Saturday, 25 January 2014

Defusing terror threats from Sheik Google

By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 24 Jan 2014

JUST when Muslim cleric Leyaket Ali Mohamed Omar felt he was getting a handle on rehabilitating detainees from militant group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), he found himself sitting with a different type of detainee - a lone wolf, brainwashed by "Sheik Google".

Sheik Google is a personification of the way charismatic Islamic ideologues use fiery speeches on jihadist websites to poison minds and entice converts to join them in a war against the United States and its allies.

Ustaz Leyaket, who used the term Sheik Google as a convenient shorthand, says that Sheik Google's terror footprints are easily found on the Internet.

"The Sheik Google becomes the lone wolf's guru, his teacher. The individual then upholds these deviant teachings as the right ideology," says Ustaz Leyaket.

"We need to spread the message that Sheik Google is dangerous," he adds.

Muslims need to seek answers to their religious queries from a good Islamic teacher with credentials recognised by the mainstream Muslim religious leaders. Singapore has about 1,200 accredited religious teachers or asatizah.

Lone wolves, as they are known in security circles, are difficult to detect as they do not belong to any militant group.

Singapore detained its first do-it-yourself terrorist in 2007, six years after the first wave of arrests of JI members.

Five self-radicalised Muslims have been detained since, and three have been released.

Another group of six self-radicalised individuals have been placed on restriction orders. Under this order, a person is not detained, but his movement and activities are regulated.

Those detained are between the ages of 20 and 30. A few planned to go to battle fronts in the Middle East and South-east Asia to take part in the fighting.

Growing threat

THE threat posed by self-radicalised individuals is expected to grow. The number of jihadist websites globally stood at 5,600 in 2007, and a Saudi researcher estimated the number of these websites to grow by about 900 each year.

Security expert Kumar Ramakrishna says that with the spread of Al-Qaeda ideology via the Internet, "the threat of terrorism has metastasised".

"Some military strategists even talk of so-called Fifth Generation Warfare in which 'super-empowered' lone wolves may in the coming decade exploit digital technology to mount crippling cyber attacks on national infrastructure. They may even deploy small radiological devices against cities," he says.

It is important to have effective counter-ideological campaigns aimed at undermining the violent extremist ideology that sustains them, he adds.

Joining forces

ANOTHER security expert who declined to be named notes that the threats posed by self-radicalised members are as serious as the ones from those in a militant group. But a new danger lurks.

The two groups could join forces, he says. "A lone wolf operating alone can cause mass casualties.

"But, in the terrorists' mind, the ultimate target is to have another Bali-style bombing or an attack similar to the Sept 11, 2001 incident in the United States in which hijackers turned aeroplanes into flying explosives.

"To pull off these kinds of spectacular attacks, a self-radicalised terrorist will seek out and join a militant group," he warns.

Different folks, different strokes

ALONG with a white shawl thrown over his shoulder, Ustaz Leyaket, 38, is always dressed in a long, flowing robe or gamis when he enters Whitley Road Detention Centre's interview room.

For the past four years, he has counselled detainees as a member of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). Made up of volunteer Muslim clerics, the members counsel JI and self-radicalised detainees.

The ustaz draws on his experience in Islamic jurisprudence, a subject he studied as an undergraduate at the ancient Rubat Institute of Islamic Studies in Yemen. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in Islamic Studies.

By providing detainees with a deeper insight into Islamic teachings, he helps them understand and accept the correct interpretation of Islam.

The methods used to rehabilitate self-radicalised and JI detainees are different, he reveals.

JI detainees belong to a formal group which have radical preachers who taught a deviant Islamic ideology. The self-radicalised person, on the other hand, is an individual who seeks specific answers on the Internet to questions he has about Islam.

A self-radicalised person is often desperate for answers. His emotional need draws him to radical websites.

For example, one self-radicalised person wanted to know about ways to get closer to God. Habitually accessing the Internet for more than six hours every day, this person once spent nearly 24 hours listening to speeches by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Another thought he had found the meaning to the Islamic teaching on riba or usury - the unethical act of charging excessively high interest rates on loans.

But he misinterpreted the concept, concluding that Singapore financial bodies were acting unethically by charging interest rates on loans. He wanted Singapore to abolish the system.

