Small Wars Journal

The Role of Police and Military Special Forces in Counter-terrorism Efforts in Cities

Sat, 11/02/2019 - 11:15am

The Role of Police and Military Special Forces in Counter-terrorism Efforts in Cities

Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman


“…Singapore is like a large ripe durian – hard and thorny on the outside but rich and creamy on the inside.” (Rappa, 2018)

The special forces of the Singapore Police Force (SPF) such as the Special Tactics and Rescue (STAR), and of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) such as the Special Operations Task Force (SOTF), constitute an important part of the “hard and thorny” armour – the Singapore security forces – that protects the “inside” – people, economy and infrastructure – of the city-state. Global cities such as Singapore are “rich and creamy” as the concentration of human and economic activities there make them target-rich environments. Globalisation and growing population sizes are making cities increasingly strategic as targets for domestic and international terrorists who operate in non-conflict zones. Cities represent the values and systems such as democracy, capitalism and western liberalism that terrorists perceive as corrupt and abhorrent. Urban attacks by lone wolf terrorists – such as Cherif Chekaff who gunned down several victims in the French city of Strasbourg in December 2018 – and by international terrorist groups – such as the Islamic State (IS) linked cell that coordinated the Paris attacks in November 2015 – demonstrated that cities feature significantly as battlespaces in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT).

Given the heightened terrorist threat, the police forces of global cities are beefing up their special forces units by adopting more militarised approaches in weaponry, tactics, culture, and organisation even as they increase the level of cooperation with the state’s armed forces. This civil-military integration in homeland security is present in Singapore where the police force and the army are conducting more joint patrols in public places besides key installations (KINS), and the Army is training more soldiers for peacetime operations (Loh, 2018). The Police has established the In-Situ Reaction Teams (IRTs) and Rapid Deployment Troops (RDTs), which comprise elite police officers who would qualify as special forces as they have been “specially trained, equipped and supported” to achieve the “political and military imperative” of neutralising terrorists (McRaven, 1996, p. 2). Also, the police force is increasing the use of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies such as aerial drones and ground robots to detect, deter and monitor potential security threats. The enhanced counter-terrorism (CT) capabilities of the police force, specifically special forces units and ISR technologies, to a notable extent mirror the armed forces’ application of special forces and drones in conflict zones such as in Afghanistan and Yemen to track and kill militants.

The militarisation of homeland security will continue as the state and its cities need to provide an effective response to the unceasing threat of global terrorism. However, it is important for security agencies to understand that the application of militarised methods such as special forces in civilian environments and particularly in democratic societies can have profound implications. While militarisation aims to provide the necessary firepower and finesse to stop terrorists and hence assure the people, it can also create political concerns and affect the people’s perception of security forces. This paper will explore some of the implications that may stem from militarisation and specifically the application of special forces – police and armed forces – in homeland security. Firstly, the paper will summarise the concept of militarisation. Secondly, the paper will explain the important role and theory of special forces in homeland security. Finally, the paper will summarise two key implications that can stem from the application of special forces in the civilian environment of cities.

The Militarisation of Homeland Security[i]

The understanding of militarisation is inalienable from the analysis of special forces in homeland security because the former is a multi-dimensional process that creates the necessary conditions for the latter to function. Essentially, militarisation is like a coin. On one side, it is a state-driven process where the ideology that emphasises the application of force or threat of force to address emergent or potential security challenges becomes more central to civilian policing strategies. The public display of military equipment and behavior such as paramilitary police uniforms, heavy weaponry, and hypermasculinity during patrols and police roadshows, as well as joint patrols with soldiers, are but superficial aspects of militarisation. More importantly, the fundamental aspect of militarisation is the inclusion of military dimensions – equipment and technology, culture, command and control (C2), and standard operational procedures (SOP) into the overall organisation of the police force (Kraska, 2007, p. 3).

