Parents, is your child being radicalised online?

Parents, is your child being radicalised online?
Lone cub: The 16-year-old youth who tried a kidnapping in Sungai Petani.

The dreaded phone call from the police. Every parent knows the fear of receiving that "bad news" phone call - "your child is ill", "was involved in an accident", or even "caught shoplifting". It is enough to make a parent's heart stop.

Now we need to brace for ­another type of bad news call: that your child is a member of the so-called Islamic State (IS) terror organisation.

When Shafi Khan got "the call" about his son, it was a huge shock - they had just prayed together at the neighbourhood mosque early that morning.

After prayers, Shafi had gone back to bed as he always did, while his 19-year-old son, Hamzah, went to work at a nearby home-supply store.

That day, however, while Shafi was sleeping, Hamzah sneaked out of the house with his 16-year-old brother and 17-year-old sister to get to the airport and catch a flight to Turkey. Their plan was to fly to Istanbul, then drive into Syria to join the IS.

When the teens reached the airport, though, the authorities were waiting for them. As reported by The Washington Post, the FBI had been monitoring the Khan siblings' online communications.

Shafi and his wife were left stunned. They had no inkling whatsoever of the abominable plan their children had been hatching.

This happened in Chicago, the United States, but recent incidents show that it can happen in Malaysia too.

Early this month, a 16-year-old boy was charged in court in Sungai Petani, Kedah, for attempting a solo IS attack in January. Armed with a knife and fake pistol, the boy tried to kidnap a 27-year-old woman at a mall there.

The boys' parents were by his side in court; we can only imagine how they had felt when they got their bad news call.

Other parents have asked if they had known what their son was up to, and how they can prevent their own children from getting lured into the IS snare.

But while some parents worry about this, there are others who still do not realise the extent of the danger posed by IS, what more the need to protect their children from its threat.

"No, not my child," still seems to be many parents' stance when asked about the appeal of the militant group.

A mother from Sungai Petani, who declines to be named, admitted that she had not even heard about the "IS lone cub" incident in her town.

Taken aback by how close to her home the attack had occurred, the mother of two sons, one 17 and another 16, is nevertheless confident that her sons will not be drawn to the IS ideology.

"My oldest is very close to a ustaz at the mosque near our house. We know the ustaz well and are happy that our son is learning more about the true Islam from him.

"My second son is just not ­interested in those things (IS, Syria and Iraq)," she says reassuringly.

Noorshila A. from Seremban believes she has nothing to worry about as her 15-year-old daughter finds the IS and the conflict in the Middle East "too foreign", and has nothing to do with her.

"She only knows K-pop, One Direction and Justin Bieber."

Another parent, S. Shazali from Batu Gajah, Perak, is also confident that the IS claws will not spread to his neighbourhood.

"Is IS a concern? No. Not in my neighbourhood. Ours is a suburb and I could say that Muslims here are not into extreme (ideology). The main concerns here are ­raising families and making sure there's food on the table," says the 44-year-old teacher.

He shares that no particular programmes are being held to tackle the issue of IS in his area or school.

"From time to time, usually in Agama class, we would address the dangers of not really understanding religion ... to strengthen students' understanding of the basics of Islam.

"We also emphasise youths' role in society and the future."

Shazali concedes that he is glad his children are still young, with the oldest aged 14.

"My kids don't ask me about all these yet. To me, the basics are important. My wife and I would ask my children to pray, and practise fasting if they can. Do good deeds and that's it. Other than that, do what other kids do. We don't restrict the types of people they can befriend or talk about the bad things of other religions."

Malaysian youths at risk

While there is no need to press the panic button yet, when it comes to the IS threat in the country, terrorism expert Ahmad El-Muhammady finds Malaysian parents' attitude quite perturbing. Especially with the recent spate of IS-linked cases in Malaysia or involving Malaysians, not to mention the Jakarta bombing, indicating the rising militant threat here.

That the fighting in Syria and Iraq is too far away and the issues surrounding it too complex to be of interest to the average Malaysian youths is one false impression that urgently needs to be corrected, he stresses.

"The militant detainees I met showed interest in the IS struggle and even promoted them widely online and offline to their friends. Some are just so keen to help the Syrians in general," says the International Islamic University of Malaysia lecturer who has conducted interviews with terrorists for his work in militant research and rehabilitation programmes with the Malaysian police.

He reiterates Bukit Aman Counter Terrorism division principal assistant director Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay's revelation last May that up to 98 per cent of Malay­sian militants were recruited online.

Ayub had also highlighted that some secondary school students with jihad tendencies were on the authorities' radar, and these students reportedly had been "persuaded" through Facebook.

"My take is, if we find our children attached to the computer and smart devices a lot, we had better find out what they are up to," Ahmad cautions.

As reports on the young people who had abandoned their family and country to join the militant group shows, anyone can be recruited by IS.

Take Aqsa Mahmood from Glasgow, Scotland. The 21-year-old went from a bubbly, middle-class young woman who loved Harry Potter and Coldplay and dreamt of becoming a doctor to one of IS' biggest female recruiters who calls herself Umm Layth, or Mother of the Lion.

Her parents told the British press they had no idea that she had become radicalised as she was not a conservative Muslim and had never showed an interest in the Syrian conflict.

Closer to home is our purported medical student-turned-jihadi-­bride-recruiter Bird of Jannah.

In February last year, a 14-year-old girl from Muar, Johor, was arrested as she was about to board a Cairo-bound flight at the KL International Airport. According to the police, the schoolgirl had planned to marry a 22-year-old Malaysian student in Egypt before accompanying him to Syria.

