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Report on “Countering the Threat of Radicalisation in India and Malaysia” MP-IDSA – SEARCCT Joint Webinar

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  • May 27, 2022

    The joint webinar on radicalisation in India and Malaysia was held on 27 May 2022 and was organised by MP-IDSA and SEARCCT, Malaysia. The Director-General MP-IDSA, Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy and Director-General SEARCCT, Ambassador Dato’ Ganeson Sivagurunathan delivered the opening remarks and chaired respective sessions of the programme. During the first session, Dr. Ahmad El-Muhammady Bin Muhammad Uthman El-Muhammady spoke on “Radicalisation in Malaysia.” He was succeeded by Mr. Supt Loo Chee Lum who spoke on “Capacity Building Programmes,” and Ms. Pa Arul Malar Palaniveloo who talked about “Youth & P/CVE - Counter Messaging, Social Media and Outreach.” During the second session, Shri Pradeep Gautam delivered his remarks on “The Threat of Religious Ideological Extremism in the Indian Subcontinent,” followed by Dr. Adil Rasheed who spoke on “India’s Counter Radicalisation: Measures and Programmes,” and Ms. Shruti Pandalai who spoke on “Combating Radicalisation in the Social Media: The Indian Experience.” India’s High Commissioner to Malaysia Shri B.N. Reddy also gave his comments which was followed by an interactive Q&A session. The webinar was concluded with closing remarks from the Deputy Director-General at MP-IDSA, Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bipin Bakshi (Retd.), and Deputy Director-General at SEARCCT, Ambassador Khairi Omar.

    Executive Summary:

    The session was helpful in bringing forth the issue of radicalisation and its impact from an inter-regional perspective. The speakers shared their insights on the nature of radicalisation in India and Malaysia which would be vital in developing counter strategies that address these specific areas. Despite robust programs in both countries on counter terrorism and counter radicalisation, it was agreed that regular updating with the evolving discourse is essential, and corresponding training of the personnel is therefore necessary. The issue of online radicalisation and role of technology both as a challenge and as a tool to fight radicalisation was elaborated upon. It was agreed that novel ways of reaching to the public by extremist groups will necessitate innovative ways by the governments in countering such narratives. Therefore, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) will be an evolving methodology that grows in response to the tactics adopted by the extremist and radical groups.

    Detailed Report:

    Ambassador Chinoy began the session with his opening remarks and underscored the good relations between India and Malaysia, along with their shared concern over terrorism which has also impacted economic growth. He spoke of the increasing threat of terror groups’ access to Weapons of Mass Destruction and how that has worried governments. After the success of Taliban in Afghanistan, terrorist groups across the world have been emboldened. Ambassador Chinoy outlined the efforts India has made on working on legislation to curb terrorism, border management and elaborated on the impetus given to appropriate training of its law enforcement personnel to tackle such terrorist threats. India has also engaged with multilateral institutions and the UN to create frameworks on curbing terrorism, including pushing for a comprehensive global convention on terrorism.

    Ambassador Sivagurunathan welcomed the speakers and participants, and highlighted issues of violent extremism in his address. Speaking on the shared interests of India and Malaysia on countering violent extremism, he hoped the two countries could find useful ways of working together to solve this problem. He outlined his nation’s experience, crediting law enforcement agencies working tirelessly to resolve the issues of terrorism and radicalisation with considerable investment of time and resources. Emphasising that it is important to collaborate on these issues with like-minded partners from across the borders, he   stressed that within the country too help from the private sector should be sought to disseminate counter narratives of the government.