These dimensions manifest at the operational level in the forms of additional police training and functions such as simulations of low intensity conflicts (LIC), the use of aerial drones and ground robots for ISR, and the increase in the numbers of police units and officers who are equipped with military skills and weapons for special law enforcement missions (Graham, 2010, p. 98). At the policy level, the state may amend existing laws to enable the police force to employ special forces tactics and reduce legal barriers that inhibit the deployment of the armed forces in cities to support the police force. For example, a significant move towards the militarisation of Singapore’s homeland security was first seen in 2007 when the government amended the SAF Act to legitimise the use of armed forces including military special forces “for land operations in aid of civilian authorities” (Rappa, 2011, p. 68). Further militarisation happened in 2018 when the government passed the Public Order and Safety (Special Powers) Bill 2018, which “enables the Police to protect the secrecy of tactical operations” to avoid the missteps that hampered security operations during the Mumbai attacks in 2008 (MHA, 2018).

While militarisation serves as the “hard” solution to contemporary security challenges, the police force needs to achieve a balance with community policing strategies, which serve as “soft” solutions that democratic societies require. Unlike in wars where the prime objective is “the defeat of the enemy” through “the destruction of his forces” (Clausewitz, 1989, pp. 226 – 229), the objective of the police force is to protect the people and preserve the peace. One scenario that rationalises the paradoxical use of both “hard” and “soft” solutions, for example, would entail taking the first step of applying military methods to restore security by clearing problematic urban neighborhoods of its violent criminal groups. The second step would involve deploying regular police officers to apply community policing strategies in maintaining security and rebuilding the neighborhoods (Kraska, 2007, p. 9). While such a scenario has never happened in Singapore in the recent decades, the stationing of police’s special forces – Emergency Response Team (ERT) officers who possess special skills and weapons to counter terrorists – at local police precincts indicates a certain level of militarisation in neighborhood policing (Hassan, 2016).

The other side of the coin is driven by the threat actors such as international terrorist groups, which consider attacks that their international operatives, returning foreign terrorist fighter (FTFs) and homegrown terrorists conduct in cities in non-conflict zones – to maximize civilian casualties and gain global media coverage – as central to their grand strategy to undermine governments and radically change the existing social, economic and political orders. Cities, therefore, become battlespaces because the infrastructure and people who work and live there have become both sources of threats and targets especially after the occurrence of actual terrorist attacks (Graham, 2010, p. XIII). The lines between war and peace have blurred as terrorists imagine that they are soldiers fighting a holy or ideological war while city-dwellers in non-conflict zones do not see themselves as existing in a state of war or at least a conventional war. Nevertheless, the high impact of terrorist attacks is driving the state and its cities to adopt the militarisation of homeland security as a response to the terrorists’ militarisation of cities. The constant state of physical and psychological readiness that the police force and the people – as advocated by programmes such as SG Secure - are required to exercise inadvertently normalizes the military culture of always being prepared to defend against attacks, and this, therefore “naturalizes a state of permanent war” (Graham, 2010, p. 60). War has come to cities not in the conventional sense but as the cities’ response to the warlike culture – ideology and beliefs – and military tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) of terrorists. The GWOT has made cities “the strategic high ground” that would determine “the course of future events in the world” and therefore “asymmetric warfare in urban areas will be the greatest challenge” in homeland security (Graham, 2010, p. 19).

Role and Theory of Special Forces in Homeland Security

Counter-terrorism (CT) efforts in the cities in non-conflict zones constitute a significant pillar in the GWOT as terrorist groups such as IS and Al Qaeda need to maintain their relevance and influence even as they sustain tactical and territorial losses in conflict zones. Furthermore, the “soft” targets in cities at the strategic level provide terrorist groups with the capability and opportunity to retaliate against governments and therefore achieve a certain kind of balance of power between terrorist groups and states (e.g. Global Coalition against ISIL) that are fighting the terrorists. Indeed, CT is a form of asymmetric warfare as terrorists aim for cities to attain relative superiority – overcoming military inferiority through indirect confrontation - over states that have superior tactical capabilities in the conventional battlefields (Howard, 2006, p. 385). The fundamental characteristics that define cities, particularly the large population sizes and physical features, impose tactical difficulties on CT efforts – intelligence and interdiction – hence rendering operations to detect and deny of terrorists more challenging (Kelvin, 2015, p. 4). Furthermore, unlike in a conventional battlefield and like insurgents, terrorists can blend into the population during the attack preparation and hostile surveillance phases, and only emerge during the attack phase.

