Earlier this month, the 1980s-accented decor of ISIS Malaysia welcomed a number of the 21st Century multinational technology giants for an intensive day-long discussion on the perennial threats of radicalisation, extremism and terrorism.
Together with security analysts, representatives of Microsoft, Facebook, Kaspersky, Google, Interpol, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure and the financial sector, the intersection of technology and security as well as its implications for counter-terrorism in the region, were deliberated.
The discussion was part of a joint project between ICT4Peace and the United Nations Counterterrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED), aimed at examining the technology sector’s role in responding to terrorist use of their products and services. The project also explores ways in which multi-stakeholder, public-private initiatives can support efforts in countering extremism.
Three broad takeaways emerged with important regional implications for counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism efforts:
FIRST, perspective is key. While much has been made of the exploitation of technology in the current wave of terrorism, social media remains but a vector of communication among extremists.
Yes, the Internet and its attendant applications lure vulnerable individuals with problematic messages. Yes, they beam horrific images and videos that get shared and reposted through both open and secret channels. Yes, they feed, amplify and validate viewpoints that would not otherwise be acceptable by ordinary norms. And yes, they have sped up the radicalisation process where al-Qaeda may have taken months, if not years, to groom their recruits in the past, but Daesh is now able to do so in months, if not weeks.
However, it is critical to place the role of information and communications technology, in general, and social media and chat applications, specifically, in their proper context.
Over-emphasising the place of technology in the radicalisation process runs the risk of knee-jerk policy choices, such as threats of censorship or outright shutdown.
The technology industry offers as much opportunity as it does challenges in this realm, and it is essential that the freedom to innovate be preserved for this sector.
Already, creative solutions using existing content and platforms are being tested. Google’s incubator and think tank, Jigsaw, for example, recently released a pilot programme called “Redirect”.
The algorithms draw in those searching for extremist content and, as the name suggests, redirects them to counter-messages, instead. This is done through advertisements linking existing Arabic and English YouTube channels that Jigsaw believes are able to subtly undercut Daesh’s narrative.
Feedback has been encouraging. Earlier this year, in the space of two months, more than 300,000 people were drawn to these counter-messaging YouTube channels. They watched 425,000 minutes of video content. Searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s redirect advertisements three or four times more often than a typical advertisement campaign.
The next phase of this programme will be launched in the United States with a focus on potential recruits of white supremacist movements, proving that technology can be both targeted and broad-based at the same time.
SECOND, demand must be met by supply. Individuals turn to the Internet because they want answers to difficult questions. Why are whole segments of society being killed in Syria, Palestine, and Myanmar? Why are governments party to this outrage? What does it mean to be a good Muslim, Christian, or Buddhist? Does religion sanction murder in the name of self-defence?
With 75 per cent of those arrested in Malaysia having been radicalised online, there is considerable hunger in this region for content. The establishment of Katibah Nusantara and its media outreach attempts are testament to this gap.
The fact that there is insufficient indigenous content being produced in Southeast Asia means that many are turning to material from other regions with vastly different historical, political and socio-cultural experiences. Consequently, the wholesale importation of fiery rhetoric from these foreign lands sits very oddly with the local context, but these arguments are, nevertheless, repeated ad nauseam either deliberately for vested interests or without due consideration for their applicability to this region.
In particular, there has in recent times been a terrible copy-and-paste job of the tribal and sectarian divisions that have riven West Asia, but have now been grafted onto Southeast Asia, contrary to this region’s peacefully plural history.
The original narratives of this region must be reclaimed as the alternative narratives to extremism. Technology companies such as Microsoft are assisting through offline initiatives that empower youths to be more digitally literate.
This entails encouraging critical thinking and education among the young for them to parse what they are fed online. Perhaps, as was suggested during the discussion, this should be expanded to adults.
Ultimately, uploaded content can only be credible if it reflects realities on the ground. For realities of moderation to prevail, there must be political will to act because what develops online is simply a transposition of exploitable shortfalls, offline.
THIRDLY, to emphasise the symbiosis of online and offline realms, case studies have shown that while chat rooms may broaden recruitment, serious radicalisation occurs in the real world once ties have been made, intent has been verified and trust has been engendered.
In a number of instances, as in the past, familial and collegial connections figure importantly. Umar Jundul Haq, the eldest of four sons, was 19 years old when he died in Syria last year. His father was Imam Samudra, who was convicted and executed for his role in the 2002 Bali bombing. Abu Jibril, formerly a recruiter for Jemaah Islamiyah, reportedly has a few sons fighting for Al-Nusra, one of whom, Ridwan, was killed in Syria.
As these individuals and groups, along with their sympathisers and supporters, increasingly diversify their recruitment and propaganda online, we have to contend with this new normal. This requires a greater balancing act between public sector demands of protecting national security and preserving civil liberties, on the one hand, and the private sector’s imperative of the space to create and innovate, on the other.
A constructive interim approach would be for the technology sector to evolve its own set of good practices and norms with regard to counter-radicalisation, an effort that through this project discussion in Kuala Lumpur and other places, it is already beginning to consider.
Elina Noor is a director of foreign policy and security studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia