Southeast Asia’s Teenage Extremists

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Southeast Asia’s Teenage Extremists

The detention of a secondary school student in Singapore in February highlights an ongoing trend in youth radicalization among supporters of the Islamic State.

Southeast Asia’s Teenage Extremists
Credit: Pixabay

Since 2015, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs has publicly reported four cases of teenage radicalization. All four teenagers identified were radicalized by acquaintances online and displayed sympathy to a foreign conflict in “jihad” zones like Syria and Iraq. Other countries globally, and in Southeast Asia, have also seen the same trend of teenage radicalization, which continues even after the demise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) caliphate.  This has prompted the question of why teens are susceptible to the Islamic State’s narratives. Are there common driving factors radicalizing teenagers in Southeast Asia, in particular?

IS has demonstrated its prowess and mastery over social media since 2014. Around 1,000 Southeast Asians were reported to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to become foreign fighters. Many were driven by networks and propaganda forged primarily through social media, primarily Facebook and Telegram. IS propaganda capitalizes on two factors to radicalize teens: atrocities against Muslims globally and the heroism narrative.

IS Telegram groups and channels directed at Southeast Asians often exploit global atrocities to invigorate local grievances. While most IS propaganda centers around conflicts in the Levant, IS exploits the “unfair” treatment of Muslims in the region to drive an “us-vs-them” narrative. This includes the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, and Rohingyas in Rakhine state, Myanmar. IS is capitalizing on foreign conflicts to mobilize aspiring militants locally.

Another factor that drives the radicalism of teens is the narrative of heroism promoted by IS. Most IS content on Telegram is publicity of its tactical successes to portray the image of victory. Professionally curated images, videos, and gifs coupled with religious justification of brutality were widely shared within their networks to raise the morale of their sympathizers and militants. This narrative capitalized on the allure of battle, which seemed to have attracted young aspiring militants.

The radicalization of teenagers in this region is not new. In Malaysia alone, there have been at least eight secondary school students involved in IS-related activities since 2017. In countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, IS commonly recruits teens in institutes of higher learning and religious study circles, also known as usrah and halaqa.

In some countries in the region, lack of empowerment is one of the factors of radicalization amongst teens. Job insecurity and low incomes give rise to grievances that could be mobilized for violence. In some cases, some may rationalize their current adversity (whether economic or social) as a result of misalignment with tenets of their religion. This encourages them to resort to “Islamic purification” as a means to reconcile with their difficulties.

The lack of a strong identity, ethnocentrism, and perceptions of social and political exclusion have also been cited in several studies as crucial drivers of radicalization among youth. Extremist ideologies have found traction, to some extent, by claiming to provide vulnerable teens with guidance, direction, and a sense of belonging.

Hence, while most teenagers do not condone violence carried out IS, radical appeals from groups like IS can influence vulnerable youth populations.

Based on publicly released cases, the drivers of general radicalization in Singapore are very different. Neither socioeconomic backgrounds nor educational attainment seem to have influenced the radicalization of Singaporeans.

Particularly for teenagers, the moral outrage stems from external elements consumed via Facebook and YouTube, often riding on the concept of ummah — a sense of communion that binds Muslims across the globe. The aforementioned narratives of persecution in Xinjiang and Rakhine challenge their brotherhood ties, which compels them to protect members of the community and ultimately Islam, which is perceived to be “under siege.”

Teens are further misguided or swayed by narratives that are based on erroneous interpretations of the religious text. Possibly compounded by the thrill of combat and the “eye for an eye” principle, some vulnerable teens have bought into the Islamic State’s use of violence and binary worldview.

As the globalization of social networks continues, local mechanisms curtailing the threat of teen radicalization in cyberspace are insufficient. Hence, it would be useful to align regional efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism (PCVE).

The IS social network disregards sovereign borders. As such, cross-border cooperation must be improved. Governments must build a PCVE network to weaken the IS network. In this regard, a multiagency approach is required to (i) halt the exploitation of global atrocities to invigorate local grievances; (ii) identify and address local sociopolitical grievances; and (iii) match community assets to community needs.

To achieve this, regional collaboration should be fostered to inculcate values of inclusiveness and tolerance on the ground. Countries must collectively push for stronger social integration policies to eradicate barriers and ignorance of the “other” in pluralistic  societies. Over time, the goal is to build social resilience and a collective narrative of peace and inclusion in the digital and physical domain.

For each country, it is crucial for governments to develop early intervention and community rehabilitation capabilities. Here, rehabilitated extremists can be recruited to engage teenagers. Having walked through a similar path, narratives of the rehabilitated extremists are more likely to resonate with and be accepted by sympathizers, guiding young people in their search for identity in a plural society.

Radicals exploit foreign narratives to indoctrinate young minds in Singapore and the region. While regional governments have continuously fortified counterterrorism measures to prevent devastating attacks, we must adopt a multilateral, whole-of-society approach to curtail radicalization in the region.

Amalina Abdul Nasir and Kenneth Yeo are Research Analysts from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a specialist center based in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.