Current CT efforts by domestic and external security agencies are driving terrorists to move further underground and to evolve their TTPs, and processes for recruitment, logistical preparations, and financing. After all, terrorists are fighting the long war and time is on their side. For example, terrorists have demonstrated that they are amenable to leveraging criminal networks – such as contraband cigarette syndicates - that span global cities to attain funds and smuggle “arms and explosives to carry out attacks in Singapore” (Rappa, 2016). By “going underground in a globalised world”, terrorists would have the time and space to surface in any global city and “at any time” to carry out attacks (Rappa, 2011, p. 104). One scenario is the possibility of terrorists, especially clean skins, undertaking the strategy of occupying “positions of trust” as “buried sleeping agents”. This strategy would enable terrorists to achieve a higher chance of success in undermining the state by conducting massive or persistent urban attacks. This strategy is possible as Islamist organisations with caliphate aspirations such as Hizbut Tahrir have espoused the strategy of occupying positions of power – to launch military coups for example – to incite regime change (Counter Extremism Project, (n.d.)).

It is important to note that this strategy would fit well in the long-term plans of terrorist groups, which have their origins as irregular forces that prioritise the use of unconventional methods. The vanguard of the current wave of global Jihadi terrorism, Al Qaeda (AQ), had begun “as a special operations task force” to gradually infiltrate the “far enemy” and launch the 9/11 attacks from the inside (Fishman, 2016. p. 72). Given the subterfuge and unconventional methods that underlie the strategies of terrorist groups, CT efforts require “highly efficient and sophisticated intelligence and law enforcement operations (Howard, 2006, p. 385), and this is a domain where police and military special forces can play an integral role. The role of special forces is not only limited to countering terrorist threats from non-state actors such as IS or AQ but also terror tactics that adversarial state actors may employ in geopolitical rivalries. Regular forces may not be able to stop the plans of adversarial state actors that employ their special forces to carry out terror tactics. A Singapore example is the bombing of the Macdonald House in 1965 – before Singapore had credible armed forces and special forces - that was conducted by Indonesian soldiers from the Komando Pasukan Khusus (KOPASSUS) (Rappa, 2011, p. 69).

Special forces have the means (material factors) and will (moral factors) to perform two crucial missions to protect cities from urban terrorist attacks because of their capabilities in asymmetric warfare, which regular police officers and soldiers do not possess. Underlying these capabilities is the fact that special forces are “specially trained, equipped and supported for a specific target” and special operations include “psychological operations, civil affairs, and reconnaissance” (McRaven, 1996, p. 2). Underlying these capabilities is also the six principles that buttress successful special operations: simplicity, security, surprise, speed, repetition, and purpose. Special forces take these six principles into account when undertaking the planning, preparation, and execution of special operations. In particular, the principle of repetition – through scenario planning and constant training - accounts for the superiority of special forces over regular forces in responding to attacks. The principle of simplicity accounts for the ability of special forces to “reduce the friction of war” through the gathering of good intelligence to reduce “unknown factors and the number of variables” in the battlefield (McRaven, 1996, pp. 8 - 16).

Firstly, special forces have the unconventional skills and superior firepower to perform the mission of responding effectively to domestic attacks that regular police and armed forces cannot prevent from happening due to the elements of secrecy and surprise in the terrorist attack preparations (Tucker & Lamb, 2007, p. 167). For example, the law enforcement special forces played a key role in the “siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas” in 1993. In this episode, the special forces in the U.S Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) had received training and consultancy from the U.S military special forces (Tucker & Lamb, 2007, p. 100). A more recent example is the Lindt Café siege in Sydney, Australia in 2014, which highlighted the role of police’s special forces in ending the crisis and the need for the police as first responders to possess “niche military capabilities” to stop terrorist incidents (Sydney Morning Herald, 2018). Essentially, CT in cities is like “war among the people”, and there must be a distinction in targeting and proportionality of force to minimise civilian casualties and protect human rights. The application of force should hence be akin to a scalpel (i.e. special forces) rather than a saw (i.e. regular forces).

