BY Fergus Hanson
February 20, 2015
In July last year an influential radical and Melbourne native was arrested in The Philippines for using social media to recruit fighters for Islamic State.
The previous month, Time magazine dubbed Australia “the biggest per capita contributor of foreign jihadists” to the extremist group. It was a reminder not just of the scale of the problem but also the way technology was fuelling a more potent regional threat that demands an adaptive response.
Sadly, Australia and its neighbours are no strangers to terrorism. Indonesian veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan laid the foundations for a spate of terrorist attacks including in Bali. The same conflict drove the creation of Abu Sayyaf in The Philippines as well as enduring links to al-Qa’ida. But the Islamic State threat is particularly virulent.
First, in the words of former US defence secretary Chuck Hagel: “They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and ¬tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”
Second, a direct participant in the conflict (Australia) is located in the immediate region, making it an enduring focus for returning extremists.
Third, communications technology and low-cost travel have created the potential for wider and deeper regional connections than those formed by militants fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Jemaah Islamiah and Abu Sayyaf fighters used links forged in Afghanistan to stay connected (one reason Jemaah Islamiah fighters find sanctuary with Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines). However, returning Islamic State fighters could take regional co-operation to new levels.
Communications technologies give Islamic State recruiters a messaging platform across the region and low-cost travel is making transport to the Middle East to gain battlefield skills far easier. This is increasing the number of fighters, broadening the range of countries they are coming from and creating wide networks.
The number of fighters originating from our region speaks to the collective challenge we are going to face. Former ASIO director-general David Irvine said Australians fighting in Syria numbered “in the hundreds and not the tens”. The estimated number of fighters stemming from Indonesia varies from 34 to 300. In The Philippines the foreign ministry reported about 100 Filipinos travelled to Iran to undergo military training before deployment in Syria. In Malaysia last September, a report citing a senior intelligence official said 40 Malaysians had been recruited.
Some of the examples that have emerged of online networking among these fighters are disturbing. Evidence has already come to light of Indonesian and Malaysian extremists connecting through Facebook. Last August, 22 Indonesians and Malaysians came together in al-Shadadi in Syria’s Hasaka province to discuss the desirability of forming a katibah, a military unit of about 100 people, even posting a photo of one meeting on Facebook.
According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, which reported the gathering, this “also made sense given the (Islamic State) agenda to expand the reach of the caliphate to other areas, including Southeast Asia. Members of the katibahcould become the vanguard for a fighting force that would reach into Indonesia, Mal¬aysia and The Philippines.”
Here in Australia, we have had a cowardly direct attack from an individual radicalised online and multiple arrests of others who have bought into Islamic State propaganda.
Islamic State’s use of technology has become ubiquitous: there are tens of thousands of supportive Twitter accounts, while Facebook and video sharing sites are used to disseminate propaganda, recruit fighters and organise.
A policing and military response to Islamic State is already well under way, but this won’t address the obvious reality that technology is being used to facilitate extremism and an enduring, networked threat across our region.
What is urgently needed to complement existing government efforts is a regional response that uses the same tools as Islamic State to discredit its message.
Understanding and monitoring the evolving ways technology is being harnessed by the group is critical to dismantling its effectiveness. This effort needs to be synchronised with IT companies, particularly Facebook, Twitter and online video sharing platforms, to make sure the response is optimised and adaptable. Twitter began aggressively suspending Islamic State accounts last September, for example, but evidence suggests the group’s supporters have adapted their communications strategy, rendering the present approach largely ineffective.
An empirically driven online and offline communications response that seeks to discredit the appeal of Islamic State propaganda among vulnerable populations in Australia and Southeast Asia is also critical.
This could take several forms and would need to draw heavily on private sector expertise, including survey and public relations firms that would test and prove the efficacy of various messages in blunting the appeal of extremist communications.
An interdisciplinary lab to bring technologists, communications experts, tech firms, government and others together is required to complement existing, costly military and policing efforts.
Tony Abbott said last October, “What we are seeing every day is new exhortations on the internet urging fanatics to murder everyone and anyone who acts or thinks differently from them.”
It is a core piece of the problem that still needs to be addressed ¬robustly.
Fergus Hanson is a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. This article is drawn from the Strategic Insights report released by the Perth US Asia Centre, Countering ISIS in Southeast Asia: The Case for an ICT Offensive.