ISIS threat to region 'far worse' than earlier groups

Stacks of books titled 'Handbook of Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific' are displayed on a table during the launch event of the book at the National Library on July 12 2016.
Stacks of books titled 'Handbook of Terrorism in the Asia-Pacific' are displayed on a table during the launch event of the book at the National Library on July 12 2016. PHOTO: EPA

Terrorism expert cites its use of multilingual propaganda and social media

The terrorist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a threat to Singapore and the region that is far worse than that of older terror groups like Al-Qaeda, terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said yesterday.

At least 34 militant groups in neighbouring countries have links with or pledged allegiance to ISIS, and there is a "tiny minority" of sympathisers and supporters of the group in the region.

Two years after declaring a caliphate in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has produced "very seductive" propaganda material, he noted.

These include "near-Hollywood quality videos" in English and languages such as Malay, Bengali and Turkish, to lure young men and women through social media, Professor Gunaratna added.

"ISIS and Al-Qaeda ideology are very similar, but ISIS is more violent and more bloody, it's a more barbaric group," he said.

He was speaking to reporters at the National Library at the launch of a book he co-edited on the history and rise of terrorism in the Asia-Pacific region, titled Handbook Of Terrorism In The Asia-Pacific. The launch comes as the authorities in the region are concerned that ISIS' first Malay-language newspaper, launched online last month, is being circulated as the group seeks to expand its support.

Called Al Fatihin, which means "The Conqueror" in Arabic, the 20-page newsletter distorts Islamic teachings, including those on Ramadan, and instead encourages readers to commit violence, seek martyrdom and kill disbelievers and Muslims who oppose ISIS.

Malaysia's Home Ministry said this week it would take action against those caught producing and distributing the publication.

Prof Gunaratna said ISIS' use of various languages shows the threat it poses as a transnational movement with global reach.

At the same time, he said that many governments in the region do not understand that the threat landscape has shifted to one that is "ISIS-centric".

This was what prompted Prof Gunaratna and Ms Stephanie Kam, Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) to produce the book to detail the emerging threat in the region.

"It is a tool to educate governments to fight the emergence of ISIS in the region," said Prof Gunaratna, who is Professor of Security Studies at RSIS.

Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Amrin Amin, who was at the launch, said as Singapore strengthens legislation and enhances security measures, "we will also need to continue safeguarding our community against terrorist and extremist ideology".

"With ISIS ideology being disseminated widely on the Internet, its extremist and exclusive ideas have the potential to breed intolerance, prejudice and suspicion," he said.

"The book attempts to go beyond the media headlines and simplistic analyses based on alarmist narratives," he added.

The book, published by World Scientific Publishing, has chapters on the fight against terrorism in 30 countries, from Australia to Uzbekistan. It costs $168.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline 'ISIS threat to region 'far worse' than earlier groups'. Print Edition | Subscribe