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The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World
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The Reshaping of the Terrorist and Extremist Landscape in a Post Pandemic World

A major research program investigating the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist and extremist narratives.

Regions

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia was particularly proactive with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. Although caseloads worsened the following year, pandemic-related health measures restricted regional mobility in general and violent extremist activity in particular. Pro-Daesh activity was substantially reduced until an uptick in late '21.

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Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) and Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) across Southeast Asia appeared to adopt a wait-and-watch approach to the new conditions, many of them turning inward, retreating into apocalyptic visions inspired by the unfolding global pandemic. Violent attacks were deprioritized and, in any case, were difficult to conduct in Indonesia, given effective counter-terrorism policing.

The pandemic’s impact on the People’s Republic of China and then the West was watched with glee by many groups, who interpreted the virus as divine retribution against the enemies of Islam. Over time, and as lockdowns and other pandemic interventions were rolled out, most VEOs adopted conspiratorial narratives that understood the pandemic as a hidden plot by powerful Western or Chinese interests. In adopting such narratives, actors disseminated anti-vaccination and related disinformation, much of it adapted from Western, especially US, sources.

Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda from South East Asia

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Examples of extremist narratives and propoganda from South East Asia

Image from a photoset disseminated on Daesh Telegram channels in May 2020, captioned "East Asia Wilayah. Some of the activities of Caliphate soldiers during the month of Ramadan."

Source: Telegram

Although splinters from the insurgency remain active in Indonesnia, including pro-Daesh VEOs such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the negotiated peace has largely held thanks to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) discipline. In this context, militant offshoots inspired by Daesh consider the MILF to have betrayed the cause by accepting autonomy under the central Philippines government. Pro-Daesh fighters post memes on Facebook and other platforms depicting MILF fighters as collaborators with the Catholic “crusaders” from Manila. This image is from a photoset disseminated on Daesh Telegram channels in May 2020, captioned “East Asia Wilayah. Some of the activities of Caliphate soldiers during the month of Ramadan.”

Daesh-aligned charities solicting donations for foreign fighter familes in Syria

Source: Telegram

The plight of Indonesian women and children abandoned by the Indonesian government in Syria/Iraq was a grievance used to solicit donations by Indonesian Daesh-aligned charities.

Anti-Chinese propaganda circulated on pro-Daesh and mainstream ideological Telegram channels beginning in March 2020.

Source: Telegram

A major violent extremist narrative of the pandemic casts SARS-CoV-2 as a bioweapon deployed by China and/or spread by Chinese migrant workers. Although anti-Chinese conspiracy theories and disinformation are common in Malaysia and the Philippines, they have the most traction in Indonesia.

A pro-Daesh charity outreach post from Indonesia featured on social media during mid-2020

Source: Telegram

At the beginning of the year, the fate of hundreds of mostly women and children of Daesh foreign fighter families stranded in Syria and Iraq became mainstream news in Indonesia. Most of the next of kin were Indonesian citizens held at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria. The news was sparked by the Indonesian government’s move to strip Daesh families of their Indonesian citizenship, preventing them from returning home. This policy, however, played into JAD and pro-Daesh narratives in Indonesia, where a network of charities has sprung up to collect money and resources.

Ihsan Tanjung Youtube video. "3 Conditions Before the Appearance of Imam Mahdi."

Source: YouTube

A preacher who had been welcoming the end of times for years before the pandemic, Ihsan Tanjung, suddenly became popular among Daesh (but also mainstream) audiences through his YouTube videos and audio sermons delivered via Telegram. Ihsan advised followers to respond to the end times by making hijrah to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to await the redeemer, to seek higher land in Indonesia to avoid the coming tidal wave or to simply wait and accept death. He also became a prominent disseminator of COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories. This image is a clip from a Ihsan Tanjung Youtube video.

Apocalyptic imagery, popular during the pandemic on pro-Daesh Instagram accounts. Such accounts are subtle enough to evade detection

Source: Instagram

Instagram has emerged as a site where even-pro Daesh accounts can maintain a modest presence if they stay within certain limits. Numerous accounts are banned, but many survive with hundreds and sometimes over a thousand followers by using Instagram only for marketing products, such as herbal medicine or military-style clothing, or raising money for Daesh-linked charities. More generally, violent extremist accounts evade Instagram content moderation by limiting their posts to subtle memes featuring verses from the Qur’an, apocalyptic imagery, or historical references to war and conflict.

Daesh-aligned charities

Souce: Telegram (Redacted)

One of the most prominent IS-aligned charities, Gashibu project, is active promoting their work with IS families and advertising their bank accounts for donations.

Anti-lockdown banner circulated on pro-FPI Telegram groups in early 2020

Source: Telegram

In Indonesia, Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group banned over the course of the year by the government, launched anti-COVID19 restriction protests.

Telegram as a trap

Source: Al-Naba

A translated poster from An-Naba advising VE actors on how to avoid intelligence agency traps. In it, the group advises not to not trust any personal communications, or offer of help to hijrah, unless the person is recommended by a “trusted brother”.

The pandemic as a "soldier of Allah" against the enemies of Islam

Source: Telegram

COVID-19 here is presented as a disease spread by believers through vice (strippers and so on) and not affecting true believers.

Meme celebrating US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Khandaq Media Channel

Source: Telegram

A broad spectrum of VE actors in SE Asia saw the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan during the COVID period as a sign of end times, as prefigured in certain hadith.

Extremist meme with text reading that "The Taliban expelled the colonial forces (America) from its country. Thus anyone who hates the Taliban is someone who, if Indonesia is attacked and colonised by Chinese forces, will immediately turn lackey and collaborator"

Source: Telegram

Poster promotes the Taliban takeover against the US-backed government in Afghanistan. Suggests a parallel with China as a colonial force in Indonesia.

