A Four-Part Series on Extremism and Online Recruitment – Part 3: Online Recruitment of Filipino Youths
The Islamic State (IS) significantly benefits from the internet: its online contents can be simultaneously accessed anytime, anywhere, across multiple devices. Within Southeast Asia, the Islamic State-East Asia (IS-EA, a regional chapter of IS) maximizes the utilization of the internet, specifically via social media, to disseminate their politicoreligious propaganda and to recruit. Compared to the internet, traditional media was more expensive, had limited outreach, and impeded youth recruitment globally. Due to their prowess, IS-EA is even feared in its use of social media. Unfortunately, Filipino youths are not spared from IS-EA’s influence.
Telegram Still Prevalent for Online Recruitment of Filipino Youths and Terrorism Financing
Currently, Telegram continues to play a role in bolstering support and encouraging more attacks in new areas, including sub-Saharan Africa and the Indo-Pacific region. This is evident from the prevalence of pro-IS chat groups in Telegram and its use to recruit and coordinate attacks globally as observed from the November 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels bombings. Pro-IS chat groups such as the Furqan network facilitates rapid transmission of key messages including the 2019 interview of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to their followers. Additionally, the authors had recently shared information on potential terrorist plots communicated via Telegram to authorities in countries such as the US and the Philippines. In the Philippines, suicide bombing tactics by female terrorists and guides on Improvised Explosive Devices assembly are commonly disseminated to IS-EA followers through Telegram.
Similarly, Telegram is also instrumental in IS-EA’s recruitment and terrorism financing efforts in the Philippines. To recruit Filipino youths, IS-EA has called for youths to establish a state based on their warped interpretation of Islam which would not only make the country more insular but adversarial to almost all other countries. Exploiting their financial vulnerabilities, these youths were also promised financial gains for their participation. Additionally, chat groups such as the “Expansion of the Caliphate in East Asia‟, “Sharq Asia‟ and “East Asia Wilayah‟ were created to attract foreign recruits to travel to the Philippines.
During the Marawi Siege, Telegram was also instrumental in channeling funds to support IS-EA efforts while displaying the close rapport between similar-minded terrorists from Indonesia and Malaysia. Via Telegram, a member of terrorist group Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) based in Indonesia was tasked to collect funds from individuals he did not know in various cities in Indonesia from January to March 2017. Notably, this request came from a former Malaysian lecturer participating in the siege. Such interstate coordination will likely continue due to their challenging nature to uncover. Among others, uncovering them is dependent on close coordination between authorities from various countries.
Skillfully Tying Physical and Online Efforts for Recruitment
Addressing youth recruitment by IS-EA requires simultaneous efforts on both the physical and virtual worlds. This is because of IS-EA skillfully tapping on both avenues to recruit youths. IS-EA online youth recruitment started as early as 2016 on platforms such as Facebook. Such platforms had proven successful as they have been previously used by the group for fundraising efforts. Additionally, to increase its outreach, the local dialects of Maranao, Yakan and Tausug were frequently used on these platforms. To further target Filipino youths, recruiters have also targeted them on online gaming platforms. This entailed building from being part of the same team or alliance in online games to becoming friends offline, before inviting potential recruits to their terrorist cell.
Simultaneously in the physical world, IS-EA notably recruits children using non-coercive means by gradually exposing them to the group’s ideology, worldview and apocalyptic vision. The organization convenes public events aimed at raising awareness of the group, attracting children by offering them toys, candy or ice cream just for showing up. Additionally, IS-EA child soldiers and youth recruits from economically disadvantaged families in the Philippines to provide timely surveillance information, accompanied by photos and videos, in exchange for receiving not only either cash incentives or crystal methamphetamine (locally called “shabu”), but also to get something as basic as regular top-ups or reloads for their prepaid mobile phones. This not only allows these recruits to continue playing addictive online games, but also being “groomed” by recruiters via in-game chat functions.
Such close nexus was demonstrated during the Marawi Siege. The IS-EA fighters used social media to announce the start of the Marawi Siege. For example, the first news that militants had taken to the streets of the Islamic City of Marawi on May 23, 2017, came from Facebook. Pictures of masked men carrying assault rifles and waving the black flag of the Islamic State were swirling across social media well before Philippine and international news channels picked up the story. By the time the military and the media had begun to respond, Marawi’s residents were already streaming out of the city by the tens of thousands to seek refuge from the violence. In the months leading up to the siege, there had already been speculation that extremist groups were trying to use social media to reach and recruit Muslims across Mindanao.
