Saturday 7 December 2013

Cracking cyber-terrorism codes

By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2013

IT WAS just another day at the office for security researcher Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin.

She was trawling through postings on extremist Indonesian websites in February this year, when a page popped up.

It said that a Singaporean, Mohamed Hussain Saynudin, had been released from jail in Singapore. He had been detained for terrorist-related activities here.

She spotted the item, and filed the data for her monthly report on Bahasa Indonesian extremist websites. These sites feature postings and comments from supporters of terrorists, women and several young adults.

Two weeks later, on March 7, her senses were jolted when she read the Ministry of Home Affairs official statement on the detainee's release. Shocked, she exclaimed: "What! I've seen this somewhere before."

She went back to the extremist website and noted that the posting was put up long before Singapore issued its official statement.

She wondered how the author of the posting, "Hazmi", knew of the detainee's release under a Restriction Order on Feb 21.

Under this order, Mohamed Hussain is not allowed to change his address or job, or travel overseas, without the authorities' approval. He had been arrested in 2007 under the Internal Security Act for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a regional terror group.

Ms Nur Azlin swiftly alerted her bosses at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), who then relayed the data to the Singapore authorities.

As a security analyst, her job is to spot, interpret and pass on information to the security agencies, who then do the investigation and enforcement.

Ms Nur Azlin, 28, has trained her sights on online cyber-terrorism since she joined RSIS, first as an analyst in 2007, then as an associate research fellow two years ago.

Part of her work involves monitoring websites known to be frequented by extremist groups. She looks mainly at the impact Indonesian extremist organisations' activities have on Singapore's security.

This is a growing concern as there is a high usage of the Internet in Singapore. More terrorist elements are joining the crowded social media space, putting out bits and bytes of their terrorist propaganda on the digital superhighway to win over more sympathisers to their cause, recruit members and raise funds, online.

In 2007, the number of terrorism websites in Indonesia was around 15. Today there are more than 200, she reckons, and adds that some Indonesian security experts quote a higher figure of 900. This total includes Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"It's becoming harder to track cyber websites as its growth is very contagious. Its like a virus," says the petite researcher.

Gold mine

BUT she sees a positive outcome as the big number of online sites throws up lots of leads on how terrorists are operating. "For us it's a gold mine of information. It allows us to track the propaganda and helps our counter-terrorist experts to come up with stronger strategies," she explains.

Apart from tracking security-related news on Singapore, she focuses on material that points to possible new targets of attacks.

For example,when the Rohingya issue surfaced last year, she tracked speeches by Indonesian extremist leaders like Abu Bakar Bashir who called for jihad or holy war against Myanmar.

The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority group, has suffered sustained discrimination from the ethnic Burmese junta in Myanmar. Ugly anti-Muslim sentiments erupted when clashes broke out between Buddhists and the Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Through her tracking, Ms Nur Azlin also detects ideological shifts in the thinking of the different extremists groups.

She found that after the crackdown on the Aceh terrorist training camp three years ago, some online extremists clung to their line of waging more violence. Others wanted non-violent ways of winning the hearts and minds of Muslims in Indonesia.

Another concern is the spike in the number of sites that post manuals, containing details of how to make and explode homemade explosives, she says.

For a detailed analysis of how dangerous and effective these weapons manuals are, she gets advice from officers in the Criminal Investigations Department.

She also works with her colleague in the institute, Mr Idznursham Ismail. He is a student analyst who researches the use of biological and radiological agents as weapons of mass destruction.

Ms Nur Azlin notes that online forums have an alluring effect on those who can be swayed by the messaging.

Facebook and Twitter help radicals feel a sense of psychological belonging if they find like-minded folk. This makes online sites more alluring, she says, adding: "It leads to the high probability of the adoption of hatred ideology through 'group think' tactics."

The big worry is that these online activities can lead to radicalisation of individuals, she stresses.

Online forums, she notes, have given Indonesian terrorist groups new ways of recuperating from the Indonesian police crackdowns on terrorist groups and activities.

"To rebuild themselves, terrorist groups disseminate their propaganda online to garner support and lure recruits," she adds.

