KOTA KINABALU: Last week’s call for jihad by a Singaporean Islamic State jihadist is seen by an expert as a fresh drive to recruit more educated supporters in the region, including in Malaysia.
This was the first known IS recruitment video, featuring a Singaporean fighter. It surfaced on social media, with the Singapore authorities saying the suspect had been on their radar for quite some time.
The Singapore home affairs ministry identified the man, nicknamed “Abu Uqayl al Singhapuri” (Abu Uqayl from Singapore), as Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad, 39.
Speaking in English, Megat Shahdan urged fighters in the region to sacrifice “all that is precious”.
He urged supporters to join the East Asian fighters (which for IS includes those in Southeast Asia) or to travel to the Middle East to help IS fighters there.
Anne Speckhard, director at the US-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), believes Megat Shahdan was trying to reach out to English-speaking followers in the Malay archipelago.
“It seems to me that as IS is facing territorial defeat, they keep inciting homegrown terrorism and also pointing to other battlegrounds to travel to, especially Southeast Asia. This seems to be the point of Abu Uqayl’s recent call for jihad,” she told FMT.
“IS wants travellers and attacks to begin in Southeast Asia. Since he could speak to English-speaking followers, he hit quite a few target audiences.
“He was appealing to Southeast Asians and Malaysians as well. IS is losing ground, but won’t be going away.”
Megat Shahdan is believed to have been radicalised in the Middle East when he went to work there in 2014.
According to an analysis by the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, the video may “possibly embolden more radicalised individuals and groups in the region to carry out domestic attacks that IS could later claim to have authorised”.
It warned that IS was able to persevere in its online radicalisation efforts despite facing heavy military losses in the Middle East.
Reports have indicated many fighters were radicalised because of dissatisfaction over perceived or actual disenfranchisement or marginalisation by their communities.
According to ICSVE’s website, Speckhard started the “Breaking the ISIS Brand – the IS Defectors Counter-Narrative Project” in 2015.
The project aimed to break the IS brand and flood the internet with counter-narratives to fight IS propaganda.
Since 2015, Speckhard and ICSVE staff have interviewed 63 IS defectors and returnees from Syria, Iraq, Western Europe, Central Asia and the Balkans.
They also interviewed 12 European parents of those who joined the IS.
Speckhard said the Malaysian authorities and community should create more narratives using IS insiders to counter their appeal to those who feel marginalised.
“I have been working with Malaysia’s foreign ministry’s think tank. We agree that counter-narratives, such as the ICSVE one that uses disillusioned insiders from IS, can help break the IS brand.
“In Europe, Belgium and France, the North African community members are often disaffected and frustrated in their aspirations.
“They may easily heed the calls of groups like IS for another form of governance where being Muslim is not a disadvantage,” she said.
‘Muslim disenfranchised card’
The counter-extremism expert also called on politicians to stop playing the “Muslim disenfranchised card” in their efforts to woo voters.
“Malaysian politicians have long played with the narrative that Muslim Malays are on the defensive.
“This mirrors the IS and al-Qaeda narrative and therefore is somewhat dangerous,” stressed Speckhard.
“It’s important for politicians not to play the Muslim disenfranchised card as it plays into IS’ rhetoric and reinforces it to the general population.
“It is difficult when politicians want to win elections and ethnic identity is a good ‘card’ to play.
“We have already seen IS have traction in Malaysia in attracting recruits.
“I hope Abu Uqayl’s message falls flat everywhere.”