Opening speech (Dr. Nur Aisyah Zainordin)

Violent extremism and terrorism are real issues and threats in the Southeast Asian region. Most terrorist recruits have been found to be between the ages of 15 and 30 years, hence making it a youth problem.

The geographic heterogeneity in this part of the world, comprising sea routes and spacious land boundaries between countries, is an appealing trait to terrorists. Furthermore, the political, social, and economic troubles abound encourage militant activities. Fortunately, though, intelligence agencies have increasingly been complemented by youth NGOs and movements which raise awareness of terrorism among society.

The youth are a vulnerable target group and need to be engaged with in order to prevent them from destructive tendencies, especially Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired leanings. Social media should be used to cultivate peace, love, a sense of nation-building, and an analytical approach to consuming information. Positive narratives need to be created to attract youth to turn their energy and radicalism into good causes and being a part of the solution.

In this matter, the youth are best approached by other young people who can be their friends and place to seek help. They need to understand that it is not they themselves that are being opposed, but rather, ideologies which can ruin their future.

What is Terrorism and How Did It Start? (Dr. Maszlee Malik)

The definition of terrorism is rather subjective, and it may be manipulated by those in power.

Terrorism is profitable to many quarters, including the media, the security industry, politicians, and even NGOs. It is merely a symptom of illness and opposing it head-on is counter-productive to a more viable solution, which involves addressing the root causes. Analysis of major terrorist groups, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram, reveals five common factors:

  1. Injustice towards Muslims – oppression of adherents of Islam, both locally and abroad, justifies the existence of terror groups
  2. Conflicts – al-Qaeda from the Afghan War, al-Qaeda in North Africa from the 1990 Nigerian coup d’etat, ISIS from the American invasion of Iraq, and ISIS in Mindanao from the failure of Muslims and the Philippine government to reach a consensus are all examples of extremist movements produced by conflict
  3. Dictatorship – Many terrorists have been known to originate from Muslim states under authoritarian rule like Saudi Arabia, Tunisia during Ben Ali’s rule, Jordan, and Urumqi. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, is a product of imprisonment during the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser (the former Egyptian president)
  4. Bad governance
  5. Discrimination towards Muslims in majority non-Muslim countries – discrimination may not be institutionalised in the legal framework of countries, but it may occur among the society and this spurs Muslims with radical tendencies to join extremist groups.

Ideology is the medium through which these root factors come to life. It does not represent the initial factor of terrorist acts, but along the line, it becomes adopted by extremist individuals. Only then does dogma, in an exclusivist and ultra-conservative mould, come in as a vehicle for the physical manifestation of violent leanings.

The existence of the aforesaid root causes creates a sense of hopelessness and helplessness among youth, rendering them vulnerable to entities like ISIS who portray themselves as bearers of hope and salvation. The exploitation of end-of-days prophecies is a common phenomenon among terrorist religious groups in gaining recruits and sympathesisers, and the case is no different with ISIS in their misinterpretation of Qur’anic verses and ahadeeth (Prophetic narrations).

Violence-prone, frustrated youths are best approached by others in their age group who can bring ideas of civil society and generate more promising, positive discourse. Young people are much more likely to find themselves trusting their peers than figures of authority.

Religious groups and movements need to take on more inclusivist practices and position themselves to be more ­ummah­-centric. Counter-narratives with love, mercy, and karamah insaniyah (individual dignitiy) as central themes have to be allowed more room to flourish and displace religious speeches of punishment and doom. In the same way that ISIS uses social media to propagate their doctrine, these counter-discourses must be spread in kind and en masse, especially through organisations and movements.


ISIS in Southeast Asia (Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Razak Ahmad)


The threat of ISIS in this part of the globe has perhaps been made to be more serious than is the truth. What authorities do understand is that ISIS is just as sophisticated and efficient in their approach as other terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. Like these groups, their ideology is radical and trans-national.