Reconnecting with the truth

SOME self-radicalised persons respond well to counselling, discloses the ustaz. "One man's eyes lit up when I explained the correct interpretation of Islamic concepts. He started asking more questions in a genuine way. But another guy was really stubborn and he would not listen. He even started lecturing me."

Ustaz Leyaket also discusses other approaches with RRG members, seeking fresh ways to re-connect with those who are stubborn.

The ustaz also uses techniques he learnt during his master's course in counselling at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

When the discussion with a detainee breaks down, he shifts the focus from religion to family matters. He inquires about the detainee's spouse and children's education.

"When he begins to feel good, we talk about Islam," he says.

Ustaz Leyaket, who is married to a school teacher, has four children. He is now pursuing his doctorate in inter-religious studies at the Gadjah Mada University and the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies.

Islamic religious leaders like Ustaz Leyaket play a critical role.

"I tell the self-radicalised person, I am the real Google. Ask me your questions on Islam and not the cyber terrorist teachers who pose as the Sheik Google," he says.


The Sheik Google becomes the lone wolf's guru, his teacher. The individual then upholds these deviant teachings as the right ideology... We need to spread the message that Sheik Google is dangerous.
- Ustaz Leyaket Ali Mohamed Omar

5 ways of fighting Sheik Google

WITH more than 6,000 Muslim extremist cyber websites in the world, the task of preventing self radicalisation is proving to a tough one.

Blocking these websites would only drive them underground.

Here are five top ways to fight the online extremist preacher known as Sheik Google:
- Be a whistle-blower, even if it means turning in a family member or a student who has been self-radicalised. These persons usually talk about their plans to go to war or the ideas they have obtained from the Internet.
Telling the authorities about such people is not an act of betrayal. Timely action can save many lives, including that of the self-radicalised person.
- Step up digital literacy efforts to educate people on what an extremist website contains compared to a website from a recognised body.
- Expose the truth about extremist online preachers.
For example, the firebrand extremist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Born in the United States, the late charismatic speaker spoke English well.

But his ideas were flawed, just like his criminal record. He was arrested in 1996 and 1997 for soliciting prostitutes.
- Produce a new narrative, one that has the faces and voices of former Jemaah Islamiah detainees and gory film footage of unarmed Muslims killed by bombs set off by Islamic militants.
- Embed subtle anti-terrorist propaganda in messages and movies.
One example is a 2010 comedy by British director and satirist Chris Morris, Four Lions. It spun a funny tale about a group of British would-be suicide bombers.

The men were not portrayed as fearsome warriors but stupid bunglers. It made it to Time magazine's list of top 10 movies in 2010.

Battling cosmic wars in the minds of terrorists
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 31 Jan 2014

"MR MARK, you just don't get it. All of you are like sheep!

"There's a war going on, a battle between good and evil. You just don't see it. Your government will not let you see it."

It was 1997, and the speaker was red-haired Egyptian terrorist Mahmud Abouhalima.

Mahmud had been sentenced to 240 years in jail for his role in masterminding the February 1993 explosion at New York's World Trade Centre, which killed six people and injured about 1,000.

Surrounded by a dozen heavily armed prison officers, the unrepentant terrorist was being interviewed in the United States by Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, an American expert in the study of religious violence, who is now 72.

The soft-spoken, silver-haired professor had just asked Mahmud why he resorted to terrorism in the name of religion.

Mahmud then leaned over to the don, a move that prompted prison officers to dive in to protect the visitor.

Mahmud sneered: "Mr Mark, we need to make you see. We need to take you by the shoulders and shake you until you are awake."

The professor then asked if that was why terrorists carried out bombings.

The convict leaned back, and gave a blood-curdling reply: "Well, now you know, Mr Mark. Now you know."

Terrorists, Prof Juergensmeyer explained recently in an interview with The Straits Times, see themselves as soldiers in a cosmic war who use terror tactics, including blowing up buildings and people, to draw people into the battle.

The problem is that the war is an imaginary one. It exists only in their minds.

This is why terrorists commit their acts: to make the war in their minds come real for others.

At the time of the interview, Mahmud was regarded as one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world.

He had also been linked to the plot to kill Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the murder of the militant Zionist rabbi Meir Kahane.

"He has blood on his hands," says the academic.

An odd relationship

PROF Juergensmeyer, who is the director of the Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies, has criss-crossed the world for over 30 years, studying religious violence.