    In the first session featuring Malaysian speakers, Dr. El-Muhammady began his presentation and familiarised the audience with internalisation of radical ideas and its impact. He underlined that an individual may internalise these ideas but problems arise when they translate it into violent actions. In his talk, he emphasised that terrorism may be related to the cultural and religious framework in a society. In Malaysia, the criteria to view terrorism has been defined by the law, mainstream Islamic values, and universal values. Since Malaysian society is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious, it has led to more vulnerabilities. A highly diverse population which consists of indigenous bhoomiputras, Indians, Chinese and non-Malaysians who follow different religions is a ground for extremist groups to propagate their ideology and violence. With globalisation, the influx of foreign ideas and values has also led to increase in radicalisation. Social media is the newest platform for widespread dissemination of radical ideas, which is often not monitored by enforcement authorities, due to problems of locating the source. Malaysia has faced the challenge of radicalisation since colonial times and the communist insurgency. The long term strategy therefore should be developing public awareness and outreach apart from kinetic approaches like detention. Radicalisation is a subtle phenomenon which can keep growing beneath the surface. It requires being vigilant on a more comprehensive level he argued.

    Mr. Loo Chee Lum familiarised the audiences with SEARCCT’s capacity building programmes to counter terrorism. He highlighted that they adopt a multi-faceted approach through various training conferences, workshops, and forums. He outlined the many webinars conducted by the institute even during the COVID-19 Pandemic, including with the Australian High Commission and with Sarawak Information Systems. These programs are focused on engaging different stakeholders to curb terrorism and radicalisation in the society.

    Ms. Palaniveloo spoke about the Digital Strategic Communications Division at SEARCCT. She outlined how the division develops youth campaigns focusing on creating content like video campaigns which aim at engaging the young people in society. These generally include influencers and inspirational examples from society. The team also talks to detainees as well as people in rehabilitation to understand different perspectives that they include in the content they create. She highlighted the special attention given to rural areas in the campaigns which are designed to ensure relatability of people in specific areas. They do this by including colloquial phrases of the local language which appeal to this audience. The division lays special stress not only on how technology plays a role in spread of radicalisation, but also how it can be used to fight radicalisation. COVID-19 has compelled many things to go online, which means that extremist groups have also increased their activity online and therefore require quicker responses she argued.

    The second session featured speakers from the Indian side. Shri Gautam’s presentation focused on the Indian subcontinent, which he argued is faced with multiple challenges of radicalisation but there are some commonalities. Radicalisation in Maldives is increasingly becoming a concern as Salafi influence has been increasing. The funding and education in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has been the major factor for this increased radicalisation. In India, there has been left wing extremism and right wing mobilisation but the proportion of persons involved in these activities is very small, he argued. He elaborated upon how: Ahl-e-Hadis, Deobandis, Barelvis, Jamaat-e-Islami are some prominent ideological groups in India, of which some sections have been known to propagate extremist ideas.

    Dr. Rasheed during his talk highlighted that Indian Muslims follow a number of Islamic schools of thought. The threat of radicalisation, therefore, is also of different types. Apart from Salafi Jihadism which has been recognised around the world as an extremist ideology, there has been consistent threat from Pakistan based extremist terror groups operating in India such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. A third type is the indigenous terror groups but their impact should not be underestimated. He made the case that the difference in language used by all these groups is an important distinction in the kind of access they gain among Indian public. While ISIS based propaganda is global and often in English, it may have limited reach among Indian masses but Pakistan based radical groups use Urdu language and social media. He outlined how indigenous groups use vernacular languages and stress on a communal angle in their propaganda. The Indian Government has given certain leeway to state governments in devising and running their own counter-radicalisation programs. He inferred that Western programs in that context do not work in India, as Indian Muslims are not racially different from the mainstream population, unlike the case in the West, where they mostly seek to assimilate immigrant and refugee populations. Maharashtra’s de-radicalisation program has received praise and Mumbai police has been able to de-radicalise hundreds of citizens. Such programs have also been quite successful in Kerala. The Jihadist threat in the eastern and southern Indian regions such as in states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, can be tracked to radicalisation originating from Southeast Asia. Thus, India’s cooperation with Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, to counter this threat is important.