ISIS has been observed to emerge in areas of strife, and there are indications it may next gain footing on a large scale in North Africa. It is believed that for the same reason, ISIS has enjoyed appeal in Southeast Asia, seeing as the southern Philippines conflict has gone unresolved for centuries. The Syrian crisis has been another factor for their traction here, although security fraternities could benefit from more judicious use of the extremist label on travellers from this region to Syria, as many do so for humanitarian causes. The notion of the Islamic Caliphate that ISIS carries is significant in gaining them supporters as well.

Southeast Asia may be fertile ground for the recruitment of ISIS members, but its disposition in mutiple aspects is not conducive to it becoming a hotbed for terrorist activities. Firstly, ASEAN countries are multicultural and very religiously pluralistic. Secondly, the democracy practised by governments here are a far cry from the authoritarian regimes in which ISIS has managed to gain a following; in fact, Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir was quoted as wanting to return to his native Indonesia from his lengthy stay in Malaysia after being inspired by Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and how they managed to integrate their Islamic agenda into the Malaysian democratic system. Thirdly, ISIS’s modus operandi of hate-peddling is incongruent with the cultural history of Islam here, which arrived at the hands of merchants and not via warfare.

It is imperative that better co-ordination occur between ASEAN security forces. Issues such as the difference in the branch of armed forces (e.g., army versus police) handling terrorist threats between countries and the absence of a regional arrest warrant have plagued Southeast Asian nations for some time.

In curbing terrorism, though, human rights and due legal process have to be given utmost priority. The Indonesian success in detaining extremist activity perpetrators while adhering to legal technicalities and to evidential support has been emulated by many. It is reminiscent of the case of Abu Qatadah, a Jordanian who was given asylum by the United Kingdom and not extradited until authorities in his home nation guaranteed fair, humane treatment upon his return.

Finally, tackling the ISIS phenomenon in Southeast Asia requires addressing ignorance and not using sole brute force. Only through edification of society can prevention and long-lasting solutions occur.


ISIS Youth Profile Targetting and De-radicalisation Programs (Mr. Ahmad El Muhammady)


There are four elements to successful recruitment: an effective recruiter, impactful messages, powerful tools, and vulnerable targets.

  1. Effective recruiter – the recruiter must be a masterful manipulator of human emotion. Terrorism is a business and the recruiter must be able to sell his product, matching the customer’s needs with his and capitalising on such elements as political disenchantment, a sense of danger, and spiritual atonement. Muhammad Wanndy was one such example of a skilled recruiter; after his death, the ISIS online recruitment rate in Malaysia dropped by 50%
  2. Impactful messages – emotion-laden narratives of actual events (coupled with graphics) convey meaning best. Repetition of messages and incantation eventually results in ideology, which will cycle viciously to create even more compository events. The Syrian crisis, for example, managed to generate sympathy and, subsequently, action from the Muslim denizens of the world
  3. Powerful tools – terrorist groups have always used the internet, social media, and current technology to their advantage, going so far as to post videos too extreme for the lay public on the clandestine Dark Web
  4. Vulnerable targets – a study by the Malaysian Institute of Youth revealed that those convicted with terrorist activities possessed nine common traits: a weak relationship with parents, low self-worth, narcissism (this is seemingly contradictory to low self-worth, but it actually refers to the feeling of appreciation provided by recruiters), distorted cognitive reasoning, high levels of aggression, a tendency to misinterpret religion, impulsive sensation-seeking (risk-taking) behaviour, emotional sensitivity, and a desire to change.

Counter-radicalisation initiatives comprise collective efforts by the government, civil society groups, and the public. They aim to rehabilitate detainees and to prevent further recruitment from among laypeople.

The objectives of rehabilitation are to: disengage convicts from the militant world, correct their worldview, change their behaviour, and re-integrate them into society.

As for the public, awareness of violent extremism indoctrination needs to be created as a means of prevention, and they need to be insulated from militant dogma. Civil society NGOs are flexible and have the freedom to engage different quarters with discourse as they are not tied down by partisan politics. However, in forming counter-narratives, expertise in the field is required and discourse must be factual and based on references.


Countering Terrorists in Southeast Asia (Dr. Arya Sandhiyudha)

Al-Qaeda was born out of the ashes of the Afghanistan-Soviet war, during which the United States of America utilised proxies in an attempt to topple the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Jemaah Islamiyah, which later based itself in Southeast Asia, was also a remnant of the mujahideen (freedom fighters) of the conflict.