Indonesian translation of Amaq News Agency report of the battle between “Caliphate soldiers” and “Philippine Crusaders” in “East Asia Province

Source: Telegram

Content adapted from the An-Naba highlights Daesh attacks on Christians in various battlegrounds, including the Philippines (East Asia Wilayat) in an effort to cast the struggle as being against “crusaders” in the region.

Support for Daesh in its two major regional hotspots of the Republic of Indonesia and the Republic of the Philippines declined, in line with the decline of Daesh in the Middle East, partially due to the restrictions on mobility, but also due to counter-terrorism efforts that had been in effect since before the virus outbreak. In Indonesia, the Government continued to press their advantage against the Islamist opposition, and the capabilities of counter-terrorism police were at their peak.

Local Daesh affiliates, known as Jamaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD), were reduced to scatterings of small, largely autonomous cells. Large-scale shutdowns by the Telegram platform to remove violent extremist content restricted Daesh sympathizers to small chat groups with limited lifespans of 100-200 subscribers. In the Philippines, the relative success of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) under the auspices of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) limited the opportunities for splintering into militant offshoots, such as those that coalesced in 2017 under the banner of Daesh in the siege of Marawi city.

Generally, the pandemic reduced VE activity across Southeast Asia. The most notable example of this effect was the unprecedented unilateral ceasefire declared in April 2020 by the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest armed group in the 16-year Malay- Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand. The BRN entered a peace dialogue with the Thai government, facilitated by the Federation of Malaysia. But as the pandemic dragged on, peace began to fray, and sporadic attacks occurred. For the region as a whole, the post- pandemic period will likely see a rebound in VE activity as travel and crowds return to their pre-pandemic levels.

A pro-Daesh charity outreach post from Indonesia featured on social media during mid-2020. Source: Telegram.

The pandemic accelerated trends in online radicalization and recruitment as the internet continues to displace face-to-face networking. Regional violent extremist activity— already heterogeneous and marked by a disparate constellation of VEOs—became ever more insular and localized, as militants focused on the welfare of their communities via an expanding network of charities or contemplated and prayed for the end times.

One of the lasting marks of the period of pandemic isolation may be the growth of extremist- linked charities and foundations, especially in Indonesia, against the backdrop of the flourishing of mainstream charities in Indonesia during this period.

Although violent extremist activity was at a low ebb by the end of 2020, there are indications that the pandemic period may represent a temporary lull. Foreign fighters and their families could find their way back to the region as mobility restrictions are eased and travel routes reopen.

But for now, the pandemic drags on across Southeast Asia, with some predicting effects running through 2024-2025. The course of violent extremism is always hard to anticipate in a region so diverse, and even broad trends can be challenging to identify. When it finally arrives, the post-pandemic period will likely reveal a changed Southeast Asia in many respects, and the landscape of terrorism and violent extremism will be no exception.

Policy Recommendations

  • Continue to analyze militant narratives and operational structures in anticipation of a return to the status quo ante, especially once regional and international travel is restored. Although violent extremist activity has decreased during the pandemic period in Southeast Asia, there is a likelihood of a rebound in activity post-pandemic.
  • Governments and civil society organizations (CSO) should provide services to children and families of fighters to supplant Daesh charities and enhance disengagement from violent extremism. Charities are the one area in which violent extremist-linked activity remains undiminished by the pandemic. Pro-Daesh foundations are both an indicator of a gap in government service provision and a risk of future re-engagement in terrorism. Greater public awareness of the need for due diligence when donating to charities might reduce the risk of unintentional funding of VE-linked groups.
  • Social media platforms and educational institutions should counter and disrupt propaganda from VEOs using anti-Chinese conspiracy theories as a mobilizing narrative. Anti-Chinese sentiment, exacerbated by the pandemic, presents a risk of communal conflict targeting ethnic Chinese and, as an issue that appeals to prejudices across the region, may serve as a cause that unifies otherwise disparate VEOs.
  • COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation became endemic in violent extremist communication channels by the close of 2020. This misinformation takes the form of narratives that appeal to the full spectrum of violent extremist actors in Southeast Asia. Yet, at the outset of the year, pandemic content on VE communication channels was more consistent with sound public health advice. A solution may be to deliver public health messages to VE channels via credible third parties, such as CSOs and trusted religious actors rather than national governments distrusted by violent extremist actors.

Footnotes

[1]

Thomas Hale, Noam Angrist, Rafael Goldszmidt, Beatriz Kira, Anna Petherick, Toby Phillips, Samuel Webster, Emily Cameron-Blake, Laura Hallas, Saptarshi Majumdar, and Helen Tatlow. (2021). “A global panel database of pandemic policies (Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker).” Nature Human Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01079-8, as used by Our World In Data; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), acleddata.com.

Visit Source
[2]

COVID-19 data aggregated from Our World in Data (https://ourworldindata.org/covid-cases) based on confirmed cases sourced from the COVID-19 Data Repository by the Center for Systems Science (https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19) and Engineering (CSSE)) at Johns Hopkins University; and, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED, acleddata.com).

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Region reports

For full analysis and recommendations, download the region reports for 2020 and 2021.

2021 report coming soon.

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The narratives

Analysis and examples of the narratives that have emerged across all our regions.

Divine retribution
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Divine retribution

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Restrictions as Repression
Narrative #02

Restrictions as Repression

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Weaponised Conspiracies
Narrative #03

Weaponised Conspiracies

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