    Ms. Pandalai during her presentation, spoke about the information ecosystem in India and how radical groups may use the grey areas to their advantage and challenges for government agencies in India. She argued that there are more than 400 million social media users in India who are vulnerable to fake news, as their primary source of news consumption may be from unverified sources including applications like WhatsApp. Given the scale of socioeconomic challenges in India, technology can both empower and create law and order challenges, proving to be a double-edged sword in this context. She outlined how India has to grapple with the multiple challenges of communally stoked law and order issues, online radicalisation and cross-border terrorism, all amplified by social media and demonstrated that in many cases these are not mutually exclusive. For instance, fake news and disinformation in social media has caused many incidences of violence in India. In 2016, ISIS had directly used social media to target Indian Muslims by exploiting issues of Kashmir, nostalgia of the Mughal era, and the Babri Masjid demolition. The worrisome fact is that according to the National Investigation Agency, educated youth are getting drawn to this kind of propaganda, which may even lead to lone wolf attacks. The case of Burhan Wani in Kashmir is a classic example of the impact of social media and how it can recruit young men into activities of radicalisation. Ms. Pandalai outlined responses from the Indian Government including the rich experiences of the military in Kashmir which has been running de-radicalisation programs for many decades and has involved local population and clergy successfully. However, she argued that challenges remain as internet shutdown as response to social media triggered crises has caused problems for local communities and more needs to be done to bridge the trust deficit between social media platforms and government agencies. There is also a need for more sensitisation at the ground level to build confidence among local citizens and involve them in these outreach activities which use social media as a tool for engagement. Exchanging best practices with partner countries is the way ahead in improving our counter-radicalisation programs.

    After the sessions were concluded, the floor was opened for questions and answers. In response to a query, Dr. El-Muhammady told the audiences that the Malaysian Government was initially reluctant to accept the Malaysian foreign fighters who had gone to fight alongside ISIS in Syria, but given legal obligations and ethical considerations, it decided to later accept them in a phased manner. This has been done through inter-agency cooperation at an international level, and a number of returnees have been accepted. A three-level assessment of the returnees is mandatory, involving security and psychological analysis, to determine if they maybe a threat to Malaysian society. The individual may be prosecuted or rehabilitated depending upon the result. On the issue of women and their role in online radicalisation, he said that there has been an increase in participation of women, notably those propagating ISIS content online. To counter this problem, the Malaysian Government has included more women in its counter-radicalisation programs like Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). Dr. Rasheed, to a query about counter narratives, told the audience that it may not be possible to assess in empirical terms how counter narratives are affecting the population. But given the huge amount of resources extremist groups invest in spreading radicalisation, it is imperative that effort to create and sustain counter-narratives is maintained. He also added that the Indian population does not resonate much with the Bangladeshi school of Islamic thought but there is formidable threat from Pakistan based radical groups.

    Shri B.N. Reddy, H. E. High Commissioner of India to Malaysia, joined the conversation and  expressed his pleasure at the successful conduct of the session and hoped there would be more discussions in the future between MP-IDSA and SEARCCT. He expressed gratitude to both the Institutes working to promote de-radicalisation efforts.

    Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Bakshi (Retd.) offered closing remarks for the session. He underlined that foreign influences have caused disharmony among ethnicities and diverse communities of both the countries, which had peacefully co-existed before globalisation. It is important to prevent vulnerable sections of our population from falling prey to the radicalisation propaganda. The security apparatus in both countries have evolved unique counter strategies to deal with this problem. He shared his personal experience of being in the National Security Guard where he was involved in capacity building measures. He emphasised that international cooperation to counter radicalisation is very important given the trans-national nature of this threat. He also stressed that terror financing in particular must receive more attention as an area of study. He thanked the Director-Generals and Speakers from both the Institutes for their comments and the Participants for their contribution to the discussion. He expressed gratitude to the High Commissioner, Ms. Nair, Mr. Vardhan, Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania at MP-IDSA, SEARCCT Malaysia and the technical team in putting the event together. Ambassador Omar in his closing remarks expressed that efforts in understanding radicalisation and developing counter strategy and counter narratives are crucial to maintaining peace and security in our societies. He added that the policy of engaging more people in this activity of countering extremist propaganda can be very useful and it can help build confidence among the people for each government’s efforts in tackling this problem.

    The report was prepared by Mr. Akash Sahu, Research Analyst, Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania, MP-IDSA.