This paper discusses the Islamic State's success in using social media and other communications technologies to recruit fighters from Southeast Asia and Australia.
Southeast Asia has direct experience of returning extremists. Indonesian veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan laid the foundations for a spate of terrorist attacks including the Bali bombings that killed 202 people. The same conflict drove the creation of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines as well as enduring links to Al Qaeda. The rise of ISIS represents the latest chapter in a war against extremism former head of the army, Peter Leahy, has said will likely involve Australia ‘for the rest of the century.’ However, ISIS represents a particularly virulent and concerning threat.
First, with its de facto control of significant portions of Iraq and Syria ISIS is a different type of terrorist group. As then-US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel put it: ‘They’re [ISIS] beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.’
Second, communications technology and low cost travel have created the potential for wider and deeper regional connections than those formed by militants fighting in Afghanistan in the 80s. Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf fighters used links forged in Afghanistan to stay connected (one reason Jemaah Islamiyah fighters find sanctuary with the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines), but returning ISIS fighters could take regional cooperation to new levels. Communications technologies give ISIS recruiters a messaging platform across the region and low cost travel is making transport to the Middle East far easier than it was in the 1980s. This is increasing the number of fighters stemming from the region as well as broadening the range of countries they are coming from. As the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict put it, ISIS is creating a potent mix: ‘The appeal of ISIS is different, a combination of religious prophecies involving Sham (greater Syria); the string of victories in Iraq in June that gave a sense of backing a winner; the resonance of the concept of the caliphate; and sophisticated use by ISIS of social media.’
Third, unlike the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a direct participant in the conflict (Australia) is located in the immediate region, making it an enduring focus for returning extremists.
Steps are being taken to shape the military outcome in Iraq and Syria. Increasingly vigorous legal, policing and intelligence efforts are also being made to prevent the departure of more would-be-militants and manage their ongoing presence in the region as well as the return of trained extremists. However, the nongovernment sector also has much to offer in terms of understanding how ISIS is exploiting technology and communications, and turning these tools against them to discredit its appeal.
This report looks at the scale of the problem, its regional nature, the threat to Australia and the nature of the response so far. It concludes with an integrated, regional proposal to undermine the appeal of ISIS to would be-militants,