Has social media changed the landscape of terrorism? Datuk Ayob Khan Bin Mydin Pitchay, Head of the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Royal Malaysia Police, tells GovInsider that this is a problem “not only in Malaysia, but the whole world”.

The country has launched a Counter-Messaging Centre, which is operated by RMP, and set up to help fight against the narratives of terrorists and extremists in cyberspace. “Basically, the centre is focused on collecting intelligence and converting it to evidence for our division to take action,” he says.

The rise of the cyberterrorist

ayob khan The establishment of the centre comes against the backdrop of terrorists nowadays using social media for communications and even recruitment. “In the past, when Jemaah Islamiyah wanted to recruit new members, they had to attend a physical meeting, and religious classes for a year. Only then could they show their allegiance and become full-fledged members,” explains Khan. “Now, when it comes to IS, there is no need for physical meetings. You can take the Bay’ah [the oath of allegiance] online, over WhatsApp.”

The Malaysian police use WhatsApp to gather intelligence on terrorist networks. Khan’s people are currently keeping tabs on 80 WhatsApp groups that IS terrorists use, and he estimates that 30% of the members of these groups are in fact from a special team of officers tasked to collect intel. This online monitoring has helped arrest 294 suspects since 2013, of whom 49 were from overseas.

Within Khan’s department, WhatsApp has even replaced official communications on some occasions. “Policeman to policeman, sometimes we don’t need an official memo – just WhatsApp. My counterpart will WhatsApp me, ‘Pak Ayob, we have one suspect transiting KL at 7pm on this flight, can you arrest him?’ They just have to text me,” he explains.

Reaching out through rehabilitation

Malaysia’s government also works with religious authorities to teach prisoners about the true meanings of Islamic ideologies such as jihad and martyrdom, says Khan. This rehabilitation programme includes counselling sessions and family visits, and is a collaboration between the police, prison authorities, religious authorities, the state mufti (Islamic scholar) and the Ministry of Higher Education.

“We focus on deradicalisation – engagement with the public, community, and students. One of the main targets of IS is the university student group,” he adds. The government reaches out to student populations across Malaysia through talks and lectures.

“We focus on deradicalisation.”

However, Khan notes that it’s not just university students that are at risk of radicalisation. Members can come from various backgrounds: “Lecturers, police officers, army officers, even people that work in religious departments join ISIS,” he says.

Working together against terrorism

International cooperation has been a key aspect of Malaysia’s counterterrorism strategy since as early as 2001, when the country worked closely with others in the region to dismantle IS networks. In terms of sharing of intelligence and expertise, Malaysia has done an “excellent job” at cooperation and collaboration, Khan believes.

“Terrorism is our common enemy. It’s not about politics,” Khan says. He points out that in the past, groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda were not present in countries like China. Things have changed now, with every country affected in some way by ISIS. “Even in China, there is the Turkistan Islamic Party movement in Xinjiang,” he says.

Malaysia has three prongs in its approach: online monitoring; religious rehabilitation; and international collaboration. But it is looking for new innovations and approaches too. After all, “nobody is immune from terrorism threats.”

Khan was a speaker at the Milipol Asia Pacific 2017 conference, held in Singapore from 4-6 April 2017.

Images by John RagaiCC BY 2.0 and Royal Malaysia Police