The online recruitment of Muslim youths for the siege accompanied offline efforts. The authors uncovered that a heavy volume of cash was needed to sustain the IS-EA fighters during the Marawi Siege, as families demanded hefty payments in exchange for support. Moreover, like their foreign counterparts, the Maute terrorists were focused on expanding their area of control, taking hold of natural resources and commercial centres, producing and distributing illegal drugs, and the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition. Military sources pointed out that each of the Maute-supporting family received PhP50,000 (~USD1,030.00). Separately, individual youth fighters recruited from these families received PhP30,000 upon joining IS-EA and those who made it to the main battle area received Php70,000. Additionally, there were more than 2,000 child soldiers who were training in secluded areas around Marawi City with at least USD 6million paid in cash to the desperate Maranao and Filipino parents.
Online Radicalization of Filipino Youths
After the Marawi Siege, IS-EA factions relied on the traditional revenue sources they employed prior to pledging allegiance to IS, including remittances and criminal activities such as kidnap for ransom and extortion. According to law enforcement officials, this steady stream of income supports the online radicalization of Filipino youths. Based on a 2018 study, it was found that 1) online networks replicated offline communities and 2) extremist messaging in the Philippines is highly localized, and connects with local grievances that spring from the municipal or provincial level. To replicate offline communities digitally, most recruiters use networks such as Facebook to target individuals they already have a connection with.
Government Intervention to Disrupt Online Recruitment
The Philippine Government intends to disrupt online youth recruitment by terrorist organizations through tapping bilateral partnerships with its closest defense ally, the United States. However, efforts to disrupt online youth recruitment by relying on one defense ally alone may prove insufficient in the long-run. One example of such bilateral efforts is several countering violent extremism–themed programmes in Mindanao conducted by Equal Access International (EAI). EAI trained local civil society members in Mindanao to design and implement locally based countering violent extremism (CVE) campaigns. Additionally, through EAI’s two tech camps, the designated local fellows were given funding to carry out their peace promotion projects. Another example is the Philippine military efforts to disrupt online youth recruitment which is funded by Countering Violent Extremism efforts of the Operation Pacific Eagle–Philippines (OPE-P), an overseas contingency operation. The OPE-P is a counterterrorism campaign conducted by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in coordination with other U.S. Government agencies, to support the Philippine government and its military forces in their efforts to counter IS-EA and other priority violent extremist organizations in the Philippines.
Community partnerships are a crucial component of effective disruption of online youth recruitment. At the core of this critical disruption is to empower mothers who are the first to identify changes in the behavior of their own sons and daughters who are constantly exposed to the internet and may also be active users of various online games which can be exploited by extremist recruiters. Community leaders need to actively work with parents and teachers to help spot and disrupt the online youth recruitment of radical groups as early as possible.
Online gamers also need more tools and better access to in-app mechanisms to instantly report and notify game creators about extremist content or “grooming” towards radicalization done via in-game chat functions. P/CVE experts need to be more pro-active in partnering with online gaming communities to enable gamers to challenge the statements that extremists have shared on various online gaming platforms. Policymakers may also push for the creation of an opensource software that will enable all online games to automatically identify and remove extremist content from their gaming platforms.
Law enforcement agencies should work to empower local communities with appropriate information and instruments they need to build their own capacity to disrupt, challenge and counter youth recruitment of radical and extremist groups, in both the real world and the virtual world. A whole-of-society approach can be applied to enable law enforcement officials to work directly with communities to exchange information and best practices in thwarting online recruitment by extremist groups that prey on the vulnerable and highly malleable minds of children and youths.
Effective criminal justice responses to threats presented by the use of the internet by terrorists require governments to develop clear national policies and laws dealing with, inter alia: (a) the criminalization of unlawful acts carried out by terrorists over the Internet or related services; (b) the provision of investigative powers for law enforcement agencies engaged in terrorism-related investigations; (c) the regulation of Internet-related services (e.g. ISPs) and content control; (d) the facilitation of international cooperation; (e) the development of specialized judicial or evidential procedures; and (f) the maintenance of international human rights standards.