ISIS, in turn, found its beginnings in the failed states of Iraq and Syria, and its numbers came not just from al-Qaeda in the region, but also from the youth of both Muslim-majority countries and Western countries where Muslims where felt to have been marginalised.

ISIS is surprisingly well-equipped and well-trained because many in al-Qaeda used to be Saddam Hussein’s military officers. Their income is derived from the selling of artifacts from Muslim history to countries like Turkey, the oil market, taxation of civilians in ISIS-held territories, and from bank scamming.

There are four countries worth studying as regards their interaction with ISIS:

  1. Uzbekistan – the post-Soviet state left a nation which was still an autocracy but had an ideological vaccuum, and in their search for an Islamic identity, ISIS managed to seep in
  2. Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in injecting their ideology of healthy Islamic discourse among the civilians and this prevented ISIS’ hardline, brute thinking from spreading despite Egypt’s autocratic condition
  3. United Kingdom – British Muslims’ perception of being marginalised and the United Kingdom’s foreign policies towards Muslim majority-countries renders them susceptible to adopting ISIS thinking
  4. Turkey – Turkish Islamists involved themselves in participatory democracy, and thus managed to influence society’s thinking and also take over administration of the country through the AKP party.

The solution in countering the susceptibility to terrorist thinking involves striking a balance between regulation, moderation, education, and diplomacy.

Indonesia has advanced in the law-enforcement, focussed approach where due legal process and transparency is given emphasis. It has managed to garner the government support from the public for its objectivity, but their approach sometimes falters in suppressing ideology, as individuals cannot be arrested prior to the occurrence proper of a criminal act. The Philippines has resorted to a more force-oriented approach, which may be more effective in outright prevention but may also provide terrorist groups with increased legitimacy for their existence. Singapore and Malaysia have taken on intelligence-focussed approaches. It generates more long-term success, but is susceptible to political and power abuse.

Finding the sweet spot in between these approaches will yield the methodology with the most strengths and the least weaknesses.


Q & A

Q:   You spoke of encouraging the growth of positive narratives among youth. Is there really no way to nullify negative, extremist thinking among them, or is it simply a better choice.

A : Dr. Maszlee

You need to create heroes and real hopes to replace the false ones. At current, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen as the most prominent leader among the Muslim ummah, even though his methods are not always just when dealing with his adversary Gulen and his followers. Nonetheless, in spite of the deficit of trust among international youth in the governing systems of their countries, he is an icon, a saviour to the many who are hopeless and helpless.

No doubt, the ‘hard’ approach of security forces has its role, but civil society and non-authorities do not have force and power at their disposal and thus, should work with discourse.

Q : I would like to ask your opinion on the Singaporean administration’s current directive to involve more clergy in the fight against terrorism; it seems as if the burden of finding a solution is being placed on their shoulders.

A: Dr. Maszlee

I recently attended a meeting in Selangor where we discussed tensions between races in Malaysia, in which social media plays a role in amplifying initially trivial matters; we’ve become a different kind of creature ever since the appearance of social media in our lives.

They were discussing such things as the necessity of fiqh ta’ayyush(fiqh of co-existence) as if all the racism was coming only from Malays. Are we saying that no prejudice ever comes from the other ethnic groups? The other thing is that we sometimes talk too much about this and that fiqh, which I think is still exclusivist. Are universal values not enough? We should teach our children respect and love, not tolerance. Tolerance is where we put up with something even if we despise it, but respect has a more compassionate connotation.

I think that the clergy in Singapore need not be asked to keep addressing terrorism, as talking too much about it may also promote it. What is needed is more room for them to work with non-Muslims, which is different from the confinement within Muslim circles that, unfortunately, they seem to be complacent with. They need to be pushed out of their comfort zones to provide them with the feeling that they are Singaporeans and are a component of society responsible for its upbringing. This reminds me of how in Europe, when there are concerns about how Muslim preachers have not done much in dealing with terrorism, I say that this is because they have been purposely kept to their mosques and madrasah and not been instilled with a sense of belonging to the community at large.