Facebook recruits

ACCORDING to Mr Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, an analyst at the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies in Indonesia, 50 to 100 militants in Indonesia have been recruited in the last two years through Facebook.

Singapore, too, has seen the emergence of self-radicalised individuals. Since 2007, five have been detained and of this group, three have been released.

She submits her findings on cyber-terrorism in monthly reports which reach RSIS and security agencies in Singapore.

At RSIS, she heads a four-member informatics desk which reports on material gathered from extremist online sites in the Indonesian, Malay, Arabic and English languages.

In addition to writing research papers, she has conducted briefings and workshops for security personnel from overseas security organisations, including Detachment 88, the Indonesian counter-terrorism unit.

The mother of two has a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications degree from Oklahoma City University and a Master of Science in Strategic Studies from the Nanyang Technological University.

Asked if she gets swayed by the ideological stand on resorting to hate and violence, she says: "I've been asking myself that same question.

"I do not get swayed but I don't really know why others get influenced.

"Perhaps it's related to an individual's personality, the upbringing and education," she says.

When asked if the daily tracking of websites containing hate and violent material affects her, she replies frankly: "Sometimes."

On these days, she talks to her fellow analysts in RSIS who are Muslim clerics, on how not to let the work get to her.

"I'm human and it does get overwhelming," she states. "I feel a bit sad as there are those who believe in this crude ideology of violence.

"There are now more online sites that are targeted at women and even children.

"If only they put their energy to good use and came over to our side, they would be just as determined as us to work against terrorist ideologies," she says.


I do not get swayed but I don't really know why others get influenced. Perhaps it's related to an individual's personality, the upbringing and education.

- Ms Nur Azlin Mohamed Yasin, on the ideological stand on resorting to hate and violence


I'm human and it does get overwhelming. I feel a bit sad as there are those who believe in this crude ideology of violence. There are now more online sites that are targeted at women and even children. If only they put their energy to good use and came over to our side, they would be just as determined as us to work against terrorist ideologies.

- Ms Nur Azlin on her work

Waging propaganda war against terrorists
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 13 Dec 2013

EMERGING from a darkened cinema hall, security expert Kumar Ramakrishna's eyes were gently adjusting to the light outdoors when his mind began decoding an embedded message in a war movie he had just seen, Lions For Lambs.

In the 2007 movie directed by Hollywood icon Robert Redford, interwoven narratives run through a complicated plot that centres on America's foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two patriotic Americans enlist for action but are killed in the war.

Their heroic deeds are recounted by a university don in order to shake up an apathetic American student.

The professor chides the student: ''When thousands of American troops are dead and more dying every day, you tell me, how can you enjoy the good life? Rome is burning, son!''

''A darn good movie,'' says Associate Professor Kumar, 49.

Explaining the ''decoded'' message over a cup of cafe latte at a Holland Village cafe, he says that the movie was made by Hollywood elements peddling the government line on the need for war to an unsuspecting public. In other words, it was propaganda masquerading as a movie.

''That is the power of good propaganda. It is so subtle, you don't even realise it's propaganda.

''In fact, the art of propaganda, as the British used to say in World War II, is to conceal that you are engaging in it,'' says Prof Kumar, who heads the Centre of Excellence for National Security (Cens). Cens is a research institute in the think-tank S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

But the constant use of the word ''propaganda'' during the interview makes the military historian uncomfortable.

With eyebrows furrowed, he advises: ''Don't use the word propaganda as the Nazis gave the term a bad reputation during World War II. Nowadays it's called 'strategic communication'.''

Group tent

SET up in 2006, Cens has been studying the power of effective strategic communication.

A multinational pool of researchers also study the causes of violent radicalisation and how globalised societies can emerge as winners during security crises.

''The arrival of new immigrants in Singapore thickens the plot,'' he says, adding that identity issues are linked to ethnic conflicts.

''We belong to a group tent and it's our identity. If one group tent feels that it is going to be swallowed by another group, it will defend itself,'' he says. If the issue is not addressed and the situation deteriorates, violence will break out.

