Terrorism ‘zaman now’: is social media feeding radicalisation?


Solahudin is a researcher on jihadi movements in Indonesia. He is the author of The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia (translated by Dave McRae), published by NewSouth Books in association with the Lowy Institute for International Policy, with international editions by NUS Press and Cornell University Press.

Former migrant worker Anggi Indah Kusumah was arrested with suspected terrorist Young Farmer in August 2017, after being radicalised online over a period of about nine months. Photo by Novrian Arbi for Antara.


There is an emerging scholarly consensus that social media is facilitating the radicalisation and recruitment of a new generation of terrorists. Indeed, terrorist organisations like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have actively (and some would say skilfully) used social media sites like Twitter, Telegram, and YouTube to spread their propaganda and recruit new members. This is supported by dozens of stories in the mainstream media about jihadists who describe making their way to Syria after being recruited by ISIL online.


But this trend is only partly reflected in the Indonesian case. Social media has become an important means of radicalisation but it is yet to become a major tool for recruitment. This was one of the findings of research I conducted on 75 terrorism convicts, in collaboration with the Indonesian Strategic Policy Institute (ISPI), in 2017. The 75 convicted terrorists we interviewed were involved in terrorist acts in 2015 and 2016, and most were affiliated with ISIL.


When asked about their recruitment process, only seven (9 per cent) said they were introduced to radical groups online. The other 68 said they first became acquainted with extremist groups through more traditional offline means, such as prayer recital or study groups (pengajian). In the Indonesian case at least, it seems modern terrorists are not so different from their predecessors from the 2002-2013 period, when the reach of social media was much more limited. This finding is consistent with ISPI research from 2015,  which found that 96 per cent of convicted terrorists were radicalised through offline prayer meetings.


The most obvious question then is why aren’t Indonesian extremists making use of social media to recruit new members? Why is Indonesia different to other countries like Malaysia, which have seen active recruitment online? One of the reasons is that terrorists don’t entirely trust online recruitment. This is because it is so easy to falsify one’s identity online – men can pretend to be women, or vice versa, and fraudsters and intelligence agents can easily pretend to be fellow jihadists.


In 2015, for example, dozens of Indonesian ISIL followers were deceived when trying to travel to Syria. They handed over more than Rp 100 million (about AU$8,900) to a woman named Susan Ermira, who claimed she was a convert to Islam and a supporter of ISIL, and could falsify travel documents to get them to Syria. They lost their money.


The other reason that online recruitment has yet to take off in Indonesia is that it is not necessary – recruitment offline is still possible and is relatively unimpeded. Law enforcement officials have no legal instruments to act against extremists who hold prayer study groups, even in public. ISIL supporters still freely hold religious study groups in mosques across the country with little concern about being arrested by authorities.


This contrasts with neighbouring countries like Malaysia, where many people have been recruited online and encouraged to travel to Syria. It is no wonder that online recruitment is more common in Malaysia, as a draconian security law allows officials to detain without charge people they suspect of being involved with terrorist acts or just openly proselytising.


But while social media has yet to take off as a means of recruitment in Indonesia, it plays an important role in the speed of radicalisation. My research with ISPI in 2017 found that rapid radicalisation among ISIL supporters was largely the result of social media. Some 85 per cent of convicted terrorists committed acts of terrorism within a year of pledging allegiance to ISIL. This is in stark contrast to ISPI’s 2015 research, which showed that 65 per cent of terrorists convicted between 2002 and 2013 committed their first act of terror five years after joining an extremist group.


The rapid reduction in time before the first act of terror is because most extremists are exposed to radical views at a much greater intensity. ISIL supporters in Indonesia, for example, have created more than 60 channels and more than 30 private chats in the Indonesian language on Telegram. Each channel shares about 80-150 messages every day. The average ISIL user subscribes to about 5-10 channels and 5-10 private chats. Every day they are therefore exposed to hundreds, even thousands, of messages. Terrorists in years past, meanwhile, would often have access to extremist messages just once a week, during prayer recital and study meetings.


Consider the example of Anggi Indah Kusumah (alias Khanza), a former migrant worker from Hong Kong. Until November 2016, Anggi was not particularly religious and did not wear a head scarf. In December 2016, she started to become interested in ISIL teachings online, began wearing a headscarf and joined several ISIL Indonesian language Telegram channels. Just two months later, she uploaded a photo to her Facebook page pledging allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi. This saw her arrested by Hong Kong security officials and deported to Indonesia in March 2017.


On arriving in Indonesia, Anggi participated in a Social Affairs Ministry rehabilitation program and was sent back to her hometown in Klaten, Central Java. But within a month she had gone missing. In August 2017, she reappeared, arrested by the National Police’s anti-terror unit, Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88), along with another terrorist recently deported from Singapore, Young Farmer, over plans to undertake a suicide bombing. It emerged that Anggi had subscribed to more than 50 Telegram channels and more than 30 private chats, exposing her to thousands of violent and extremist messages every day. Anggi is an extreme example, but shows the speed with which radicalism can occur in an online world.


ISPI’s research shows the challenges of countering terrorism and extremism in the social media era. While online recruitment has yet to become a major concern in Indonesia, this is hardly a cause for celebration. Rather, it highlights how it remains remarkably easy for extremist groups to spread messages of hate and violence in mosques and prayer groups with little or no consequences.


Solahudin visited the University of Melbourne in February and March as a Faculty of Arts Indonesia Initiative scholar. He delivered a public lecture on ‘How Dangerous are Indonesian ISIS Deportees and Returnees?’, the audio of which is available here.


Categories: Analysis Security

Tags: ISIL, ISIS, Terrorism