Taking the fight to IS online

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 07 Feb 2016

Cyberwar: Malaysia

While Malaysia’s new digital centre to counter Islamic State propaganda is more than welcome, its messages need to have substance and relevance, say experts.

“AVOID conversations with unknown people on Telegram.” “Don’t open links unless you know the source.”

Wise advice from Malaysian authorities to keep our young people safe from militant threats online?

Sadly, no.

These little cyber safety nuggets, instead, come from an Islamic State (IS) manual for its members on how to “keep safe” online from hacking collective Anonymous, which declared cyberwar on the terrorist organisation after the Paris attacks in November.

And this manual is a mere appendix to a detailed best practices guide IS has circulated among its members to help them cover their tracks online and thwart surveillance.

Uncovered by researchers from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s military academy in New York last year, the guide even comes with 24-hour customer support service!

Now try any of the cyber security initiatives for young people run by local agencies and authorities, like Cybersecurity Malaysia and the Malaysian Communications and Multi-media Commission – IS is not mentioned on their sites as one of the online threats youths are facing today, what more advice on protection against cyber militants.

Don’t even look for any counter messaging against IS propaganda.

While a spokesperson says that the MCMC does use various programmes such as talks, workshops and other events to warn the public about the danger of IS, it doesn’t seem to do so anywhere online that we could find.

To say that we are losing to IS in the online war on terror is an understatement.

As local terrorism expert Ahmad El-Muhammady sees it, “We have been gunned down by the IS media team.”

We have to admit that we are not up to the mark in countering IS social media strength, says the International Islamic University of Malaysia lecturer who has been working closely with Malaysian police on militant research and rehabilitation programmes.

“We don’t understand the way they work. In fact, we don’t even study them properly before fighting them,” he feels.

The Government’s announcement at the recent International Conference on Deradicalization and Countering Violent Extremism in Kuala Lumpur that a regional digital centre to counter IS propaganda will be set up this May could not come any sooner.

Ahmad points out that Bukit Aman Counter Terrorism division principal assistant director Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay had highlighted as far back as May last year that around 95% to 98% of Malaysians were recruited via social media.

That we are still using the “old style” to address this issue is a big problem, says Ahmad.

“We failed to reach out to the youth because we are using an outdated medium of communication while the militant group is far more advanced than us in capitalising on new technology, IT, social media and HD videos to spread its ideology.

“Generation Y communicates more electronically or virtually than Generation X.

Ceramah (public talks) for the public is good but we have to admit, it has certain limitations. If we continue on this path, I’m not optimistic we will win hearts or this battle,” he says.

It is urgently vital to take the fight online, he stresses, as he indicates his support of the plans for the anti-IS regional digital centre.

To be fair, plans for the Regional Digital Counter-messaging Communication Centre (RDC3) were first mooted last September, and the Malaysian police, with the cooperation of agencies like the MCMC and the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), have been working hard to track IS followers and fight, if not stop, the influence of the militant group. A number of terror attempts have been foiled.

The number of Malaysians being recruited, however, has not declined. It is, in fact, growing.

To date, it is estimated that over 150 Malaysian citizens have been arrested for terrorism-related activities.

At least 47 Malaysians are reported to be with the militant group in Syria and Iraq. Some 200 Malaysian and Indonesian fighters primed for “specialised missions” – as snipers and suicide bombers – have been detected in the Malay-speaking arm of the IS, Katibah Nusantara.

The number of potential “lone wolf” attackers in the country is unknown.

The RDC3 can help us effectively combat the terror group on its most critical frontier, notes Ahmad, and hopefully stem the flow of Malaysians joining IS.

While the details of the new centre have not been disclosed, it is confirmed that the RDC3 will be modelled on the Sawab Center, a joint initiative by the UAE and the US governments launched last July in Abu Dhabi to counter IS online propaganda and recruitment drives.

As alluded by its name “Sawab” – which in Arabic means “doing the right thing” or “being on the right path” – the centre aims to promote “true Islam” through online communication and social media to present a more “attractive” alternative to the extremist narrative of IS.

One of its objectives, states the Sawab Center’s media arm, is to amplify the voices of moderation against IS by using social media platforms and allow the silent majority to express its opinions.

