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The Big Read: The slippery slope to radicalisation could start with a Facebook ‘like’

SINGAPORE — Contrary to the common perception that individuals start on the path of radicalisation by actively seeking knowledge from dubious sources, very often the process begins more innocuously.

The Big Read: The slippery slope to radicalisation could start with a Facebook ‘like’

Photo illustration: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY

SINGAPORE — Contrary to the common perception that individuals start on the path of radicalisation by actively seeking knowledge from dubious sources, very often the process begins more innocuously.

All it takes is for a person to click on the “like” or “share” button on Facebook, say, for a post expressing sympathy on the plight of Muslims in Syria. Or one could comment on an online forum about the subject.

Before long, like vultures swooping down on a rotting carcass, extremists will reach out to the person, chatting with him or her under the cloak of anonymity — beginning with topics about family, school or work, aspirations and challenges, for example.

Then, the conversations would move to encrypted messaging apps such as Whatsapp or Telegram, and veer to subjects such as the Syrian conflict and the alleged persecution of Muslims in other parts of the world. The “new-found friend” would enthusiastically share articles and videos which glorify suicide bombers and the vision of an Islamic caliphate, among other things. At the opportune time, a question will be popped: Do you want to be part of the Islamic State (IS), and take up arms and fight in a holy war? From there, the radicalisation process is all but complete, with the individual receiving instructions on armed combat or traveling to Syria for example.

The threat of radicalisation reared its ugly head again earlier this month, with the news of the arrests of a preschool assistant and two auxiliary police officers. Two of the three were less than 30 years old, and one of them was a woman.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) announced that Syaikhah Izzah Zahrah Al Ansari, a 22-year-old infant care assistant, was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The first female to be detained in Singapore for becoming radicalised, Izzah wanted to be an Islamic State (IS) “martyr’s widow”. The Singaporean started becoming radicalised in 2013, at the age of 18, by online propaganda related to the IS terrorist group and had actively posted and shared pro-IS materials online. Following her arrest, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said most Singaporeans radicalised by IS were younger than 30, with five of them radicalised when they were still teenagers.

Just this week, another two arrests were made, involving uniformed officers for the first time: Muhammad Khairul Mohamed 24, was detained under the Act for wanting to take part in the sectarian conflict in Syria by taking up arms for the Free Syrian Army. Mohamad Rizal Wahid, 36, was issued a restriction order for supporting his intention to undertake armed violence.

Speaking to TODAY, terrorism experts gave an insight into the IS’ recruitment tactic which has proved to be highly effective — particularly with young impressionable minds.

“Ensuring consistent and continued engagement with the individuals is an important facet of the IS’ recruitment methods,” said Dr Jolene Jerard, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). “The individuals realised there is a friend on the other side of the line even though they’re oceans apart. That personal connection will draw them in.”

The advent of social media technologies made it possible for anyone to be radicalised regardless of their backgrounds and where they are from, said Mr Remy Ahmad, an associate research fellow at the RSIS’ International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research. It is not just about exploiting technology alone, but also preying on youth’s vulnerabilities such as their emotional need. Experts call this “sympathetic radicalisation”.

Images of military clashes and victims of war evokes a sense of solidarity and brotherhood, said Mr Remy. Such images could significantly affect individuals, prompting them to make life-changing decisions such as performing the hijrah (migrate) to join the fight, or lend their moral and financial support.

Young people are also particularly susceptible to IS’ propaganda as they are at a stage of their lives where they may undergoing an identity crisis and “searching for the meaning of life”, said Ms Gullnaz Baig, a terrorism researcher at the London School of Economics. The search for “meaning” often relates to their spiritual needs, and the desire to “seek enlightenment or religion at its purest form”, said Ms Baig.

A strand of the IS narrative is an emphasis on brutality and violence which may appeal to angst-ridden youths, Mr Remy noted. “It also subscribes to the concept of martyrdom — sacrificing one’s life for God or for the cause of the caliphate is perceived (by misguided youth) as a human being’s highest calling,” he said.

HOW I.S. TARGETS YOUTH AND WOMEN

From Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah to IS, terrorist organisations have always saw young people as prime targets for recruitment. These groups’ fundamental message is that the structure of modern society is anathema to the models which these organisations claim to have interpreted from their readings of the Quran, said RSIS’ research fellow Dr Graham Ong-Webb.

Nevertheless, there are stark differences in terms of how these groups go about luring youth.

Associate professor Bilveer Singh from the National University of Singapore noted that IS has succeeded in justifying violence and the use of brute force using Quranic verses, for example, and this has made it “far more effective” than Al-Qaeda was.

On April 2 last year, the pro-IS media channel Furat Media released a music video entitled “The Caliphate Has Returned” in Bahasa Indonesia, featuring images of children with lyrics which included “where are the souls of the brave youths”. Less than three months later, the terrorist organisation debuted its Malay-language newspaper Al Fatihin which has been banned in Singapore.

Dr Singh noted IS’ tactic of localising its propaganda: “It is its ability to signal that this is your struggle and we understand it will help you. This is part of its appeal.”

