The threat posed by the so-called Islamic State is no longer confined to Iraq and Syria, or to Iraq and the Levant (as the alternative names of the insurgency-movement-group once suggested). Now the IS, or its brutally simplified ideology, may be taking root in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Officials are careful to say that, while they take the new development seriously, there is as yet no hard evidence that IS is in fact in our part of the world. National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia belittled the act of an Abu Sayyaf group swearing allegiance to the IS on YouTube as a “shallow show of support,” and argued that there was nothing more to that disturbing video. “We don’t think there is an organizational link between [IS] and [the Abu Sayyaf], or any Philippine terrorist jihadi group for that matter.”
The Armed Forces spokesperson, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, said much the same thing: “We believe that there is no direct link, that they are possibly sympathizers jumping on the bandwagon to gain popular support…. To directly say that [IS] is here—there are no indications of that.”
But the Abu Sayyaf has threatened to kill one of two German hostages it has abducted by Oct. 10 if Germany did not withdraw its support for the ongoing air war waged by United States-led forces on the Islamic State. And Malaysia, with whom the Philippines shares a porous border, arrested three “aspiring jihadists” at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Thursday.
The frightening thing: These Malaysians, ready to die for the IS cause, were recruited only three months ago, on Facebook. Here we may see the true extent of the borderlessness of the IS threat: Beyond Iraq or Syria or indeed the geographical limits of the Middle East, the sweeping brutality of the IS cause (an absolutist distortion of Islam that justifies the wholesale slaughter of innocents, publicized in large part through the release of stark video of high-profile beheadings) seems to have an appeal that extends to, or is extended through, social media.
An exclusive report in the Star of Malaysia, a partner of the Inquirer in the Asia News Network, drew a bleak portrait: “Three would-be Malaysian jihadists … were enlisted into the Islamic State (IS) terror group by a senior Malaysian militant who used Facebook to lure members. The architect and a technician, both 26, and a 42-year-old shopkeeper were part of a wider network, all of whom joined IS to achieve martyrdom in their ‘false’ jihad.”
The idea of a wider network coincides with the analysis of security specialists which posit that “more than 100 people” from Malaysia and Indonesia have already gone to Syria to join the IS, and with the report from the American admiral who heads the US Pacific Command that “around 1,000 recruits from India to the Pacific” may have already joined IS.
What has drawn these recruits from our part of the world to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq? The lure of jihad, even of the false kind, has not been limited to IS. Some of the founding members of the Abu Sayyaf, for instance, had fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, drawn (like Osama bin Laden of Saudi Arabia) by the opportunity to fight beside other Islamic fighters in a war against the heathen.
The clarity of alternative that IS seems to project is another strong source of attraction. In the black-and-white world of the Islamic State, there is no room for doubt or confusion; either you are with them or against them. And if you are with them, you are permitted any act of violence. Or, rather, any violence, even the mass killing of children, is justified. To those who think that nuance is a bad word, or uncertainty an ostentatious luxury, or democracy a messy process, this simplistic brutality can seem attractive.
There may be a third factor. IS may be recruiting through Twitter or Facebook because social media as well as digital media make such recruitment possible. Instead of opening the digital citizen’s world to diverse sources of information and attitudes, platforms like Twitter and Facebook can also drastically narrow a citizen’s range of options. What academics call group polarization happens often online, and results in partisan or ideological views being vigorously reinforced. In other words, sometimes the openness of online life can result in closed systems.
That makes many of us vulnerable to media-savvy “senior militants.”
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