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Beware of smartphone obsession, sister of Malaysian ISIS recruit warns

A picture posted on Twitter by an ISIS-affiliated social media account purportedly shows members of an armed, all-female militia. Over 60 Malaysians, along with hundreds of women from the West, including from Europe, the US and Australia, have made t
A picture posted on Twitter by an ISIS-affiliated social media account purportedly shows members of an armed, all-female militia. Over 60 Malaysians have made their way to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

 KUALA LUMPUR - The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria  (ISIS) is only a smartphone away.

As 31-year-old Malaysian woman Sophie discovered, when she lost her younger and only sibling Yusophin, 28,  who left Kuala Lumpur last September to join the militant group in Raqqa, Syria.

 "If  you see a loved one suddenly become obsessed with their smartphones, be very careful. They will start living with their smartphones, keeping it away from you..that's a sign they are being recruited," said Sofie, her large eyes looking sad.

 "My sister suddenly became obsessed with her smartphone."

 Sofie was initially reluctant to be interviewed, finding it difficult to put into words the agony of worrying about the fate of her sister.

But she relented after some persuasion.  And once she started talking, she found her voice and strength.

 A housewife and mother of two, Sofie does not want the same fate to befall anyone else.

 "I urge parents to monitor your children's smartphones. Don't be afraid to report to the police if you see any drastic changes," she said. "It could help save you from losing a loved one."

"Aren't people usually glued to their computers when they are lured?" I asked.

Sofie  exclaimed "No!"

 "Yusophin communicated with them (ISIS) using her smartphone. They chatted on Facebook and Twitter," she said.

 According to Sofie and counter-terrorism officials, cellphones are the most popular way that  extremists connect with vulnerable young people these days.

 And it makes sense, as smartphones  are highly portable, the advancement in technology enabling easy streaming of social media.

 A young American woman named only as "Alex" recently told the New York Times that ISIS and its followers collectively engaged with her for thousands of hours via her iPhone. It vibrated all day long with status updates, notifications, emoticons and Skype voice mail messages.

 To attract recruits from Malaysia and Indonesia, ISIS has set up at least seven websites and blogs in Malay, Datuk Ayub Khan, Malaysian Special Branch counter-terrorism principal assistant director, told The Straits Times in an interview.

 Slick and eye-catching, the online sites post glorious accounts of ISIS victories in Syria and Iraq, heroism of its martyrs and the pure and idyllic life in the caliphate.

 The internet servers are located outside of Malaysia, in the United States, Germany and Britain, according to Datuk Ayub.

 Out of the seven, three websites and two blogs are located in the US, and one website each in Germany and Britain.

 "We have not made any request to foreign governments to shut them down…because there is not much we can do as these IP servers are  outside of the country," said Datuk Ayub.

"And even if you shut them down, they will pop up again in another place. We need to counter their ideology, not just shut them down.

 "That is why  we (police) hold many lectures on the dangers of ISIS throughout the country," he said.

According to US counter-terrorism experts, 18,000 Twitter accounts linked to the group were suspended in recent months. Despite that, tens of thousands remain online.

 The terrorist group itself maintains a 24-hour online operation, and its effectiveness is vastly extended by larger rings of sympathetic volunteers and fans who pass on its messages and viewpoint, reeling in potential recruits.

 As thousands continue to make their way to Syria, it is a reminder that we literally hold ISIS in our hands, and those of our children.

amychew@sph.com.sg