.
Mike, however, managed to avoid arrest.
Attack almost got carried out
Despite the arrests of the Singaporean JI members, those that got away met up with Malaysian JI members in Johor to plan another attack in retaliation for the ISD arrests.
Some of the Singaporean JI members lost confidence and decided to flee Singapore but the JI leadership persisted with the plan and scheduled it for April or May 2002.
Mike subsequently procured 6 tonnes of TNT in the Philippines, paid for a first instalment of 1.2 tonnes and was seeking to pick up more funds from JI leaders in Malaysia to pay for the remaining 4.8 tonnes.
The explosives were to be smuggled by sea from Mindanao Island in the Philippines to Manado in Indonesia and then to Malaysia and finally via the Johor causeway to Singapore.
On 15 January 2002, Mike was arrested before he was to board a plane from Manila to Bangkok, en-route to Kuala Lumpur. He was sentenced to 17 years in jail for his role in planning and financing a series of bombings in Manila.
The bombings occurred on December 30, 2000, resulting in the deaths of 22 people.
Mike escaped from jail in July 2003 and in October of the same year, he was killed in a police shootout in Mindanao.
ISD noted that if Mike had not been arrested, the plan would have been pursued and developed to fruition.
Terror threat to S'pore remains high; self-radicalisation through the internet presents a big risk
Although there is currently no specific or credible intelligence that points to an imminent terrorist attack on Singapore, the ISD noted that it had averted terrorist attacks by two Singaporean youths who were targeting places of worship here.
Today, the speed and extent of reach in the digital era have led to the Singaporean government to formulate new strategies to ensure individuals here are not easily self-radicalised.
Teo Chee Hean, who is Coordinating Minister for National Security, noted that in 2001 and earlier, violent extremist groups had to form cells, travel and gather for indoctrination and training to plan and execute attacks.
Today, however, individuals can be influenced online through what they saw and who they interacted with on the internet.
"The Internet creates more opportunities for individuals to be radicalised through the 'echo chamber' effect," he explained. "The Internet has also accelerated the process of radicalisation from a few years to a few months - even a matter of days in some cases."
"This has sped up the timeline for conducting attacks, particularly those by lone wolves, making it more challenging for security agencies to detect and pre-empt them."
Teo called on family members, friends, colleagues and schoolmates to help "sound the alert" on individuals drawn to exclusivist and violent ideology. Referring them as early as possible to counsellors and to the security agencies can save them from doing harm to themselves and others, he said.
Teo also stressed that an attack may occur when least expected, and before security forces arrive, Singaporeans must be ready to save themselves and those around them.
"Every Singaporean matters in the fight against terrorism," he said. "The engagement and partnership with the community to counter terrorism is a continuous work in progress, and we can do even better."