Likewise, terrorist groups have long been targetting women as well. There have been numerous examples of women in other countries — including Western nations — who have fallen into the trap. One such example is 27-year-old Indonesian Dian Yulia Novi. Last December, she was nabbed by Indonesian authorities for planning to detonate a pressure cooker packed with explosives at her country’s presidential palace. Determined to die as a martyr, Dian had told Time magazine in an interview in March this year that “jihad” (armed struggle) is now mandatory for all Muslims “just like praying”.

Commenting on Izzah’s arrest, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob called on parents to be vigilant not just towards their sons, but also daughters. “(Terrorists) been seducing women by saying you are going there, you are doing something very good. You are going to enter heaven. But then it is contrary to Islamic principles,” she said.

IS has a dedicated women’s wing which recruits females. Nevertheless, the methods to draw women into IS’ ranks are similar to those employed on youth and adult males, said RSIS terrorism research analyst Sara Mamood. “The mentality and motivations cannot be generalised. Women join the IS for a diverse range of reasons and they come from a wide range of backgrounds,” said Ms Sara. “(The commonality) they do share is that they intend to be violent to enforce IS ideals just like the men.”

Just as some youths are disillusioned by their circumstances, women join the IS to feel empowered, said Ms Baig. They also view their participation as a form of a “sacred religious duty” that must be fulfilled, she added. This stems from the notion of wanting enlightenment or seeking penance for sins of the past, she noted.

While they might be attracted by the same propaganda, the functions of youths, adult women and men are different in the IS setup, said the experts. For women, they play a supporting role – providing for the needs of their husbands, and guiding and moulding the young into the next generation of mujahids (fighters). Such a role for the women is clearly laid out in many of IS materials, including a magazine called Rumiyah. In Rumiyah’s May issue, there is an article titled “The woman is a shepherd in her husband’s home”. For example, a paragraph states that mothers “should recognise and take advantage” of the fact that raising children under the wings of a father who is a fighter is among the greatest of God’s blessings.

Nevertheless, Dr Jerard noted that women’s role in IS is gradually evolving: They are becoming financiers, recruiters and also moral police officers. There is also the possibility of women increasingly taking on the role of suicide bombers, she said. Referring to Dian’s interview with Time, Dr Jerard said: “She rationalised it as more men are hiding... so, why can’t women volunteer for the task?” The use of women as attackers could spring a surprise on security forces, she added.

ANTI-I.S. PROPAGANDA EFFORTS ‘LACKING’

Once or twice a week in the evenings, Danish Aiman Abdul Rashid, 15, would spend two hours attending religious classes at Al Islah Mosque in Punggol, which is a 10-minute walk from his HDB block.

There, he learns how to pray as well as read the Quran, and the principles of Islam. “You get a proper religious education at the mosque and you can make friends,” said the Secondary 3 student from Springfield Secondary School.

But Danish conceded that he might have to spend less time at the mosque, when he gets older and becomes busier with school and extra-curricular activity. This is a familiar refrain among youth, according to religious teachers and young people themselves.

Undergraduate Haikal Latiff felt that learning about religion online is a lot more convenient. “It is an easier way for me to learn more about Islam because I am not bound by the physical setting or space of a specific class or lesson,” said the 26-year-old student from Nanyang Technological University. Every now and then, he would listen to podcasts or watch Youtube videos of sermons by foreign preachers.

But seeking religious knowledge independently online has its dangers. Young people could easily be exposed to misinterpreted Islamic readings or exclusivist messages, said Mr Zahid Zin, who is the co-founder of the Muslim Youth Forum which was set up in April last year to facilitate dialogues among youth.

Mr Haikal said he would verify the credibility of online sources of religious teachings. He would also cross-check the information with his father who is well-versed in Islamic knowledge, he said.

Mosques have to do more to creatively reach out to the youth, and not expect them to go to formal religious institutions on their own, said Mr Zahid, who is also the vice-president of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas). He added that most mosques here are moving in this direction. Among other efforts, they put up live-streaming of sermons and set up a presence on social media channels such as Instagram, said Mr Zahid.

Earlier this month, the Al-Ansar mosque organised a “social experiment”, involving some 60 youths aged between 16 and 24. The participants placed litter in the middle of busy walkways to test whether Singaporeans care about cleanliness.

The activity was filmed and posted on the mosque’s Facebook page. The video clip was an instant hit, garnering over 24,000 views and more than 420 shares.

The objective was to subtly propagate values which are intrinsic to Islam, such as compassion and goodwill, said the mosque’s youth development manager Mohammad Fairuz Shah Sudiman. “The last thing we want to do is to be preachy. So, this is one way of creatively sending the right messages to youth,” said the 33-year-old.

Part of Mr Mohammad Fairuz’s job scope is to engage youth online. Apart from sharing videos of Muslims “doing good”, the first step of engagement is to build relationships, so as to be able to learn more about an individual’s ideology and perception about Islam, he added. “(Youths) will then be comfortable to reach out to you if they have any doubts about what they read or watch online,” he said.

