Since the introduction of information technology and the Internet, radicalisation and violent extremism (VE) have transcended from the real world to cyberspace. Moreover, the on-going COVID-19 pandemic has also facilitated an increase in online radicalisation at the comforts of their own homes including in Malaysia.
Despite the lockdowns, there must be continued, or even heightened, vigilance as VE is seemingly unaffected by the pandemic. Instead, violent extremists have exploited trauma and disruptionsstemming from the pandemic. Unfortunately, such trauma and disruptions provide fertile ground for extremist propaganda to manifest, potentially leading to radicalisation. A case in point is the recent attack in a New Zealand supermarket by an Islamic State (IS) sympathizer which demonstrates how IS ideology still appeals to disgruntled Muslims residing in western countries. Worryingly, this is overlayed with fears of a resurgence of bloodshed in the wake of the Taliban’s announcement of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan.
VE groups have broadened their narratives surrounding the pandemic situation. Here, three new narratives are highlighted: 1) The notion of deeming those who are radicalized as contagious and can spread via simple human interactions. Such notion heightens stigmatization rather than encouraging engagements and interventions with such individuals. 2) Exploiting the mistrust, unhappiness, and mutual grievances from the pandemic to pique the interests of potential members and reinforce current members worldview. 3) Generation of symbols and conspiracy theories amidst the uncertainties of the pandemic.
The traditional approach to preventing and countering VE has always been through hard modalities such as the law, policies, and regulations. However, considering the current pandemic, key actors within the community and the nuclear family unit should also be responsible for preventing and countering VE. One such endeavour would be the community’s provision of support to vulnerable individuals such as youths. However, this is no simple task as technological advancement has allowed vulnerable individuals to shut themselves off from the physical world, trapping them in online echo chambers that could prepare them for violence. The following sections outline the rigid approach taken by Malaysia in dealing with violent extremism, both online and offline.
Hard Approach –Legal Measures
In the war against terror, Malaysia had passed two significant legislations, namely the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (POTA) and the Special Measures Against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act 2015 (SMATA). Like others, Malaysia focused on mitigating VE by incorporating laws, regulations and policies. The POTA 2015, which was enacted under Article 149 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution, allows Malaysian authorities to imprison terror suspects without charge for two years without a trial and the possibility of judicial review [Section 13(1)(b)]. The incarceration, however, will be reviewed by the King-appointed Prevention of Terrorism Board [Section 19(1)]. SOSMA is another law created to deal with VE and is a preventive statute that was enacted to safeguard residents’ lives and properties. The Act establishes unique procedures for dealing with security offences and recognises the considerable threats that terrorism, sabotage, and espionage pose to internal security and public order.
In 2007, the Penal Code was revised to cover terrorism-related offences under Chapter VIA. Performing terrorist actions (Section 130C), giving devices to terrorist groups (Section 130D), recruiting terrorists or participating in terrorist acts (Section 130E), providing training and guidance to terrorist groups, and those committing terrorist acts were cited as new offences among others (Section 130F). The Criminal Procedure Code was also changed in light of the new anti-terrorism provision in the Penal Code, granting the police and the Public Prosecutor a broad range of investigative authorities, including the ability to intercept communications. Sections 106A and 106C gave authorities the power to intercept, hold, and open mail and messages sent by telecommunications, with any intercepted communications becoming admissible as evidence in terrorism trials. Without proper human rights, content-based safeguards, these powers could be used with a low threshold of proof. A criticism of such powers is that, if they are based on these unconstrained definitions, investigations into alleged terrorist activities that are defined broadly could lead to a slew of civil liberty violations.
Soft Approach and Public Engagements
The war on terror has always been military detention and neutralisation of terrorists. However, it is ideal to complement such hard approach with a de-radicalisation strategy or soft approach focused more on human security than national security. This strategy would target marginalised communities that are vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups. Thus, the role of communities in preventing and responding to terrorism has been prominent in current government strategies. One non-legal measure in preventing VE is engaging non-governmental actors, the private sector and academics while providing knowledge for the push and pull factors in terrorist recruitment. Another preventive measure is the counter-propaganda strategy, which aims to confront disinformation campaigns and promote non-violent values by providing counter and alternative narratives. A community can also attain a similar sense of security provided by the government, albeit from a different method such as the softer approaches, including defining mainstream boundaries through creating acceptable boundaries and passive observation of the environment to ensure compliance. In other words, community policing. Though similar to the rigid approach through securitisation, communities can achieve the same outcome via social justice.
Public engagement efforts include a wide range of initiatives, such as actively involving communities, schools, universities, youth agencies, police, and families of violent offenders and those considered at risk of radicalisation. Together with Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, Malaysia has state-sponsored de-radicalisation programs that provide counter-terrorism intervention for mid-ranking and grassroots members of radical organisations .Support ranges from various mechanisms such as mentoring, life skills, skills counselling, anger management training, education opportunities, sports, job placement/employment assistance, family support, drug or alcohol rehabilitation program and housing support. Such integration of soft and hard legal approaches to oppose extremist ideologies and ideas with proper guidance and vital religious precepts is reported to achieve a high success rate of 97.5 per cent.
In early 2016, Malaysia also built a counter-messaging centre intended to erode IS’s appeal by exposing the group’s message of hate and violence while also promoting inclusiveness. Furthermore, in an attempt to harmonise a softer approach, the National Security Council (NSC) created the Counter-Terrorism Policy in 2017, which emphasises five points, namely condemning all forms of terrorism, guaranteeing security for hostages’ lives and properties, prioritising negotiated solutions, avoiding hostage exchanges to settle the problem, and striking action as a last resort if negotiations fail. However, despite non-legal preventive actions or bottom-up strategy, Malaysia, unlike Indonesia, appears to place greater emphasis on securitisation mechanisms or a law enforcement-centric approach rather than close partnership with civil society.
Combatting violent extremism would be effective with the inclusion of community and civil society. However, relying on a rigid approach or securitisation by the government alone would be problematic to prevent and counter violent extremism. Therefore, legal and non-legal approaches must be in synergy to effectively counter and prevent terrorism. Such synergy would lead to more public-private sector and civil society collaboration and cooperation. Furthermore, before communities can rebuild their faith and trust in government, governments must put their faith and trust in them. If and when this occurs, community-based counterterrorism will become more common and effective. Perhaps the time has come for the government to realise the potential of the community as a whole in countering the narratives of violent extremism. If there is one thing that we can learn from this pandemic, terrorism will always find ways to evolve.