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Urgent need to counter Malaysia's 'Cyber-ISIS'

Extremists see participation in online 'ribat' activities as joining battles in the real world

Online extremism in Malaysia is a matter of national and regional security. In May last year, Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reported that 75 per cent of supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - variously known as ISIL, Islamic State and Daesh - were recruited online.

As of January this year, the Malaysian police have arrested 153 people for suspected links to ISIS, successfully thwarting possible attacks. However, Malaysian ISIS fighters and supporters continue to thrive on social media platforms such as Facebook.

While Malaysia has the legal recourse to combat real-world terrorism - such as the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or Sosma - on top of nascent counter-radicalisation and counter-ideological efforts, Kuala Lumpur cannot ignore the thousands among its citizens who believe that they are contributing to ISIS' cause through their online "ribat", or guarding of military frontiers. There is an urgent need for these online radicals to be engaged in counter-narratives, for theirs is but a small step away from real-world militancy.

Malaysian online extremists, including mere Facebook "friends" of militants as well as hackers and "tech experts", believe that they are "Cyber-ISIS", or that they are conducting ribat online. Social media is their frontier, online content their cavalry and swords, and friendship binds them together; their enemies are those who spread falsehoods about the dawlah (ISIS), as well as online Shi'ites, infidels and supporters of the tawaghut (idolaters).

In their very hearts, they perceive their online activities as participation in the real-world battles on the ground. And in some cases, these activities become realised into actual travel, planning of attacks and co-coordinating of clandestine cells, which, in Malaysia, has led to arrests. However, the authorities need to look deeper into online ribat and curb radical activities further upstream.

MULTITUDE OF MEANINGS


Malaysian online extremists have been complicit in shaping and building online and real-world communities of extremists. They have followed the journey of militants like Lotfi Ariffin (left) - who died in Syria in 2014 - producing and distributing extremist content from "ISIS Central". PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

The authorities have to be familiar with ribat in its various military and non-military usages, particularly in dealing with the strategy of Daesh (as ISIS is known in Arabic) on the ground and online. According to the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam, ribat carries a multitude of meanings.

In non-military usage, ribat means a building prepared and put aside for ritualistic, academic and educational activities of the fuqaha (scholars of jurisprudence) and the Sufis. Ribat in this sense may be linked to jihad but only in the non-violent and symbolic sense, that is, against "the self".

The associated meanings that come with ribat originate from its military usage as a military-religious institution, originally linked to tribal warfare, implying the preparations made when mustering cavalry before battle.

Much later, along with the changes in the way the Arabs conducted their wars through the ages, a ribat became associated with fortifications and buildings, such as the observation tower. As a verbal noun of the verb rabata, it implies attachment to a place, or a person, just as horses are required to be, having been gathered ready for combat. In the Quran (8:60), ribat is the assembling of battle horses for warfare as a show of force to deter the enemy.

Through the evolution of its use by Muslim armies in warfare in the past centuries, ribat has been supplied with the notion of the "frontier" that was injected by the period of conquests in Islamic history. It is a concept of observation, standing guard and of preparation for an impending skirmish, deployment, battle or movement, and may or may not involve the necessary religious or military education or indoctrination.

VICTORIES FOR MALAYSIA'S CYBER RIBAT

Malaysian online murabitun or extremists - those who undertake cyber ribat - have been complicit in shaping and building online and real-world communities of extremists. They are supporters and sympathisers of radicals who could not afford the trip to Syria, were advised not to go or have yet to find the courage to leave Malaysia and their families behind. Their first victory online was to provide ISIS with a dominant grasp of the online jihadi conversation in the Malay-speaking world.

Since 2013, the online murabitun followed the journey of extremists such as Lotfi Ariffin, producing and distributing extremist content, from the daily lives of fighters in Syria to calls for jihad and even material such as logos, pictures and videos from "ISIS Central". They have been consistently defending the presence of their community online by tactically using social media - for instance, by persistently creating new accounts, adding new friends and helping extremists to verify and resurface accounts that have been shut down.

After the Malaysian fighters left Ajnad Ash-Sham Ajnad Ash-Sham, a rebel group active in the civil war in Syria which Lotfi was said to have joined, and joined ISIS, these online extremists did not hesitate in staying abreast with the change in ideological or doctrinal leaning and loyalty. Admittedly, this swing in online support was long due, with ISIS dominating other extremist groups in terms of public online presence.

It is worth noting that since then, there has not been any news of new Malaysian fighters joining any other groups in Syria. In January this year, the 11 Malaysians who were arrested for planning attacks and attempting to travel to Syria were wholly linked to ISIS.

END RIBAT, BEGIN REHABILITATION

Regardless of whether they are responsible for a complete Daesh-isation of real-world Malaysian jihad, intentionally or unknowingly, they have allowed their audience to enter into the alternative world of ISIS; they know how to dress, speak, think and use social media like an extremist. They have contributed to the building of an ideological repository of Daesh ethics - what they should and should not do or like.

They are complicit in the creation of the extremist information market, and their sense of community. When there is a threat to the community, they alert the others and provide suggested solutions. When a fighter dies, they grieve or celebrate together and when a member is caught, they alert others of enemies among themselves. As a result, fighters do indeed gain from audience participation. They can gauge who among the audience are potential friends or recruits.

Online murabitun with dangerous levels of radicalisation should not be left alone just because they are not an immediate threat. Those who have yet to be dangerously radicalised need to be rescued and guided back into society for their own safety and for the security of Malaysia.


  • The writer is a research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

  • A version of this article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'Urgent need to counter Malaysia's 'Cyber-ISIS''. Print Edition | Subscribe