The Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) designed an online expert survey, primarily to assess the pandemic’s impact on the current state of play among violent extremist (VE) groups. Between January to March 2021, CENS received responses from some of the foremost experts in the field of terrorism studies and countering violent extremism (CVE) practitioners.
Perceptions Among Southeast Asia Specialists
Reflecting CENS’s location and primary research focus in Southeast Asia, 53 per cent of the respondents identified themselves as geographically focused on Southeast Asia. Among them, 85 per cent considered “Salafi-Jihadi terrorism and recruitment” the most relevant issue. From 2019–2021, Southeast Asian VE groups tended to slightly favour online over offline recruitment methods. Respondents were asked to rate how much VE groups recruited using either “fully online” or “fully offline” methods. The average rating was 46, which signifies how VE recruitment was slightly skewed to online methods.
When asked to elaborate, all the Southeast Asia experts shared that “private messaging apps” functioned as the primary online recruitment tool. Telegram was mentioned as the preferred choice due to its reputation as a “more secure” app. Facebook was the platform of choice for VE groups in Southeast Asia. One respondent pointed out that Facebook provides wide reach, especially through its Groups function. Its built-in Messenger app allowed VE group recruiters to directly message a specific individual scouted for recruitment.
CENS Expert Survey (CES) respondents were also asked which evolving technologies were used by VE groups in Southeast Asia. “Encrypted communications” was used the most according to 79 per cent of the respondents, which validates earlier findings on how VE groups depend heavily on messaging apps. Among the technology categories used in the CES, deployment of ransomware and malware, ranked last.
These courses of action by VE groups were indirectly caused by second-order effects created by the pandemic. Ranking at the top of COVID-associated factors was the “socio-economic disruption” caused by the pandemic. In conclusion, a third of Southeast Asia experts deemed it “likely” that the pandemic would lead to more extremist violence in coming years.
Perceptions Outside Southeast Asia
Experts on areas outside of Southeast Asia similarly observed that Salafi-Jihadi terrorism was the “most relevant” issue to their region. The second and third ranked issues are “far-right terrorism and recruitment” and “racism and xenophobia”, respectively. This ranking suggests how far-right terrorism is deemed more relevant outside of Southeast Asia. Compared to observations made about Southeast Asia, VE groups in other regions were 15 per cent more likely to use online tools for recruitment. What differs in the non-Southeast Asian context was the greater importance of websites, specifically online forums.
Like Southeast Asia, VE groups in other regions also used encrypted communications. What distinguishes regions outside Southeast Asia is the wider adoption of cryptocurrencies by VE groups. However, respondents did not state the type of cryptocurrency in use. Another contrast to Southeast Asia was the higher ranking assigned to the use of “coordinated inauthentic online behaviour” such as sock puppets.
When asked to determine which aspects of the pandemic and pandemic recovery would lead to heightened VE activity, respondents pointed to the divisive nature of the “online information space”. Coming in second is the “socio-economic disruption” created by the pandemic. “Increased Internet and/or social media usage” due to community quarantines and lockdowns was cited as the third most important factor. In conclusion, most respondents assessed that it is “possible” that the pandemic would lead to more VE group violence in coming years.
Convergence and Divergence
Based on the CES it is reasonable to believe that while Southeast Asia reflects global VE trends, important distinctions must be made. The Salafi-Jihadi terrorist threat remains the most relevant threat across all regions. The biggest divergence is how other regions view far-right VE groups. It is unclear whether this is due to Southeast Asia’s preoccupation with religious and/or ethnonationalist-driven VE, or a lack of appreciation over what constitutes far-right extremism; or a combination of both.
It was also clear from the CES that online tools are exploited by VE groups globally. According to the CES, Facebook and Telegram are far ahead of other platforms and apps for recruitment purposes. In Southeast Asia, trust in online tools appeared constrained to the areas of propaganda and mass outreach. Slower technology adoption in Southeast Asia can be attributed to multiple factors. It can simply be an issue of limited Internet access or connectivity. Related to this is the relative costs in using online tools for operational activities versus offline tools.
The online space has gained even more importance for VE groups during the pandemic. Greater reliance on the online space will likely continue in the near-term as populations grow more accustomed to digital tools. This dynamic is unleashed by factors beyond the control of the VE groups themselves, and more attributable to external factors. These factors can be intrinsically benign, such as populations having more time for online activities or Internet use.
It can also reflect how online tools open new avenues for populations to express disagreement or even dissent against governments. As societies spend more time online, VE groups have adjusted their recruitment and organisational activities. Their reliance on “encrypted communications” means that more effort is needed by governments on preventing violent extremism rather than CVE.