Indonesia's Muslim 'cyber warriors' take on terrorists

Group uses websites and apps to counter ISIS' hate-filled ideology with moderate Islam

JAKARTA • A group of Indonesian "cyber warriors" sit glued to screens as they send out messages promoting a moderate form of Islam in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

Armed with laptops and smartphones, some 500 members of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of the world's biggest Muslim organisations, are seeking to counter the extremist messages of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"We'll never let Islam be hijacked by fools who embrace hate in their heart," tweeted Mr Syafi' Ali, a prominent member of the NU's online army, in a typical message to his tens of thousands of followers.

They are trying to hit back at ISIS' sophisticated Internet operations, which have been credited with attracting huge numbers from around the world to its cause.

Internet propaganda is believed to have played a key role in drawing some 500 Indonesians, particularly among those living in cities where it is easier to get online, to the Middle East to join ISIS.

PROTECTING THE FAITH

We'll never let Islam be hijacked by fools who embrace hate in their heart.

MR SYAFI' ALI, a prominent member of the Nahdlatul Ulama's online army, tweeting a typical message to his tens of thousands of followers.

The dangers of the growing ISIS influence in Indonesia were starkly illustrated in January when militants linked to the radicals launched a gun and suicide bomb attack in Jakarta, leaving four assailants and four civilians dead. It was the first major attack in Indonesia in seven years, following a string of militant bombings in the early 2000s that killed hundreds.

The NU members have also sought to dominate cyberspace by establishing websites promoting the group's moderate views, an Android app and web-based TV channels, whose broadcasts include sermons by moderate preachers.

The initiative has been building momentum for a while but started to pick up pace a few months ago. A handful of cyber warriors operate from a small office in Jakarta, while the rest work remotely. The group mostly communicates with one another over the Web.

But it will be an uphill battle and the NU, which has been promoting moderate Islam for decades, conceded it has previously struggled to take on ISIS' hate-filled messages.

"NU has for a while wrestled with this radical propaganda," said Mr Yahya Cholil Staquf, secretary-general of the NU, which claims at least 40 million followers. "Every time we defeated them, it didn't take long for them to regain their strength."

The online drive comes as the NU is set to take its campaign to promote its tolerant form of Islam onto the international stage this week, with a two-day meeting from today of moderate religious leaders from around the world.

They aim to showcase their particular brand of the Muslim faith, known as "Islam Nusantara" (Islam of the Archipelago), to counter ISIS' radical interpretation.

Despite their good intentions, the NU cyber warriors appear amateurish next to ISIS' well-funded set-up. The extremists, who control swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, have a sophisticated online operation, using social media, apps and slickly produced videos.

They send about 200,000 tweets a day to the United States alone, according to US officials. ISIS even has its own news agency, Amaq, which is often the first to report that the terror group is claiming responsibility for attacks.

Most of the NU's online army are volunteers, often reaching into their own pockets to cover costs.

"ISIS has oil, while the only oil we have is for hair," Mr Ali said, explaining the project's start was delayed for more than a year due to funding problems.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia's Muslim 'cyber warriors' take on terrorists'. Print Edition | Subscribe