Then we have the two Malaysian brothers who carried out suicide missions in Iraq recently.

Mohamad Shazwan Mohd Salim, 31, was one of seven suicide bombers who blew up a police training centre at the Speicher military base, about 160km north of Baghdad, in January, killing 19 people. His brother, Muhamad Shazani, 28, was reportedly killed in a suicide mission in September last year in Bayji, northern Iraq.

As a neighbour who had known the affable brothers for some seven years told Bernama, they did not show any signs that they were involved in extremist activities.

"They had never talked about IS or tried to influence me to join them. Their appearance was normal, dressing like normal people, and so were their family members," he said.

Ahmad underlines the importance of the family in preventing youths and children from being lured into the trap of IS.

"Parents play an instrumental role in guarding their children against IS.

"They can detect changes in their children's thinking and behaviour. If they detect anything, they have to report it to the relevant authorities, especially the police, for further investigation. Parents also need to monitor their children's Internet activities.

"Unfortunately, modern society has produced the absent parent and, by implication, children become emotionally deprived, and spiritually impoverished. They become easy targets for IS because parental guidance is absent," he notes.

Online vigilance

A parent who only wants to be known as Aisyah, however, feels that not enough guidance or help is being given to parents on how to protect their children from online radicalisation.

"I think I am IT-savvy enough, and I try hard to learn all I can about IS, but I still am not sure how and what to do to keep IS away from my children on the Internet. Where can I get information on this?"

While there are a few guides online for parents run by other countries that have been helpful, like Britain's Educate Against Hate website and United Arab Emirates' Sawab Centre, Aisyah says she would prefer a local site.

According to Eneng Faridah Iskandar, senior director of the Advocacy and Outreach Division in the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), parents can also apply general Internet safety usage tips to keep their children safe from IS online.

MCMC's "Klik Dengan Bijak" programme provides various online safety tips to parents and children such as to verify online information and be aware of predators; following recent events, says Eneng, the examples that they use in their talks and workshops include those relating to the IS.

On how parents can detect if their children are reading IS ­materials online or communicating with the militant group's recruiters, Eneng says there are solutions available to help parents monitor their children's activities online, some free.

"The solutions can be used to filter the content that their children access on the Internet and even provide a report on their online activities," she says, adding that parents should also get to know their kids online.

"They can be their Facebook friends or follow their Instagram account, so that they can better understand their children's online environment and learn who their children are communicating with and what they're talking about."

Most important, stresses Eneng, is for the parents to be Net-savvy and keep up with the latest ­developments, especially in social media and mobile communication apps.

Talk, especially face to face, is also vital.

"Talk about the benefits and risks of the Internet with your children and remind them to be careful when making friends online.

"Parents must always keep the lines of communication between themselves and their children open to encourage their children to share their concerns without any fear. If they come to you, listen to them and don't judge them," Eneng advises.

Dr Sangeet Bhullar concurs; she is the founder and executive director of Wise Kids, a British non-­profit company promoting innovative, positive and safe Internet use.

"The best thing is to ask young people and children about their experiences online and on social media, whether they have had any negative experiences and how they handled them. This can be a good conversation opener.

"What parents need to recognise is that most teens are very resilient and are already learning how to handle risks," says Dr Bhullar.

"The key points are open communication and support for your children."

Recognising parents' fear, she cites the experience of a young Malaysian who was a panellist at an online safety conference last year.

"He said the problem with families is that you either have too much freedom or no freedom at all.

"If you give children no freedom at all, then they will not be equipped to handle the risks online. That is dangerous. Equally dangerous is if you give them too much freedom. You need to strike a balance.

"Risk is part of life. It is a core element of life, so children need to be able to recognise and handle risks."

She adds that the more we live in a networked society, the more important it is for children and young people to have the skills to evaluate online interactions and content, and manage their ­personal information.

"Young people, as big users of social media, are consuming all sorts of diverse information. The good news is that the bad doesn't dominate online - people with both good and bad intentions use the Net.

"So, while ISIS (as IS is also known) and groups like them are on social media, equally, the groups who are against them and are vocal against them are also online. Young people need to be able to make judgements about the content and decide for themselves what is true and what is not, what is good and what is not good."

At the same time, they need a good support network, says Dr Bhullar.

"They need people they trust for them to turn to if they are contacted by an extremist group or person."

Ultimately, we need to recognise that we live in a dynamic, networked world, and there will always be some threat online - cyber warfare, extremism, racism, self-harm online, she stresses.

"The Internet is a public space and there are a lot of opportunities and challenges, so we need children and youths to be equipped with the knowledge and skills of how to recognise the risks and what to do in a risky situation.

"It's like teaching a child to swim. A swimming pool is a dangerous place if you don't know how to swim. But if you teach your child how to swim - you get them to start at the shallow end of the pool and you equip them with floats to stay safe. In time they will be able to swim on their own, and the pool will not be so dangerous.

"It is the same on the Internet and social media. You need to be equipped with the right ­knowledge, values and critical thinking skills - whether it's how to recognise and handle peer pressure online or what to do when you encounter IS recruiters and IS ideology online."

How to keep your child safe from IS online:

> Become a Net-savvy parent

> Talk to your children

> Explore the Internet together

> Know who your child is talking to online

> Use parental controls to filter, restrict, monitor or report content

> Set ground rules and boundaries for the Internet and mobile devices

> Understand how children use other devices like games consoles and MP3s for communication

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