OLD WAR, NEW METHODS

Cracking cyber-terrorism codes

Ms Nur Azlin, 28, has trained her sights on online cyber-terrorism since she joined RSIS - first as an analyst in 2007, then as an associate research fellow two years ago. Part of her work involves monitoring websites known to be frequented by extrem
Ms Nur Azlin, 28, has trained her sights on online cyber-terrorism since she joined RSIS - first as an analyst in 2007, then as an associate research fellow two years ago. Part of her work involves monitoring websites known to be frequented by extremist groups.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

IT WAS just another day at the office for security researcher Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin.

She was trawling through postings on extremist Indonesian websites in February this year, when a page popped up.

It said that a Singaporean, Mohamed Hussain Saynudin, had been released from jail in Singapore. He had been detained for terrorist-related activities here.

She spotted the item, and filed the data for her monthly report on Bahasa Indonesian extremist websites. These sites feature postings and comments from supporters of terrorists, women and several young adults.

Two weeks later, on March 7, her senses were jolted when she read the Ministry of Home Affairs official statement on the detainee's release. Shocked, she exclaimed: "What! I've seen this somewhere before."

She went back to the extremist website and noted that the posting was put up long before Singapore issued its official statement.

She wondered how the author of the posting, "Hazmi", knew of the detainee's release under a Restriction Order on Feb 21.

Under this order, Mohamed Hussain is not allowed to change his address or job, or travel overseas, without the authorities' approval. He had been arrested in 2007 under the Internal Security Act for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a regional terror group.

Ms Nur Azlin swiftly alerted her bosses at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), who then relayed the data to the Singapore authorities.

As a security analyst, her job is to spot, interpret and pass on information to the security agencies, who then do the investigation and enforcement.

Ms Nur Azlin, 28, has trained her sights on online cyber-terrorism since she joined RSIS, first as an analyst in 2007, then as an associate research fellow two years ago.

Part of her work involves monitoring websites known to be frequented by extremist groups. She looks mainly at the impact Indonesian extremist organisations' activities have on Singapore's security.

This is a growing concern as there is a high usage of the Internet in Singapore. More terrorist elements are joining the crowded social media space, putting out bits and bytes of their terrorist propaganda on the digital superhighway to win over more sympathisers to their cause, recruit members and raise funds, online.

In 2007, the number of terrorism websites in Indonesia was around 15. Today there are more than 200, she reckons, and adds that some Indonesian security experts quote a higher figure of 900. This total includes Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"It's becoming harder to track cyber websites as its growth is very contagious. Its like a virus," says the petite researcher.

Gold mine

BUT she sees a positive outcome as the big number of online sites throws up lots of leads on how terrorists are operating. "For us it's a gold mine of information. It allows us to track the propaganda and helps our counter-terrorist experts to come up with stronger strategies," she explains.

Apart from tracking security-related news on Singapore, she focuses on material that points to possible new targets of attacks.

For example,when the Rohingya issue surfaced last year, she tracked speeches by Indonesian extremist leaders like Abu Bakar Bashir who called for jihad or holy war against Myanmar.

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group, has suffered sustained discrimination from the ethnic Burmese junta in Myanmar. Ugly anti-Muslim sentiments erupted when clashes broke out between Buddhists and the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Through her tracking, Ms Nur Azlin also detects ideological shifts in the thinking of the different extremists groups.

She found that after the crackdown on the Aceh terrorist training camp three years ago, some online extremists clung to their line of waging more violence. Others wanted non-violent ways of winning the hearts and minds of Muslims in Indonesia.

Another concern is the spike in the number of sites that post manuals, containing details of how to make and explode homemade explosives, she says.

For a detailed analysis of how dangerous and effective these weapons manuals are, she gets advice from officers in the Criminal Investigations Department.

She also works with her colleague in the institute, Mr Idznursham Ismail. He is a student analyst who researches the use of biological and radiological agents as weapons of mass destruction.

Ms Nur Azlin notes that online forums have an alluring effect on those who can be swayed by the messaging.

Facebook and Twitter help radicals feel a sense of psychological belonging if they find like-minded folk. This makes online sites more alluring, she says, adding: "It leads to the high probability of the adoption of hatred ideology through 'group think' tactics."

The big worry is that these online activities can lead to radicalisation of individuals, she stresses.

Online forums, she notes, have given Indonesian terrorist groups new ways of recuperating from the Indonesian police crackdowns on terrorist groups and activities.

"To rebuild themselves, terrorist groups disseminate their propaganda online to garner support and lure recruits," she adds.

Facebook recruits

ACCORDING to Mr Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, an analyst at the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies in Indonesia, 50 to 100 militants in Indonesia have been recruited in the last two years through Facebook.

Singapore, too, has seen the emergence of self-radicalised individuals. Since 2007, five have been detained and of this group, three have been released.

She submits her findings on cyber-terrorism in monthly reports which reach RSIS and security agencies in Singapore.

At RSIS, she heads a four-member informatics desk which reports on material gathered from extremist online sites in the Indonesian, Malay, Arabic and English languages.

In addition to writing research papers, she has conducted briefings and workshops for security personnel from overseas security organisations, including Detachment 88, the Indonesian counter-terrorism unit.

The mother of two has a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications degree from Oklahoma City University and a Master of Science in Strategic Studies from the Nanyang Technological University.

Asked if she gets swayed by the ideological stand on resorting to hate and violence, she says: "I've been asking myself that same question.

"I do not get swayed but I don't really know why others get influenced.

"Perhaps it's related to an individual's personality, the upbringing and education," she says.

When asked if the daily tracking of websites containing hate and violent material affects her, she replies frankly: "Sometimes."

On these days, she talks to her fellow analysts in RSIS who are Muslim clerics, on how not to let the work get to her.

"I'm human and it does get overwhelming," she states. "I feel a bit sad as there are those who believe in this crude ideology of violence.

"There are now more online sites that are targeted at women and even children.

"If only they put their energy to good use and came over to our side, they would be just as determined as us to work against terrorist ideologies," she says.

mnirmala@sph.com.sg