Secondly, special forces have unique intelligence collection capabilities – such as non-official covers - that range from going undercover in uncertain environments to collect human intelligence (HUMINT) to using advanced ISR technologies to track and monitor targets such as terrorists (Heitz, 2018, pp. 45 – 46). Military special forces can transfer or share these capabilities with police’s special forces as intelligence is crucial to CT efforts in cities. Any security operations in urban areas, by nature, are “intelligence and reconnaissance intensive” (RAND, 2017, pp. 126 – 128). Therefore, the intelligence capabilities of special forces can complement the ongoing mission of regular police forces to collect intelligence from the communities and raise the chances of successfully detecting, deterring and denying terrorist attacks. One example is the purported deployment of UK special forces as “beggars and road sweepers” to support the police force in maintaining “covert surveillance and responding quickly to any future attacks” (Dearden, 2017).

Key Implications of Special Forces in Cities

As the course of militarisation of homeland security in cities continues, the media has highlighted the necessity of coordination between the police force and armed forces. In Singapore, for example, issues of coordination include the need for police officers and soldiers to develop a common understanding of their respective tactics, rules of engagement (ROE), operating concepts, jargons and code words (Teo, 2018). The police force would take the lead in joint special operations to neutralise terrorists. This collaboration is politically important for Singapore as democracy, not military dictatorship, is one of the core principles of nationhood. Operationally, this is important as the police force is more familiar with civilian settings in cities and often the first to respond to incidents. However, these issues extend beyond the operational realm to the strategic and ideological realms; and can have implications even with the police force taking the lead. Specifically, militarisation and especially the employment of special forces might protect or undermine the values that democratic societies living in cities deem as critical to security. There are two key implications.

The first implication is whether special forces and by extension, the state, has the right to trade human rights for the neutralisation of threats. Specifically, is it acceptable for special forces to remove a few civilians’ rights to life so that other civilians may live, and to achieve the strategic aims of defeating a politico-ideological enemy? Special forces are akin to a scalpel than a saw as its application of force to neutralise threats are meant to be more judicious and precise. The killing of the hijackers of Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 by SAF special forces in 1991, which involved zero civilian casualties is a case in point. However, there were noteworthy cases of special forces applying excessive force to end crises thus raising humanitarian concerns – jus in bello. In the U.S, the review of the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993 highlighted that the special forces of the FBI and BATF had used “excessive and inappropriate” force (Tucker & Lamb, 2007, p. 100). In Russia, the special forces Spetsnaz had used chemical agents to incapacitate Chechen terrorists before killing them during the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, but this tactic had also killed 130 civilian hostages (Fidler, 2005). In the Middle East in 2010, the Israeli special forces’ storming of a vessel carrying pro-Palestinian activists and humanitarian aid supplies resulted in several casualties (BBC, 2016). This incident had sparked international outrage and fueled the resolve of terrorist groups – such as Hamas and Hezbollah – that portray themselves as resisting Israeli occupation.

However, crises involving security threats are inherently uncertain and dynamic situations. Therefore, it unrealistic to insist that there should be no civilian casualties when special forces attempt to counter threats in cities. Nevertheless, special forces and the state should examine the concept of human rights even as they plan their concept of operations (CONOPS). The state, while supporting the CONOPS of special forces, may obliquely push the narrative that it has the right to define and bestow human rights in the domestic context given that it has the people’s mandate. However, an actual crisis or botched (i.e. involves civilian casualties) security operations may cause the people – influenced by local and international activists - to question whether human rights are inherent in humanity or bestowed by those in power (Heitz, 2018, pp. 9 – 10). The question becomes more complicated if the casualties include foreigners who in effect never gave the state any mandate to bestow or deny their human rights. At a more strategic level, special forces and the state should examine how people link their human rights to their definition of security (Ramcharan, n.d.). Specifically, the political legitimacy of special forces and the democratic state is contingent on its ability to provide security. However, this legitimacy may diminish if the planning of special operations fails to take human rights protection into account especially when it is central to the people’s definition of security. In the war of ideas with terrorist groups, the state and special forces must take steps to protect their legitimacy in the eyes of the people that they serve to protect against terrorism.