Soon after its inception, the Sawab Center launched a Twitter account, @SawabCenter, which was followed by a hashtag campaign #CampaignToReportDaeshSupporters encouraging Twitter users to report content and users spreading Daesh (IS) propaganda.

In December, the centre launched an Instagram account.

Other online campaigns include #exposing-Daesh-lies to increase public awareness of the militant group, #DaeshDeniesHerDignity to debunk the “glamour” of jihadi brides, and most recently, #DeludedFollowers, to expose IS tactics to recruit foreign fighters from across the globe.

With more than 30,000 followers on social media, the Sawab Center may still have some way to go considering that there are some 100 million youths aged 15 to 29 in the Middle East alone, but its campaigns are gaining traction, hitting over 420 million views after six months.

Ahmad believes the Sawab Center is a good model to follow in Malaysia’s digital efforts to combat IS.

“Besides ceramah and public talks, we need to create short video clips, posters to be shared online, short messages to be spread via smartphones and social media, to explain and inform the public about how IS deviates from the true teachings of Islam.”

However, he stresses, it is imperative for Malaysia to make the necessary changes to suit local needs and the ever changing scenarios of today.

Echoing Ahmad’s stand on the need to tailor the RDC3’s IS counter-narrative to the local and regional context, the Foreign Policy and Security Studies director at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Elina Noor, stresses the importance of substance in the content of the messages.

“Ideally, this should not be a copy-and-paste job from other regions. The messages can draw from examples outside the region and even address, for example, foreign policy grievances but, ultimately, they should speak to the local context of the target audience.

“If the messages are meant for a Malaysian audience, they should be tailored to fit a Malaysian audience. Similarly for other countries in the region. This will require an intimate understanding of local conditions, even local drivers of grievances, and being honest enough about confronting some uncomfortable political issues, real or perceived.’’

Elina also believes that it is key to stress this region’s religious and cultural diversity.

To quote her from her recent article on the digital initiative in a local daily, we need to “boldly recapture the historical testimony of this country and South-East Asia”, and reclaim this region’s “brand of faith – in word and practice – (which is) ... long marked by accommodation, tolerance and acceptance”.

Crucially, she reiterates, this message will only be effective in countering the extremist ideology that IS peddles if it is matched in speech and practice in our daily lives.

“We cannot preach how God created nations and tribes among us so that we may get to know each other, yet retreat into our communal cocoons barbed with hateful rhetoric and action.”

Another point to be considered is the moniker Islamic State for the militant group which is widely used here, says Elina who prefers to use the term “Daesh”.

“If we choose to use the term ‘Islamic State’ because it is a convenient shorthand in the English medium, we should always pair it up with ‘the so-called’ or ‘the self-professed/proclaimed’. I am more inclined to use the phrase ‘Daesh’ because there are derogatory undertones to the term. As you may know, while Daesh is the acronym for what the group calls itself in Arabic, acronyms are not as commonly used in Arabic as they are in English. My understanding is that ‘Da’esh’ is one word away from the word ‘daa’ash’, which means to trample or crush underfoot.”

Equally important is for the authorities to get their messaging uniformly right, she argues.

“I have seen the word ‘jihad’ used in a government media broadcast and in police press releases when describing the activities of Malaysian fighters in Syria and Iraq. We should avoid this completely if we are to effectively convey the message that what groups like Daesh and their supporters/sympathisers are doing is wrong. We cannot sell the message of condemnation of those activities on the one hand yet inadvertently legitimise it by associating them with ‘jihad’ on the other.”

On the medium of messaging for RDC3, Elina pushes for the inclusion of Bahasa Malaysia, along with other relevant languages in the region, depending on the target audience.

To appeal to the young, however, the language of messaging should avoid the tone of preaching or lecturing, she stresses.

“This can come across as patronising. Rather, it should sow doubt, particularly in the minds of those thinking about travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq, intellectually challenge them, and offer constructive alternative options for those seeking to effect some kind of change.

“This will, after all, be a battle of ideas so those in charge of RDC3 will need to set a high intellectual bar to empower people to make the right decisions for themselves. There will no doubt need to be constant tweaking along the way to get the messaging just right.”

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