Terrorism is the responsibility of all, not just Muslims. In the Singaporean context, the clergy must be made to come out of their shells and have an equal share in building the nation so as to provide the youth with a sense of hope. They must be made to feel that they represent not only Muslim or Malay Singaporeans, but Singaporeans as a whole.

Q: How do we create more co-operation among intelligence agencies in Southeast Asia?


A: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Razak

The international intelligence community works based on two methodologies: signal intelligence and human intelligence. However, the limitation with signal intelligence is the sheer load of processing information in emails and social media. This is why there is a greater focus on human intelligence, where we work with finding people who can lead us to what we’re looking for. I can recall that in the case of tracing Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, it was the mistake of a particular courier answering a phone call that led to the pooling of resources towards this traditional method of intelligence-gathering, including the collection of DNA samples by a Pakistani doctor.

International intelligence fraternities find it difficult to co-operate because of the suspicion they harbour towards each other and because of their reluctance to reveal their own weaknesses. Disclosing too much information to another agency ironically may also lead to distrust if it exceeds the expectations the receiving end has of the provider’s capabilities.               

Q: Can we agree to a universal, standard definition of terrorism?

A: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Razak

   There are 250 definitions of terrorism globally, in various instruments and protocols. The first one was christened in 1937. Unfortunately, though, there has never been an international effort to harmonise these definitions.

However, in such an effort, a former Chief Justice of New Zealand did note that there are three elements in terrorism: serious crime, intention to spread fear to the public, and a trans-national nature. I don’t know why international legal scholars have not been able to conjure up a proper universal definition, but it’s high time an effort came about.

Q: Can we actually allow Islam to be defined in terms of human rights rather than the other way around?

A: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Razak

What I meant was that in detaining individuals, we have to have a regard for human dignity and for due legal process. We work in a very secular system where the law is supreme. I understand this is a contentious issue, but the right to legal access and counsel and the right to be tried in a court of law as prompty as possible (in the process of investigation) is crucial. This is something that should be given attention in reviewing detainment laws.

Q: Dr. Abdul Razak, you ended your speech by talking of how the battle we’re fighting is one against ignorance, the ignorance of the methodology of terrorism and the ignorance of religion. That leads us to the solution of education. Looking at the trend of bringing in international Islamic figures to speak locally, are there concerns of incongruence between the context of Islamic issues in their country of origin and our context? There’s nothing we would hate more than a government which screens and filters high-quality speakers, but how do we balance between their angles and ours?

A: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Abdul Razak

  I think Malaysia is a very globalised country. There is no way we can stop people from coming in, there is no way we can stop people from preaching. But I also feel that those in administrative circles assume that society isn’t able to judge information wisely, and so, control and power are enforced.

I believe, in the spirit of democracy, people should be given the freedom of adhering to controversial views, views different from the norm. An individual may have radical perspectives of Islam, but it’s alright as long as we can continually disengage them from militancy. This is an important balance to consider and maintain.

Ignorance isn’t just a problem among the Muslims, it’s also very much a problem among Westerners. I remember meeting speaking to an American in the United States 20 years back who had no idea where Malaysia was, and that situation probably has not changed much up till now. I’ve proposed that Malaysia set up a centre to present the version of Islam to the world that is different from that which the Westerners know of, which is the Arab version. We need to show a more flexible, less rigid facet of religion that is different from the Wahhabi angle.

We present Islam in a complicated way, and this confuses young people in search of identity. The vision of the kind of society that they wish to belong to is something the government needs to look at as a complement to combating terrorism. The regular, excessive practice of forbidding this and that in this country makes fiqh limited and in many ways, it becomes an impediment to counter-terrorism measures.

Written by, 
Dr. Daniel Iqram bin Abd Halim
Central Committee Member
Pertubuhan Pemuda GEMA Malaysia

Pertubuhan Pemuda GEMA Malaysia (GEMA) adalah sebuah organisasi anak muda yang berusaha menjana perubahan positif dalam kehidupan generasi muda supaya mereka berupaya menjadi ejen perubahan dan menambah nilai kepada pembangunan keluarga, komuniti, masyarakat dan negara.

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