Prof Kumar's researchers also look at the social media's impact on social resilience and why civil society must take the lead and deal with malcontents who threaten social cohesion.

Tell no lies

THE Cens chief brings to the table his expertise in propaganda theory, counter-terrorism and strategic analysis.

A student in military history, one of his research interests is the successful use of propaganda by the British during World War II in the 1940s and the Malayan Emergency in the 1950s.

He is a firm believer in the work of Richard H.S. Crossman, a renowned British propagandist during World War II.

Describing Crossman's work as ''an art form'', Prof Kumar says the officer built his propaganda theories around three principles.

The first was to be subtle.

If the plan was to spread panic among German troops about an outbreak of typhus in their camps, never splash this news on Page 1 of a newspaper as this will make readers sceptical. Better to tuck the news as a small item on Page 2 or 3, and run it frequently.

His next rule was on truth. If people are told the truth every day for seven years and then for operational reasons are told a lie on the first day of the eighth year, people will believe it. The people's trust would have been built by then, explains the researcher.

And finally, be creative and use entertainment to sugar-coat anti- war messages, said Crossman.

''Entertainment is a valuable narcotic for dulling the sensibilities of a propaganda-conscious mind,'' he preached.

During World War II and the Malayan Emergency, the British used carefully constructed phrases in radio broadcasts, along with bullets and shells, to destroy the enemy's will to win.

In Malaya, where Crossman's methods were used, short news flashes on the Emergency were sandwiched between long music segments and talks on gardening, cooking and other lessons.

Through these methods, villagers who were fence-sitters were wooed away from the insurgents.

The airing of anti-insurgent messages written by former communist insurgents broke down communist morale and drove a wedge between leaders and soldiers, discloses Prof Kumar.

The equivalent in today's fight against terrorism would be to get ex-terrorists to write material using terrorist terminology. This matter should then be disseminated to terrorists, he suggests.

Another idea is to ask ex-Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees in Singapore to do counter-ideological work, similar to the way the Indonesian police have used captured JI militants, such as Nasir Abbas, to undercut the network's recruitment efforts, he says.

But this approach does not always work as the Indonesian experience has shown. As a safeguard, the main role in counter-ideological efforts must be played by qualified religious scholars. A group of carefully selected former militants can play a supporting role.

Human nature

THREE years after graduating with a first-class honours degree in political science from the National University of Singapore in 1989, Prof Kumar obtained his Master of Defence Studies degree from the University of New South Wales in Australia. In 1999, he received his PhD from the University of London.

The father of three is now working on his sixth book on terrorism, its complexity and its links with human nature. He reckons that it will be a thought-provoking book because he will argue that there is a need to integrate old social science methods with newer insights from other disciplines.

He is convinced that the real problem in dealing with terrorism or violent extremism is not violent ideology but human nature.

Human nature, argues Prof Kumar, has not changed since the first group of Homo sapiens appeared on the east African savannah 200,000 years ago.

Human beings either died at the hands of predators or as a result of altercations with other groups of humans who banded together for survival. Members of each group viewed themselves as the centre of the universe and all other groups as morally inferior and of a lower status.

''Terrorists view themselves as a morally superior race of saviours crossing swords with an unenlightened group of people standing in their way,'' he says.

Research informs practice

TO EFFECTIVELY counter security threats, Prof Kumar stresses the need for a multi-disciplinary and transnational approach, involving experts in politics, history, psychology, sociology and even technology.

In September this year, Cens and a leading British institution, Warwick University, brought together security analysts who had done multi-disciplinary work that was transnational. Many stressed that researchers' work must be relevant to policymakers.

''Research informs practice and researchers must ensure that somebody out there is reading their work and reacting to it,'' notes Prof Kumar.

He cautions that the roles played by the researcher and the practitioner need to be clear.

Researchers must think, write and speak without fear, he says. To those who ask him if the Government tells him what and how to write, he replies, ''No''.

''Even within government circles, they know that if they do that, then our credibility in counter- terrorism work will take a hit.''

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