Heightened risk of violent extremism

An Afghan security personnel saving a newborn baby from a hospital in Kabul which was attacked by terrorists last month. It is believed that IS had carried out the attack. — AFP

OVER a year ago, the world was shocked by the Christchurch mosque terror attacks. The shooting incidents killed fifty-one people who were at the time performing Friday prayers at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Mosque. The attacks showed that there is no safe haven, as the act of terror could happen at any time and place, requiring continuous effort to prevent and counter violent extremism.

Fast forward to 2020, the “terror” the world is facing is the coronavirus. To date, the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak has recorded over six million confirmed positive cases and more than 390,000 deaths globally. The impact of the outbreak is so severe that it has affected almost every facet of our lives.

As the world focuses on the coronavirus and its impact to the economy and the society, we should be reminded that the threat of violent extremism has not diminished. In difficult times like these, it is easy to disregard other threats that we may perceive as being less important, but the consequences of falling into that trap can be disastrous.

Many extremist groups are keen to make use of the pandemic outbreak to serve their own ends. This is evidenced in the recently reported terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and in different areas of Iraq. The so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, in its weekly newsletter has made it clear of the intention to exploit states that are struggling politically, economically and socially due to the outbreak. This is alarming for the Southeast Asia, taking into consideration the high risk of violent extremism threat in the region.

In fact, the current state presents the extremists with the opportunity to gain prominence and to spread their propaganda. This is shown in the strategies used by the radical terrorists and the far-right extremists. According to media reports, the IS is making use of the pandemic situation to rebuild itself, at the time when the world’s focus is shifted towards efforts to tackle the virus. They have also propagated that the coronavirus is God’s miracle, purposely sent to the world as a form of reminder for the Muslims and as a punishment for the disbelievers. Even though such narrative is hypothetical, it is dangerous and can influence many.

As for the far-right extremists, they are exploiting the situation to propagate hatred and anti-government sentiments. Their narratives are mainly concentrated on putting blame on the minority groups and poor government handling of the crisis. The far-right extremists predominantly target Asians whom they believe are the cause of the coronavirus. This is evidenced in the recent rise of hate crimes targeting Asians in many countries.

Navigating through the tough times is certainly not easy. The fear of the pandemic, difficulty coping with the lockdown and the uncertain economic environment are making many of us vulnerable, hence, becoming easy targets for the extremists.

As we spend more time at home during the lockdown, our consumption of the media, particularly the digital media and television also increases. This is shown in the surge usage of the digital media among Malaysians during the movement control order (MCO) period.

According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the internet traffic in the country was 23.5% higher than before during the first week of the MCO. Further increase in internet usage was recorded in the following week. Similar trend of media consumption also is recorded elsewhere. While spending more time online is not necessarily a bad thing, it actually opens more possibility for exposure with the extremists.

The extremist groups are known for their exploit of social media, where they carry out the radicalisation and mobilisation processes. These include sharing of knowledge, media content and communication. At this time, the extremists use social media platforms to advocate ideologies, spread coronavirus conspiracy theories and create confusion through disinformation.

The more exposed people are to the extremists’ messages

on social media, the closer they get to them and the higher the risk of them being influenced online. In this regard, social media functions as an enabler that can help to facilitate the radicalisation process.

In response to the extremists’ threat, the development of counter narratives is necessary. Here, the focus should be given to the message design aspect, to ensure that the counter narratives provided are compelling and impactful, capable of persuading the targeted public.

Even during these trying times, efforts and commitment towards the Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (PCVE) cause should continue. These include through the execution of strategic communications and campaigns, educational programmes and research activities.

Dr Nurzali Ismail is the Dean of the School of Communication, Universiti Sains Malaysia and consultant for the PCVE research project, at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC-IIUM). The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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Violent , extremism , terror


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