chapter  24
11 Pages

The changing face of Al Qaeda and the global war on terrorism: Bruce Hoffman


The plots were textbook Al Qaeda, even if the would-be perpetrators were not. Hijack a jet plane loaded with ordinary travelers and deliberately crash it into the tower of a prominent local landmark. Simultaneously dispatch multiple truck bombs to destroy embassies and other diplomatic facilities. Use a small boat laden with explosives to sink a large, powerful warship. Each reprised an infamous Al Qaeda operation: 9/11, the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole-but in this case all the attacks were to take place in Singapore. Moreover, the plotters were not battle-hardened mujahideen (“holy warriors”) who had cut their teeth fi ghting Egypt’s security forces or against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Nor were they the usual Al Qaeda cadre favored for such spectacular operations: young, Arab males, mostly from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the Gulf, whose background, family ties, and bona fi des inspired the trust and confi dence of that movement’s senior leadership. Rather, they were an utterly unremarkable group of middle-aged Singaporeans. Some were married and some were single. Some were businessmen with university-level degrees, whereas others were cab drivers or janitors. What they did have in common was a profoundly deep devotion to their Muslim faith alongside an allconsuming hatred of the United States and the West. They had acquired both convictions not as impressionable youths either as students in madressehs (Islamic schools) or worshippers in radical mosques, but comparatively late in life by attending small meetings and religious sessions held in the living rooms and kitchens of the ubiquitous high-rise apartments that dot Singapore. They were therefore likely regarded by the infamous KSM-Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the bin Laden lieutenant to whom their cell circuitously reported-as the “ultimate fi fth column,” whose age, background, and Asian-as opposed to Arab-appearance were calculated to allay rather than arouse the suspicions of domestic and foreign security and intelligence offi ces alike. The fact that many of the cell’s members came from the traditionally moderate, English-speaking, expatriate community of Malabari Indian Muslims long resident in Singapore was an added bonus. Indeed, KSM and the group’s other controllers would likely have known that although Singapore’s highly effi cient Internal Security Department would have kept close watch over newer immigrants and the more radicalized communities among that city-state’s large Malay-speaking Muslim population, they might have paid less attention to such groups as the well-established Malabaris.3