US to open anti-ISIS data centre in Malaysia

WASHINGTON • A year after the State Department opened a data centre in the Middle East aimed at countering online messaging by terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the US plans to inaugurate a similar outpost in Malaysia in the coming months.

Like its counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, the new centre will seek to undermine the terrorist group's digital recruitment and propaganda efforts, Under-secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington on Wednesday. The centre fills a gap in the media landscape by countering the "viral spread of disinformation by state and non-state actors", he said.

Because public statements from US government officials condemning the group "can easily be used by the enemy as a recruitment tool", Mr Stengel said US efforts "focus on amplifying credible voices and lifting up those voices in a coordinated way".

The centre in Kuala Lumpur, which will be followed by similar outposts in Jordan and Nigeria, will go into operation as ISIS recruiters are increasingly moving away from unprotected networks onto encrypted platforms.

While that makes it harder to track some online conversations, Mr Stengel said success can also be gauged by measuring declines in the flow of foreign fighters to conflict areas and decreased media and social media activity.

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have assisted the State Department's efforts by being more proactive in removing pro-ISIS accounts and propaganda, Mr Stengel said. He said Twitter had taken down 125,000 pro-ISIS accounts, a statistic that presidential envoy Brett McGurk gave the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

Yet the proliferation of the anti-ISIS centres shows the group's increasingly global reach, even as it faces setbacks on the battlefield in strongholds such as Syria and Iraq.

This year the group has managed to carry out or inspire mass- casualty events in places including Turkey, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Orlando, Florida.

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has said that the US will help with training, equipment and operations at the centre.

Malaysian police said this week that 186 Malaysians and 27 foreigners had been detained to facilitate investigations into terror groups.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'US to open anti-ISIS data centre in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe