MAS SELAMAT: PLAY IT DOWN, PLAY IT COOL
INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR--PAPER NO. 376
The Singapore security authorities have not yet been able to trace Mas Selamat Kastari, a detenu under the Internal Security Act, who belonged to the Jemaah Islamiya (JI). He escaped from custody in the well-guarded Whitley Road Detention Centre on February 27,2008, while being escorted to the place inside the centre where normally relatives of detenus are allowed to meet the detenus in the presence of the guards of the centre. He reportedly went to the toilet and managed to escape from there.
2. The news of his escape has received very little publicity in Pakistan. The local newspapers have carried a brief report on the subject disseminated by Reuters and other well-known news agencies. The journals and web sites of the jihadi organisations---including those of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET)--- have not referred to the incident. There has been no reference to it in the sermons in the mosques controlled by these organisations.
3. Accounts and pictures of the man-hunt for Selamat carried by the local media in Singapore and the region and analysis of the implications of the escape by local analysts are imparting to the incident an ominous colour, which could prove counter-productive. The Singapore authorities have valid reasons to be concerned over the escape and over likely deficiencies in the physical security that probably made the escape possible.
4. While taking action to trace him and to enquire into the possible deficiencies, they should refrain from actions and remarks which tend to impart a totally unwarranted catastrophic dimension to the incident. They should project the incident as the escape of a criminal and avoid giving him an image, which they might later on find it difficult to destroy. In counter-terrorism, the images imparted to terrorists by the security agencies and non-governmental analysts are often more difficult to destroy than the terrorists themselves.
5. In response to my earlier article on the subject titled "Singapore's Rashid Rauf", I have been in receipt of a number of comments--- some from readers in Pakistan. These comments raise some interesting questions. They say that the Whitley Road Detention Centre uses closed-circuit TV and other technical gadgets for strengthening physical security. According to them, the escape of Selamat from inside the centre indicates that the CCTV had probably failed. Was it a technical failure or an induced failure? If it was an induced failure, who induced it? If it turns out to be an induced failure, the implications could be worrisome.Some of these comments also show that there is no dearth of conspiracy theories. One such theory alleges that he must have died due to torture either by the Singapore or US authorities and that attempts were now being made to cover it up by saying that he has escaped from custody. Such practices are frequent in Pakistan. All such theories would die down once he is traced.
6. Singapore is a small place with not much scope for an escaped criminal to hide in the wild or in the bushes or in a cave or in any such place. Most probably, he might have taken shelter in an enclosed space such as inside a mosque or a house or a hotel. The Singapore authorities should enlist the co-operation of the local Muslim community in tracing him. They should be assured that if any of them had given him shelter without realising the implications of their action, a lenient view of their action would be taken if they tip off the police. A discreet drill for this purpose should be devised so that the person who reports about his presence does not face a physical threat from Selamat or other members of the community.
7. A threat to a Muslim helping the Police could be not only physical, but also social in the form of social ostracisation by co-religionists. This has to be handled with great care and sensitivity. (3-3-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )