Education and awareness are key to stopping online radicalisation
27 Mar 2023|

The current battlefield for terrorism is not a faraway country but the computers and phones right next to us. Terrorists have taken advantage of this technology to allow conflict to transcend its geographic borders. Using emotionally charged propaganda to draw people to their cause, terrorists hope to modify human behaviour through self-radicalisation. They know that reaching one sympathetic viewer can create catastrophic consequences in support of their agenda. The social network is now an environment where everyone is vulnerable to encountering propaganda or misinformation online, making everyone susceptible to radicalisation.

The threat of self-radicalisation remains constant even in as ordered a society as Singapore. According to the Singapore terrorism threat assessment report 2022, over the past seven years, 45 individuals arrested under the Internal Security Act were self-radicalised. The number continues to grow each month as terrorists increase their online footprint.

In January, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs released an update on terrorism cases associated with the security act. Notably included was the first public servant arrested for terror-related offences in Singapore, Mohamed Khairul Riduan bin Mohamed Sarip, a 38-year-old teacher. Khairul’s self-radicalisation began in 2007 after he viewed Facebook videos showing Israeli aggression against Palestinians. He continued searching for materials relating to the tactics and operations of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Khairul hoped to travel to Gaza under the guise of providing humanitarian aid but intended to perform jihad and achieve martyrdom. Khairul continued to view videos of the conflict, including those by radical preachers Ahmed Deedat and Zakir Naik.

In a February update on cases, Singapore announced that it had detained 18-year-old Muhammad Irfan Danyal bin Mohamad Nor. He was the third youth since 2020 detained for terrorism-related offences under the security act. Irfan’s self-radicalisation process began with videos by Naik. He then became involved with discussion tables exposing him to Islamic State propaganda. Irfan investigated travelling to Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Marawi to join IS on the battlefield. His interest in IS grew into a desire to establish a caliphate in Singapore. He created videos to spread IS ideology in the hope of recruiting more than 100 fighters and formulated three plans for them to carry out attacks in Singapore.

Singapore continues to counter violent extremism online by increasing technology security. The new Online Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments) Act enables the government to direct online communication services to disable local access to harmful content. This includes content that advocates violent extremism. However, Singapore, like other nations, needs to increase community resources to fight the spread of online extremism.

One major commonality between these two cases was the deep influence of Naik, a radical preacher originally from India. Naik has been accused by the Indian government of inciting hatred, supporting terrorism and facilitating money laundering. He is barred from entering Singapore due to his extremist teachings. However, he was granted permanent residency in Malaysia, avoiding extradition to India. He has a massive audience on the internet, including 23 million followers on Facebook. Preachers like Naik are exploiting social media to influence young people. While the new online safety act potentially allows Singapore to block organisations and individuals like Naik, it’s impossible to fully sanitise social media and other information sources.

The difficult task of discerning radical narratives therefore falls to the public, who must analyse the information and avoid perpetuating its reach through ‘likes’ and ‘shares’. Sometimes unsuspecting people share material because they think it’s funny or absurd, inadvertently propagating the narrative and allowing it to reach someone more vulnerable. Naik’s video stating that Muslims should not wish Christians ‘Merry Christmas’ was shared multiple times including by some who just thought it was ridiculous. However, this is one of the videos viewed by Khairul during his radicalisation process.

In a survey conducted by Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information in 2021, only 51% of respondents believed their country was a target for terrorist attacks and fewer than half said they would contact authorities if they believed a loved one was displaying signs of radicalisation.

The Singapore analysis shows how social media can be used to exploit vulnerabilities in any community and any individual, potentially resulting in increased violent extremism. Communities must find ways to educate individuals about extremist viewpoints while providing them with the skills to think critically. We must ensure that there are outlets for people to speak about divisive issues, especially for those who lack solid family and peer support channels. Education and discussion will enable different viewpoints to be heard and challenged.

It is impossible to prevent vulnerable people from ever seeing propaganda or disinformation, but it is possible to teach them how to respond correctly. These cases show the increased importance of technology security and community awareness in the fight against terrorism. Governments and citizens across Southeast Asia and the Pacific must be aware of the effects that abuse of social media can have on their societies. The fight against terrorism is no longer solely in the hands of policymakers and police; instead, it rests under the thumbs of each of us.