On Tuesday, a Malaysian official disclosed a few more specifics about one of Malaysia’s newly established counterterrorism centers. Though the details certainly helped shed more light on the new counter-messaging center’s activities, it also belies the significant challenges that remain for it as well as Malaysia’s broader terror fight.
As I have noted before, as Malaysia has confronted the threat of terrorism in recent years with the Islamic State’s presence, it has set up a number of centers in this fight (See: “ASEAN’s Post-Marawi Islamic State Fight”). These include the regional counter-messaging center Malaysia has been trying to set up with assistance from the United States known as the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communication Center (RDC3) and the Counter-Messaging Center (CMC) run by the Royal Malaysian Police (See: “Malaysia’s New Terror Centers in its Islamic State War”).
The CMC, established in May 2016 but only functioning months later, was designed to counter messaging by radical elements. Though Malaysian officials had previously indicated that CMC had begun operating and was working with other bodies such as the RDC3 to coordinate efforts for information-sharing with outside actors such as Interpol, they had offered few specifics regarding what exactly it had accomplished and how success was being measured.
This week, we got a few more specifics around what the Center has allowed Malaysia’s security forces to achieve. Deputy Home Minister Masir Kujat disclosed to the country’s parliament that 249 Malaysians and foreigners have been arrested so far in Malaysia under the allegation of recruiting members for terrorism via social media. Of those, 240 of them had done so through Facebook, eight through Twitter, and one through Instagram.
Beyond arrests, to give a general sense of the scope of social media monitoring and management, he said the government was monitoring a total of 3,871 Facebook accounts, while another 800 accounts had been blocked to curb the spread of extremism online. On Twitter, 76 individuals were being monitored and nine accounts had been blocked, while on Instagram, 72 people were being monitored.
Though little information is often publicly disclosed in realms such as these, by any standard, the data points that Masir provided on arrests yielded and scope of monitoring alone are insufficient to evaluate the success of Malaysia’s messaging center. For starters, Malaysian officials had previously said that arrests are usually coordinated efforts among various agencies, so it is difficult to discern exactly which ones that a specific institution is responsible for.
Furthermore, platform-specific metrics such as these are less useful than they might seem because duplicate accounts across different social media outlets is quite common among extremists. Counterterrorism officials have also recently been focused not just on whether accounts are taken down but how quickly they are removed because of the speed and virality by which information can spread. And as Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun pointed out after Masir’s remarks, the CMC is still an ongoing effort and other aspects of its activities like fully capitalizing on counter narratives aimed at the youth have not been completely realized (See: “The Youth Battle in Malaysia’s Islamic State War”).
This is part of a broader challenge: in response to increased government online monitoring, extremists have also been adjusting their tactics as well, changing the way they communicate to evade human and digital detection from the authorities, and also taking some of their conversation to more secure forms of communication which cannot be tracked or even offline. This reinforces the logic of a comprehensive approach to counterterrorism that ties various pieces together, which includes not just monitoring or arrests, but promoting greater education and awareness, investing in better rehabilitation programs, and ensuring that the broader management of political extremism and radicalization is kept in check and that a distinction is made between just legitimate opposition to the government and illegitimate terrorist acts or plots.
Masir did point to some things that the country is doing in this regard, including in its deradicalization programs. But forging such a comprehensive approach remains a huge challenge for Malaysia for a number of reasons that extend beyond security into the political and economic realms. Given all that, only a more granular understanding of data as well as broader dynamics can provide a true understanding of how any one institution like the counterterrorism messaging center is faring.