His work combines sociology, politics and theology. He is also an affiliate professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Included in a long list of 20 books he has written is one titled Terror In The Mind Of God.

It contains interviews with Mahmud and others, including abortion clinic bombers in the United States.

The professor explains that in times of transition like today, people feel uneasy about issues such as who they are; who is responsible for the state of the world; and how safe they feel.

These issues of identity, security and accountability are the driving forces that propel a minority into terrorism.

The big change in people's lives now is globalisation, a development that has caused many people to ask questions about their own identity and responsibilities.

Such uneasiness provides fertile ground for religious extremists to plant their ideas about violence, says the professor.

A terrorist declares a cosmic war against those who stand in his way.

When his enemy fails to see his imaginary war, he goes berserk.

"It drives them nuts when we, and others from their own faith, do not see this war," Prof Juergensmeyer discloses.

Terrorists thus use terror attacks as a signal that the war they are waging has begun.

This happened when Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult members launched a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995. Thirteen people died.

The attack rattled the Japanese public who had ignored warnings by the cult's leader that the world was coming to an end. It also signalled to cult members that they were heading towards Armageddon, says the don.

A vexing problem

PROF Juergensmeyer was in Singapore last week as a distinguished visiting fellow at a seminar on religious extremism and violence, organised by the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS).

The centre studies closely the growing number of religiously motivated incidents of violence in South-east Asia.

CENS chief Kumar Ramakrishna says religious extremist leaders like Myanmar's Wirathu and Indonesia's Abu Bakar Bashir also exploit nationalist sentiments to get their followers to commit violent acts.

For example, Wirathu has exploited the fear of Buddhists who believe that economically well-off Muslims, a minority group, will replace Buddhism with Islam in Myanmar.

"The case of Wirathu highlights the vexing nexus between non-violent extremist rhetoric and real-world violence," states Prof Kumar.

He says that some who study religious conflicts in the region downplay the role of religion in these struggles, in favour of placing more emphasis on what they see as essentially nationalist issues.

He argues that the issue of religion should be brought to the fore and dealt with by the authorities.

That is why the empirical findings of academics like himself on the issue are important, he says.

The visiting professor adds that terrorists who resort to violence are performing a form of street theatre, albeit a violent one.

"A good drama draws the audience into the play, and that is exactly what terrorists do each time," he says.

But one must never buy into their message, he warns.

Terror wars will end

THE professor, an optimist, predicts that the problem of terrorism will vanish one day.

Warriors in previous epic wars waged battle in the name of God to protect their land and people.

Since today's terror wars are imaginary ones, the battle can be won, provided countries do not play into the hands of terrorists, he cautions.

"Don't go for military solutions. Leave it to the police to hunt down the terrorists and the courts to pass judgment. When you don't exaggerate the problem, the problem will go away.

"Religiously motivated terrorism will one day dissipate as quickly as it was created, just like a summer storm.

"An image of cosmic war is like that. We must not get caught up in this imagined war," he says.

Don't fall for a terrorist's bait
By M. Nirmala, The Straits Times, 31 Jan 2014

WHAT happened on Sept 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda suicide terrorists crashed aircraft into New York's World Trade Centre, was tragic.

But the United States' response the following day created a new set of problems, says Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, an expert on religious violence.

That was the day the US described the attack as "an act of war".

"It bit the bait Osama bin Laden had laid for the US. I thought to myself, 'Why on earth are we promoting the ideology of Osama bin Laden?'.

"By going for the military solution, we validated bin Laden's view with our own rhetoric and actions," he says.

The US decision later to invade Afghanistan and Iraq gave more credibility to Osama's propaganda and he painted a picture of America as an enemy of Islam and a vile foe that tortured captured Muslim terrorists.

A better option would have been to fight the terrorists using non-military methods from civil jurisdictions.

The US should have used the police to hunt down the terrorists and brought the perpetrators before the courts, he believes.

"People like Osama bin Laden should not be given the credibility of a great statesman who can engage in a war against the US.

"Bin Laden should have been regarded as a petty little burglar and a vicious killer that he was. He should have been brought to justice in a court of his peers and shown to be the simple little egomaniac that he was," he says.

But when the US fought him on his terms, it entered into war with him, turning the imaginary war in Osama's mind into a real one.

"The key lesson is not to buy into the terrorists' language and not bring the battle to their level.

"Once you do that, you lose," says Prof Juergensmeyer.

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