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Countering the Narrative of Daesh/ISIS in South East Asia

Countering the Narrative of Daesh/ISIS in South East Asia

March 1, 2017
Sara Zeiger
Sara Zeiger Non-Resident Fellow in International Relations & Counter-Terrorism

Just over a year ago, Daesh/ISIS claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack near Sarinah Mall in Jakarta, Indonesia.  This event highlighted the risks of terrorism in South East Asia as well as Daesh’s global spread.  However, global counter-terrorism efforts have mainly focused on Iraq and Syria, as well as the returning fighters and/or radicalized individuals in Europe and North America.  However, the threat of violent extremism in Indonesia and the greater South East Asia region continues to be a pressing threat: both in terms of the potential to re-ignite old networks of terrorism, and to inspire and recruit individuals to join newer groups like the Daesh and its locally based affiliates.

The world may be relatively ignorant of recruitment in South East Asia, but Daesh is actively taking advantage of the potential recruitment ground as evidenced through their propaganda.  In a May 2016 video released by Daesh, children from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines shoot rifles and handguns and burn their Asian passports under the supervision of a fighter named “Abu Naser al-Indonisi” (presumably an Indonesian).  The video was subtitled in Bahasa Indonesian, a language spoken primarily in Indonesia but also widely understood by the Malay-speaking community. However, this was not the first or only video message aimed at South East Asians; Daesh has been actively developing propaganda aimed at Indonesians, Malaysian and Filipinos for several years. For example, a July 2014 video released by Daesh’ Al-Hayat Media Center titled “Join the Ranks” featured an Indonesian man named Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi, who encourages South East Asians to pledge their allegiance to Daesh, travel to Iraq or Syria, and give financially to the cause.  Reportedly, in 2016, up to 20 videos per month have been translated by Al-Hayat Media Center into Bahasa Indonesian and a South East Asian fighting unit, the Katibah Nusantara (“Malay Archipelago Unit” or “Majmuah Al Arkhabily” in Arabic), has been recruiting Malaysians and Indonesians to Syria (Hasakah) since September 2014.

In a time when Daesh’s online media presence inspires and convinces individuals from around the globe to not only support their cause, but relocate to Iraq and Syria, countering Daesh’s propaganda has become a crucial element of counter-terrorism efforts.  With Daesh’s specific targeting of communities in South East Asia, counter-messaging in South East Asia has become a central focus of most governments in the region.

Daesh Presence in South East Asia

Several suicide bombings carried out by Malaysians in Iraq (Tikrit) and Syria (Raqqa) prior to the January 2016 Jakarta attack had already garnished the attention of relevant South East Asian authorities.  The Jakarta bombings reinforced fears that Daesh could inspire attacks to be carried out within South East Asia. Moreover, a number of South East Asian groups, or leaders of those groups, have pledged allegiance to Daesh; notably the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) in Indonesia and the Abu Sayef Group (ASG) in the Philippines. Claiming allegiance to Daesh in July 2014, the leader of MIT, the infamous Santoso, claims to hold territory in Poso, Indonesia, potentially setting up that organization to be the leader of a South East Asia wiliyat of Daesh. In the Philippines, Basilian-based ASG fighters have declared ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon as the emir of the South East Asian group of Daesh fighters, presumably the first step in creating an Daesh wiliyat in the region.

A December 2015 report by the Soufan Group placed the total number of Southeast Asians fighting in Iraq and Syria around 600, but later estimates have suggested the numbers could be between 1,200-1,800 from South East Asia to have joined the fight in Iraq and Syria.  However, it appears that nearly 50% of those who have traveled to join Daesh in Iraq or Syria are women and children. This means the recruitment of Daesh in Indonesia is not only aimed at individuals but entire families.  A January 2017 arrest further emphasizes this point: a family of five Indonesians (including three children) was taken into custody by the Indonesian police elite anti-terrorist unit, Detachment 88, after being deported by Turkey for attempting to join Daesh in Syria.

According to a Pew poll, 11% of Malaysians and 4% of Indonesians are sympathetic to Daesh, whereas 64% of Malaysians and 79% of Indonesians have an overwhelmingly negative view towards Daesh.  While it is pointed out that economic factors often contribute to grievances of terrorist organizations (including Daesh) in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, the “number of those who actually turn to violence within this group is low, so economics alone cannot explain the strong support for Daesh.”

