In Southeast Asia, discussions of terrorist groups, by participants themselves, are regularly posted on websites and various web forums and chat rooms to entice new recruits. In fact, convicted terrorists have given evidence of the influence of the internet in their recruitment and communication strategies.
A study by the Australian Strategic Policy Group in 2009 found that the internet might become the dominant factor in radicalization in the region. Exploring this is instrumental to understanding the issues of global jihad and terror. We live in an interlinked world, and it makes sense that terrorism worldwide is a loose global network. There have been many news reports in the current Iraqi crisis and the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has been getting recruits from all over the world, especially Southeast Asia.
Harrison and Barthel in 2009 argued that the “active audience” in social media is rooted in older forms of rebellious media use, like community radio or participatory public art projects. Social media, however, extends the potential scope and impact of radical resistance and collaboration. And radicalisation in the area, and its links globally is certainly not a new phenomenon.
Where are groups based?
There are two major terrorist groups in the Philippines. One was established by former combatants in Afghanistan and the second, the Rajah Sulaiman Islamic Movement (RSIM), was founded by Ahmed Santos, a Filipino who became radicalised while living in Saudi Arabia.
In Thailand, terrorism is an insurgency rather than an issue of global jihad like in the Philippines. And going to Syria for jihad is a trend among groups in Indonesia and the Philippines, but not in Thailand. Malaysia and Indonesia have a strong radical online presence.
However, there is no major jihadist headquarters in Southeast Asia, and all extremist trouble from the region has been local. This means governments have dealt with these groups with talks and negotiations. This is especially true in Indonesia after the 2002 Bali bombing and the peace agreement between the MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) and the Philippine government.
The internet is effective enough to help these groups recruit new members and get in touch with their members through websites or social media. However, recruitments on Facebook are rare, these are more for coordination and discussion of already existing groups. This said, the group that attempted to bomb the Burmese embassy in Jakarta this year first met on Facebook. While another group in Jakarta, Madiun and Solo, which was first mistaken with the Sunni Movement for Indonesian Society (HASMI) group, also met on Facebook and plotted a failed terror attack.
Are things changing?
Southeast Asia was once a possible second front for al-Qaeda but has actually seen a decline in extremism over the last decade. This is because good law enforcement, cooperative interstate relations, peaceful resolution of communal conflicts in Indonesia and the closing of major terrorist training centers have weakened networks.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings, once had a presence in five countries. But by 2003, it had largely reduced to Indonesia, and its leaders decided to end violent action there in 2007. Yet the group has a presence in Syria according to a recent report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
Between late 2012 and January 2014, JI’s humanitarian arm, the Hilal Ahmar Society of Indonesia (HASI), sent ten delegations to Syria to deliver medical aid and cash to the Islamic resistance. “The danger remains that fighters returning from Syria could infuse new energy into Indonesia’s weak and ineffectual jihadi movement,” the IPAC study concluded.
In the current state of terrorism in the region, it seems that extremists have spread where they have found causes outside the region. And the groups operating are smaller and most likely pose national and not regional threats. This means, however, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in particular have potential worries over the next few years when extremist nationals, or neighbours who have been fighting in Afghanistan and Syria, come back with new skills.
How does this online presence work?
The phenomenon of online extremism first appeared in Southeast Asia in early 2000, in the Bahasa Indonesia and Malay language cyber-environment. These websites tried to mimic the contents of their Arabic and Middle Eastern online counterparts. Although they were not on a par with operational coordination and trader craft, like technological information on how to make bombs for instance, they were catching up by 2009.
These Bahasa and Malay websites have also been used to justify terrorist acts and propagate conspiracy theories. They have also started the sharing of tradecraft materials, such as hacking, firearm and bomb-making manuals. One of the first appearances of such a manual was in August 2007 on the then new forum, Jihad al-Firdaus.
As for actual activity, there have been at least two reported hacking incidents in the region. One of the targets was the website Indonesia.faithfreedom.org that radical Islamists criticise for being derogatory to Islam. The other was a Friendster Account belonging to a member of the same website. And though Jihad al-Firdaus is no longer accessible, more blogs and forums keep cropping up generating and sharing technical information. A recent influential forum is Al-Tawbah that has strong Arabic influences with more videos on jihad and how to make weapons.
Southeast Asian militant groups recognise how important an online media presence is and how they can disseminate information uncensored. For radical groups lacking access to mainstream media, this is perfect. Khattab Media Publication, is the self-proclaimed official media wing of the Mujahidin Syura Council, an extremist group in southern Thailand. They are inspired by al-Qaeda and run a Malay blog. The blog has translations of fatwas by the Palestinian intellectual Abdullah Azzam, the man behind the ideology of al-Qaeda, obliging Muslims to militarily defend their lands and this encourages the use of violence.
There are open forums where people are trying to get in touch with others for Airsoft gun training and martial arts exercises. Quranic verses are then carefully selected to justify actions that could have an impact on human lives in the real world. Social media has allowed jihadists to be portrayed and advertised as heroes and subversive acts are represented as revolutionary victories.
The internet and social media has been a blessing for its ability to share information, what is becoming apparent is that this freedom will have to somehow be balanced with security.