Terrorists tailor messages to lure fresh recruits

Terrorists tailor messages to lure fresh recruits
WIDE REACH: Reports suggest there are now more than 500 Indonesians and about 200 Malaysians fighting for ISIS in Syria.
PHOTO: Reuters

Extremist sites used to be largely in Arabic before English sites popped up to attract those in the West.

Now, there are hundreds of sites, including those on social media platforms, that cater to those who read Bahasa Indonesia and Malay, said Ms Navhat Nuraniyah, an associate research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

And each time one is taken down, a dozen new ones take its place to promote Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) propaganda.

Has it worked?

Reports suggest there are now more than 500 Indonesians and about 200 Malaysians fighting for ISIS in Syria. And the reach is global.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen recently revealed that in just three years, ISIS managed to recruit double the number of people that its predecessor, Al-Qaeda, did over the course of 10 years.

Ms Navhat said the contents of these sites vary, with some providing translations of ideological writings, mainly the works written by pro-ISIS ulama and spokesmen.

Others provide news on the battlefront, including maps and videos.

Ms Navhat added that blogs were recently set up and run jointly by Indonesian-based ISIS supporters and Indonesians who have migrated to Syria and Iraq.

"It was initially called KDI (Khilafah Daulah Islamiyah) Press, but it has been banned many times and re-emerged in different names," she said.

"Its strategy is to create as many blogs and social media accounts as possible so that if one gets suspended, the materials can still be accessed from the back-up blogs and social media accounts."

Ms Navhat's research focuses on online and off-line terrorism and radicalisation in Indonesia. She has also written on the evolving use of the Internet by Indonesian extremists and terrorists.

She said the blogs are unique because they contain personal stories written by the fighters themselves or by their wives.

LIVES

"The story of Ummu Sabrina was the most famous one. It's a four-part series describing her family's journey to Syria and their daily lives there," said Ms Navhat.

"A blog called 'the prisoner of joy' translates a few personal stories by Malay and Indonesian fighters and wives into English."

Professor Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert with RSIS said that ISIS has shifted from a Syria- and Iraq-centric focus to become a global network on the back of social media platforms including Twitter.

"It is an ISIS imperative to reach out to the lower strata, to people who are disfranchised and offer incentives to low-income family," he added.

Ms Navhat described ISIS' sophisticated approach: "It created many different types of propaganda in order to relate to people with different personalities and cultural backgrounds.

"Some people who are dissatisfied with their lives may be attracted to ISIS because of images of heroism and sense of empowerment featured in its videos.

"Some are just genuinely longing to live under a caliphate that implements syariah law and cares about the people's welfare.

"Seeing ISIS videos that show social services in the land of caliphate such as hospital, school and infrastructure convince them that ISIS is really their fantasy land."

But the material keeps the focus on the target audience.

Recently, ISIS supporters posted a recruitment video showing Malay-speaking children training with weapons inside ISIS territory.

And for those who cannot travel to Syria, the message is to lock in on local targets.

In April, Malaysian police arrested 12 people in Kuala Lumpur who had been planning attacks inside Malaysia.

In Singapore, two youths were picked up by authorities. One of them had planned an attack here.

'Dad, why are Muslims killing other Muslims?'

The father of three teenage boys and a 10-year-old girl said he and his wife watch the news with their children.

And they pepper him with questions.

Why are they so angry with others or the leaders? Why are Muslims killing other Muslims?

Who is supporting these organisations? Is it truly jihad?

Mr Feisal Marican, 49, said: "When we watch the news together or when the children help in charity initiatives, it gives us the opportunity to address their queries.

"We help them understand the framework on what's happening, like political realities and socioeconomic plight.

"It is also important to say we don't know certain things and refer them to qualified sources."

But it is not easy to monitor what they do online all the time.

Mr Feisal added: "I always tell them to read everything with a pinch of salt and to qualify the information before digesting it as knowledge.

"For youth who rely on social media for information, learning and to develop an opinion, it is a much trickier situation."

The senior adviser at SimplyIslam, an institution providing initiatives including Islamic education in English and manages Islamic Scholars programmes, said his children attend a mainstream school. They also attend weekend classes at the SimplyIslam madrasah.

He also said his children have been confronted with rigid interpretation of the religion.

Some schoolmates have told his children that they cannot greet non-Muslims on their religious festivals.

"In this regard, I am firm: my kids politely tell them that we differ. It is permissible based on logic and the opinion of majority of scholars," said Mr Feisal.

"And they also informed their friends to refrain from passing judgment on issues such as Jemaah Islamiyah in Singapore and radical youth unless they have qualified information or opinion."

EQUATION

Mr Feisal, who has led community assistance programmes here and humanitarian projects in post-tsunami Aceh and Syrian refugees in Turkey, added:

"There is a tendency to equate religiosity with extreme thought and action, but in essence, all religions preach sound values that protect the interest of other communities, too.

"Part of the answer could be reviving the values that promote an organic coexistence between races and religious groups."

 

melvin@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 17, 2015.
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