The challenge posed by radicalization and recruitment into violent extremism, specifically into groups like Daesh, is exacerbated through the prison systems in South East Asia. For example, despite significant efforts by the Indonesian government to establish rehabilitation and reintegration programs for high-risk prisoners and significant donor funding pouring into improving Indonesian prison management, the understaffed and overcrowded prisons continue to be sources of radicalization and recruitment, with some evidence of terrorist activity being managed from within the prison systems themselves, as was the case with convicted prisoner Abu Khataf liaising with members of the Katibah Nusantara. Moreover, South East Asia faces a particular challenge with convicted prisoners either inspired by Daesh or returning foreign terrorist fighters from Daesh who are instructed not to participate willingly in prison programs.  As strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul start to fall and international border cooperation increases, the problem of returning foreign terrorist fighters unwilling to participate in these programs coupled with the potential large number of returnees will place a dangerous burden on governments in the region to find new solutions to protecting their national security interests. For example, a December 2016 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict states that over 300 Indonesians have been deported back to Indonesia from Turkey and elsewhere (e.g. Malaysia, Singapore) after being suspected of trying to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

Counter-Narratives: Responding to Daesh Propaganda in South East Asia

One potential way to prevent radicalization and recruitment to Daesh in South East Asia is to present a strong counter-message to their propaganda and communications techniques.  This should be led not only by government entities in the region, but also at the community level by grassroots and civil society organizations that have potential to impact and influence those who might be targets of Daesh recruitment.

As a response to the consistent threat of terrorism in South East Asia and the emerging threat of Daesh’s presence in the region, South East Asian governments have convened a number of times to discuss the regional threat of violent extremism and to develop better responses to it.  For example, ASEAN countries met in February 2016 in a public dialogue to evaluate counter-terrorism efforts against Daesh in South East Asia.  Directly related to counter-messaging, Malaysia also announced the set-up of a new regional Center in May 2016 to directly work against the messaging of Daesh.

At the same time, counter-messaging to Daesh propaganda, in particular, has been carried out by a number of different civil society and religious organizations. For example, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has created an online “army” of counter-propagandists to combat Daesh messages in Indonesia.  Moreover, the Religious Rehabilitation Group out of Singapore provides resources to counter the religious arguments of Daesh through concise explanations of Islamic concepts such as jihad, al wala wa bara, bai’ah, hijrah, and the khilafa.  Its online pamphlet titled “Fallacies of the Daesh Islamic Caliphate” underpins Daesh’ core arguments in English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil by highlighting the lack of support of Daesh ideals by mainstream scholars, and providing basic counterarguments to the religious ideology that Daesh articulates in its online and offline propaganda.

However, there are several missing elements when it comes to existing campaigns in South East Asia.  To more effectively tackle Daesh’ propaganda aimed at South East Asians, future counter-narratives for the region should:

  1. Focus on counter-messages that tackle more than just the ideological elements of Daesh narratives.

While the ideological and religious counter-messages to Daesh propaganda are important, individuals that are joining Daesh from South East Asia are doing so for a variety of reasons. For example, some individuals are attracted to the violent acts of Daesh, while others seek refuge from lack of opportunities or feelings of exclusion in their communities.  From a prison setting, individuals may be attracted to Daesh propaganda for better access to food, threat of violence in prison setting, or acceptance into a close-knit community.  Local counter-messages, therefore, should consider all of these elements, and tailor-make the message content to the actual reasons why individuals are joining Daesh from within their communities.

  1. Utilize the narratives of former violent extremists or defectors against Daesh.

South East Asia is not lacking in terms of experience of reintegrating former fighters into society.  Former Jemaah Islamiyyah members such as Noor Huda Ismail makes the case for reintegrating terrorists, and the needs of those individuals for re-joining society in a productive and non-violent way. In fact, in the prison setting, the most effective narratives against Daesh recruitment have actually come from convicted terrorists that engage in ideological debates with fellow prisoners, warning that Daesh ideologies are not Islamic.  Individuals that return willingly from Iraq or Syria that have “defected” can also communicate Daesh’ weaknesses and expose the hypocrisies of what life is actually like living under the so-called Caliphate.

  1. Counter-message like Daesh: design counter-recruitment campaigns that include “offline” elements.

More needs to be done at a focused, localized level to target areas of Daesh recruitment in the online and offline space in South East Asia. Daesh utilizes their limited resources efficiently by spending significant time convincing recruits at the individual level to join their cause, and less time focusing on propaganda aimed at the general population. Counter-messaging and counter-narratives should use a similar approach, while broad-based campaigns are necessary and useful to reinforce public sentiments, true counter-narratives need to be individually tailored and include a human “face” as a credible messenger to truly be convincing or effective.

This Insight is based on a paper presented at the International Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Research Conference 2016, hosted by Hedayah and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Jakarta, Indonesia on 7 December 2016.  The Conference aimed to build an evidence-base for what works, and what does not work, in current efforts to stem the flow of radicalization and recruitment internationally.   The contents of the presentation were based on a recent Hedayah report, Undermining Violent Extremist Narratives in South East Asia: A How-To Guide. http://www.hedayahcenter.org/Admin/Content/File-3182016115528.pdf

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