By Brian R. Moore and Sim Vireak
2016 continues to see young Muslims inspired by radicalism commit terrorist attacks across the globe. In Orlando, 49 were killed and 53 more injured at the hands of Omar Mateen, a single gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS. In the Philippines, at least 18 soldiers were killed and 52 injured in clashes with Abu Sayyaf militants. In Indonesia, 8 were killed and 24 injured in several explosions directed by ISIS. The events, though unique in scale, felt eerily familiar for the United States and the rest of the world. They are a continuation of ISIS’s rhetoric falling on receptive ears, with social media often being the tool used in the recruitment process capable of reaching even the lowest-end user.
In fact, as ISIS loses territory and is driven off the battlefield, it is likely to further turn to social media to groom more lone-wolves to carry out attacks at home. As ISIS official spokesperson and senior leader Abu Muhammed al-Adnani’s exhorted, “The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would do if you were with us.” This substantiates the claim that even the destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria would not prevent their ideology from continuing to inspire. Indeed, ISIS is evolving into a “virtual caliphate.”
Extremist groups are particularly skilled at social media. This online presence includes Hollywood-quality videos that glorify violence, and a call to arms that offers a sense of brotherhood and belonging to disillusioned young Muslims. These groups release an estimated 90,000 tweets and other media responses every single day. Social media may not be decisive in the decision to radicalize and travel to the Syrian battlefields or downtown Jakarta, but the nature of terrorism requires only a few individuals to inflict large-scale damage and death to many.
A systematic and coordinated response to the narrative that groups like ISIS are trying to promote through social media is necessary to combat radicalization and recruitment efforts. This counter-narrative can glorify the successes of anti-extremist military operations, highlight the failures and embarrassments of ISIS, and expose the fallacies in radical ideology.
The impact of social media
In Asia, the manipulation of social media and the spread of radical rhetoric are furthering the causes of extremist groups throughout the region. Anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Cambodia, which date back thousands of years to the Khmer Empire, have recently flared again. Facebook is being used to fan xenophobia, where photos and even border treaties are being falsely edited online to draw further racist sentiments. In China, a country home to more than 300 million social media accounts, more than 10 million online signatures were gathered for a petition to oppose Japan’s United Nations Security Council bid in 2005, a result of rising anti-Japanese sentiment.
What is particularly troubling is the manipulation of social media by extremist groups that operate in the name of Islam. Southeast Asia is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, there are more than 220 million Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia alone. This massive population, alongside an increasing internet-penetration rate (mostly through smart phones) and access to social media, provides fertile ground for extremist groups like ISIS to spread their message. While the vast majority of Muslims in Southeast Asia oppose the use of violence in the name of Islam and are against radical groups like ISIS, there remains a significant minority that sympathize with such extremism. According to Pew Research findings, 27 percent of Muslims in Malaysia think that attacks on civilians are sometimes or often justified, while Indonesians feel favorable toward Al Qaeda and The Taliban at 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively. These figures suggest that there is room in Southeast Asia for ISIS to operate and effectively radicalize at least the few needed to engage in terrorism.
The stakes are high in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world, and the battle for hearts and minds will determine the effectiveness of recruitment campaigns. The virtual battlefield is a critical starting point, a space where extremism can falter to reason and reality.
The Muslim world overwhelmingly opposes extremist ideology and terrorism, putting ISIS in a minority. And an advantage in numbers, resources, and capabilities, means creating an anti-ISIS counter-narrative could be an easy win for the international community.
What would a counter-narrative campaign look like?
A counter-narrative social media campaign would consist of a broad international coalition that includes social media accounts belonging to both governments and civil society. The latter is important, given that many of those at risk of radicalization are inherently distrusting and displeased with governments and the world order. Once this virtual coalition is established, the campaign would function in three critical ways: glorifying the campaigns and successes of anti-ISIS forces; exposing the losses and embarrassments of ISIS; and mobilizing influential Muslim voices to lead the ideological battle against radicalism.
The allure of violence is central to ISIS’s campaign to reach young men, seducing them with visions of power and adventure. This attraction to some of the most basic human behavior can be redirected to the realities on the ground—the overwhelming successful military operations of forces combating ISIS. The campaign should feature footage such as Iraqi security forces closing in on both Fallujah and Mosul, the more than 1000 Russian air strikes that have destroyed an estimated 500 trucks carrying oil, or the numerous victories of Shiite militias, Sunni tribes, and Kurdish forces that are all pushing back ISIS in critical areas.
The 2015 U.S. raid to free 70 Kurdish prisoners held by ISIS in Iraq is evidence of the potential influence that these victories could have. The rescue operation was filmed through a helmet camera on one of the Kurdish soldiers. Leaked footage that ended up online reached nearly 700,000 views on YouTube in just five days. Another similar video that shows Kurdish forces capturing 3 ISIS members has had nearly 2 million views. Neither of these videos were used by outside governments or media.
These types of videos are clearly an effective tool, especially when compared to the most popular anti-radical video released by the U.S. Department of State that peaked at 120,000 views. Unfortunately, this type of heroic footage is underutilized and often the exception rather than the norm.
Additionally, the counter-narrative should expose the embarrassing failures of ISIS both on the battlefield and within their own ranks. Given the lack of training and experience that exists among many ISIS fighters, self-inflicted fatalities from botched explosives as well as a lack of basic understanding of advanced weaponry are frequent occurrences. Also, the high number of defections and killings among the ranks of ISIS can provide more fodder for a counter-narrative to expose embarrassing realities.
For some recruits, the appeal of ISIS may be ideological, with those with a weak grasp of Islam being particularly at risk. Because of this, the role of influential voices and organizations in the Muslim world are critical. Thankfully, there are models that can be expanded. Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims more than 50 million members, preaches a message of tolerance in its online campaign against jihadism. NU, which releases a plethora of anti-jihadism videos and posts in both English and Arabic, is key since Indonesia, home to the highest population of Muslims in the world, has experienced some of the lowest numbers of fighters traveling to the Middle East to fight for ISIS.
But other influential groups are lagging. Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization with 20 million members has yet to engage in a similar counter-narrative campaign—despite its longstanding support for secularism. And Malaysia, home to 20 million Muslims, seems more concerned with which political party is more Muslim than preaching tolerance and peace.
To be fair, some Muslim NGOs have organized for the sake of quelling radicalism online. The UK’s Quilliam Foundation and Active Change Foundation (ACF), known for the #notinmyname movement, are two of these groups. While both groups aim to “challenge extremist narratives,” their online presence has devolved into retweeting the latest news and updates on European soccer matches. Furthermore, ACF’s hashtag movement that states “ISIS does not represent British Muslims,” weakens the message by narrowing the cause to just British Muslims. These groups should be commended for moving the conversation in the right direction, but more can be done.
It is imperative that large and influential Islamic voices join the virtual counter-narrative and help to fill in the gaps in other countries that have large populations of Muslims. Those governments, which place anti-terrorism high on the political agenda, can mobilize these religious groups and work with them to communicate their messages.
ISIS’s marketing efforts are sophisticated and appealing, and can be expected to increase as they shift into a virtual caliphate—but they remain a tiny minority of the Muslim world. An international counter-narrative that combines governments and civil society can flood the virtual space that ISIS operates in, drowning out radical voices and replacing them with the sobering reality that society has no place for extremism.
About the Authors:
Brian R. Moore is a Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He is also at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the Asian Studies program.
Sim Vireak is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They are both Young Leaders at Pacific Forum CSIS.
The National Interest originally published this article on June 27, 2016.
Republished at IndraStra, with authors' permission.