The second implication is the politics of fear, which in homeland security relates to the assertion – by propaganda or deed – that there would be “increased risks of terrorist attack” if the state does not take certain preventive actions (e.g. setting up more special forces). Such assertions may also play “strongly on nationalistic sentiments” that people must stay united and support the state in taking preventive actions (Bateman, 2006). However, it is difficult not to rouse nationalistic sentiments especially when there are signs of possible foreign interference in domestic opposition to the state’s policies (Yuen, 2018). Essentially, the GWOT has “presented fear mongers with the opportunity to revitalise the discourse of the threat and the politics of fear” (Rahim, 2009, p. 80). This discourse may help to garner the people’s support for stronger security policies but at the cost of creating more suspicion and distrust towards people of certain ethnicity and religion.

The problem with fear is that it can both unite or divide the people politically. In the U.S, this political divide manifest in the form of right-wing Americans who “believe that whatever the government does is best for the country” (Rappa, 2011, p. 96). While the right-wing Americans may believe in the security value of militarisation, the state’s decision to deploy more “militarised police units” in neighborhoods where there are more communities of color creates the impression that the police force is a “wartime occupying force”. This impression does not help to address the existing problem of severe distrust between police officers and the communities that they are supposed to protect against crime and violence (Mummolo, 2018).

In Singapore, decades of peace that the global city enjoys may drive certain people to question whether the state is making excessive investments in militarising homeland security, which include creating more special forces units in the police force. Some of the questions may be valid given the existence of genuine socioeconomic issues while some may be bereft of critical analysis and downright anti-establishment. This political divide may not be apparent in real life discourse but stands out when an observation of mainstream media reports (i.e. explain and support the state’s policies) and alternative news or social media (i.e. more critical of state’s policies) is done. For example, alternative news has attempted to paint civil-military integration (i.e. joint patrols), the hypermasculinity of police special forces, and laws that legitimises the employment of police special forces as a reflection of the state on the brink of totalitarianism in order to consolidate its political power and curb opposition voices (Ghui, 2018 and Yuen, 2018). In efforts to maintain the continuity of security policies to ensure its effectiveness against threats, the state must navigate a tense information sphere to achieve the buy-in of voters. It is even more crucial now for the police force to balance the public display of “hard” power (e.g. special forces) with campaigns of “soft” power (i.e. community policing).


The militarisation of homeland security is necessary as the state and its cities need effective solutions in the GWOT. The special forces of the police force and armed forces have an important role in the intelligence collection and interdiction of terrorist threats in cities as CT in civilian settings is essentially asymmetric warfare and therefore requires unconventional methods. Cities that are growing – in terms of population sizes, economic power, and global connectivity – may see greater militarisation as their growing importance makes them more attractive as terrorist targets. Special forces and the state should, however, examine how their CT CONOPS can have implications to the values that democratic societies living in cities deem as critical to security.

Two key implications are concerning human rights infringement and politics of fear, which may affect the legitimacy of the special forces and state in the eyes of the people that they aim to protect against terrorism. In this regard, the third U.S president Thomas Jefferson was prescient when he said that “when the people fear the government, there is tyranny”. If these two implications are not addressed, terrorist groups will win the psychological war as fear is prevalent among their civilian targets. Moreover, terrorist groups would make gains in the war of ideas if they can portray the “hard” security policies of the state and its cities as repressive and symptomatic of the corrupt systems that they claim to resist.


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End Note

[i] This paper defines Homeland Security as largely efforts to counter terrorism and particularly terrorist threats that develop and emerge from within the country. The threats would occur in the form of urban attacks in cities.

About the Author(s)

Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Cyber and Homeland Defence Programme at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 9:03am

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