A Jihadi Limps Away from a Singapore Jail, Asia Sentinel, 29 Feb 2008

In the murky world of counter-terrorism, things are often not as they seem. So the reported escape from Singaporean custody of the alleged local leader of Jemaah Islamiyah raises some questions that may be hard to answer any time soon.

On the face of it, tightly-run Singapore has egg on its face for allowing Mas Salamat Kastari to escape from the infamous Whitley Road Detention center, apparently walking away from a toilet – or limping, since government releases describe him as walking with an impaired gait. He is still on the run despite what is described as a “massive manhunt” that includes Gurkhas, police and Special Operations Command Forces.

The Singapore government took the unusual step of apologizing for the lax security and began an investigation. According to media reports, all sourced from the government, Mas is likely to head for Indonesia, where it would be easier to hide than in small, mostly Chinese, Singapore, although hiding might be difficult anywhere because of his limp.

A Singapore citizen, Mas was arrested in Indonesia and sent back to Singapore, allegedly for plotting in 2001 to bomb the US Embassy, the American Club and Singapore government buildings. He was not put on trial but detained indefinitely under the Internal Security Act (ISA) so the details and credibility of these charges has never been tested in open court.

What astonished students of Singapore security operations is that he could have escaped at all. There appears to be no record of anyone previously escaping from the Whitley Road center, which is not guarded by ordinary jailers or bored national servicemen but by the ultra-tough, non-political Nepalese Gurkha soldiers whom Singapore retains to protect key personnel and institutions.

While no one doubts the existence of actual or would-be terror groups in Southeast Asia, Singapore’s role in the counter-terrorism business has long been viewed with some suspicion by its neighbors. First, it cooperates very closely with the US, even “rendering” suspects for detention in Guantanamo and elsewhere. It also has a history of playing up Malay/Muslim threats for domestic political purposes and to emphasize its position as a non-Muslim nation in an Islamic sea.

Some conspiracy theorists think they see a link between the timing of Mas Salamat’s escape and the visit to Indonesia of US Defense Secretary Gates.

Previous incidents involving Singapore and alleged Muslim terrorists have prompted questions that are likely to remain unanswered but are relevant given Singapore’s record of using the ISA against critics of all kinds, who usually “confess” to conspiracies as a condition of release. In the past the technique was used against “Chinese chauvinists” and “Marxists” – the latter in some cases being Catholic activists who confessed to, among other things, having sent books to China, which logically could have been considered a laudable attempt to turn communists into capitalists.

The most recent round of Muslim arrests included that of a 28-year-old Singaporean Malay law student who was rendered to Singapore from an unnamed Middle East country where he allegedly had gone to study Arabic and to embark on a jihadist career. The student, a former rock singer named Abdul Basheer, is described by Singaporean authorities as a “self-radicalized” terror suspect. He was arrested in February 2007 and is held without trial under the ISA.

Doubts about whether Basheer did anything more than look at a few jihadist websites were strengthened by the announcement at almost the same time that five persons earlier arrested as JI activists had been released. The government claimed huge success for its rehabilitation program and so the five were said to “no longer pose a security threat.” Not only did that appear an extraordinarily rapid conversion but for a nation which executes people for drug trafficking offences an extraordinarily light punishment for terrorist activity.

The large counterterrorism industry thrives on rumor and speculation as well as fact. One example was in 2002 at the height of post-9/11 hysteria when Malaysia was being accused of being an al-Qaeda base. Considerable international coverage was given to a huge story, supported by documents and other “evidence” in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, about an Indonesian terror network. Indonesia’s Tempo, a publication long noted for its independence and investigative credentials, looked at the allegations in detail and found that key names and places in the Straits Times story were fictitious.

So although Mas’s escape may be simply a matter of incompetence, the history of arrests, releases, confessions, renderings and imprisonment without trial in Guantanamo as well as Singapore, inevitably raises doubts about whether the story so far is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.