He reiterated that mosques and asatizahs in Singapore are ramping up their online presence, in order to reach out to the youth. Al-Ansar mosque, for example, is looking at creating podcasts and recorded video clips of religious lectures. “It’s not an option now for us ... we must do this,” said Mr Mohammad Fairuz.

Responding to TODAY’s queries on its efforts to counter extremist propaganda, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) acknowledged the initial gap in engaging the Muslim community through social media.

Unlike their overseas counterparts who were leveraging on the Internet to share videos of their lectures, majority of the local asatizahs — or Islamic religious teachers — have yet to embark on similar efforts.

Through regular engagement with religious teachers here, Muis has urged them to intensify their outreach efforts online. “The idea is to ensure the Singaporean Muslim community has access to appropriate and contextualised religious content,” said a Muis spokesman. But he stressed: “This is not a dedicated initiative to counter IS ideology.”

In Indonesia, for example, a group called Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is leading the efforts to provide targeted responses to IS propaganda. Since the terrorist group is known for using Quranic verses or hadiths (sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad) to rationalise their actions and views such as condoning sex slavery, NU works with the University of Vienna, Austria to explain the context of those verses or hadiths. The explanations are disseminated in the form of music videos, for example, similar to those produced by IS.

In Singapore, Muis said initiatives to counter IS ideology are spearheaded by the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). First set up in 2003, to rehabilitate detained Jemaah Islamiyah members and their families through counselling, the group has broadened its scope to dispel misinterpretations promoted by extremist groups. The RRG has a Youtube channel featuring eight videos, and a Facebook page with about 1,260 followers.

On its part, Muis said it “focuses on developing capabilities ... and encouraging local asatizahs to engage on social media, in addition to off-line real world Islamic education”. It added that it was encouraged by the progress made in this area.

Muis has been developing a social media strategy since 2009, when it first began using Facebook. The social media network is being used by Muis as a platform to “transmit information to the community — beginning with summaries of Friday sermons, and moving on to public education on its many initiatives and narratives”. The council has also produced multimedia content and videos, publishing on social media platforms such as Youtube, Twitter and Instagram. Muis’ halalSG@twitter is “extremely popular and effective in outreach on halal certification”, for example.

Still, Mr Remy said that counter-narratives to fight IS propaganda “are very much lacking”. He suggested that in-depth studies be conducted to understand media consumption patterns that would lead to radicalisation of individuals.

Earlier this week, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim urged asatizahs here to continue to strengthen their online presence and produce more “appealing” content, given the “battle for the hearts and minds” of young Malay-Muslim Singaporeans now being waged online. To counter IS’ online propaganda, there is a need for alternative narratives online, and to make them “as popular as possible”, he added.

BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS BEGINS AT HOME

For youths like Mr Haikal, how religious teachers deliver content is equally crucial. “It also boils down to the person’s charisma and you can find that in overseas preachers,” he said. Local asatizahs need to make themselves more prominent online, like their overseas counterparts, to feed the curiosity of today’s youth, he added.

Mr Zahid said asatizahs here are starting to experiment with social media tools - using Facebook “live” for instance. He has done a few such sessions himself, Mr Zahid said. “There are times where we will discuss about a topic relevant to the youth,” said Mr Zahid, who has over 8,000 followers on Facebook. “There are also candid moments where I said, ‘I have 30 minutes, ask me anything you want.’”

But asatizahs here are hamstrung by manpower and financial constraints. Overseas preachers, for instance, have “a lot of resources”, Mr Zahid noted. “They are not a one-man team but they have 100 people working for them, helping them create their online presence,” he added.

Mr Fizar Zainal, a local asatizah, has a Facebook page — with about 3,850 “friends” — where he posts about the virtues of the fasting month Ramdan, as well as comments on terrorism which come with hashtags such as “#notoisis”. The 29-year-old works at non-profit social organisation called Bapa, which conducts religious classes among other activities.

Mr Fizar said that countering IS propaganda does not mean constantly denouncing their ideology directly. Promoting the values of Islam such as peace and mercy is a “subtle messaging strategy”, which he felt is more effective.

“You don’t want to keep talking about violence and IS, it’s cheap publicity for them,” he said. “And you don’t want to keep telling the youth, don’t check out their materials online because it will be the case of the forbidden fruit — they would want to check out IS materials (as a result).”

Dr Jerard did not feel the need to craft specific measures targeted at women or youth. The key is having an inclusive, multi-faceted messaging strategy to counter IS’ propaganda, she said. “Why the IS is successful is because it has a singular messaging platform but with concurrent messages coming out — declare your oath of allegiance, conduct lone-wolf attacks in your country and so on,” said Dr Jerard. “Having an inclusive counter-radicalisation platform would acknowledge that violent radical ideology afflicts both genders.”

Apart from the ideological battle online, family and friends play a crucial role in alerting the authorities to individuals at risk of radicalisation — a message that government and religious leaders alike have been repeatedly stressing.

The battle for hearts and minds begins right at home. “Parents are the first line of defence, in observing changes in the youth’s character,” said Mr Zahid. “Building strong relationships with their children is also important, especially when they are in their teenage years. Because if there is no communication, the youth will find other outlets.”

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