Leaked Facebook Blacklist Targets Militants in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines

John Bechtel and Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Washington and Dhaka
2021-10-13
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Leaked Facebook Blacklist Targets Militants in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines Rapid Action Battalion officers present two suspected members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh after they surrendered in Bogra and pledged to leave the militant organization, Oct. 5, 2016.
AFP

Updated at 7:49 a.m. ET on 2021-10-14

A Facebook official said the online platform did not want to facilitate violence as he responded to a news report this week that published a leaked document of organizations and people blacklisted by the social media giant, including outlawed militant groups in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. 

The Intercept, a U.S.-based non-profit news website, on Tuesday released a copy of the 100-page Facebook document, which it had obtained and that lists thousands of names of “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals,” saying it was edited slightly for clarity. Facebook had not publicized the contents of the list.

Brian Fishman, Facebook’s policy director on counterterrorism and dangerous organizations, responded with a series of tweets noting that the list is not comprehensive.

“That matters b/c the list is constantly being updated as teams try to mitigate risk. Like other tech comps, we haven’t shared the list to limit legal risk, limit security risks, & minimize opportunities for groups to circumvent rules,” he said in messages posted via Twitter.

“Facebook does not want violence organized or facilitated on its platform and the DOI list is an effort to keep highly risky groups from doing that. It’s not perfect, but that’s why it exists,” he said.

When contacted by BenarNews on Wednesday, Fishman responded with a statement.

“We have rules prohibiting terrorists, hate groups or criminal organizations from using our platform and remove content that praises, represents or supports them whenever we find it,” he said.

“To enforce these rules, we have a team of more than 350 specialists focused on removing these organizations from our platforms and looking out for emerging threats. While we ban thousands of organizations, including over 250 white supremacist groups, under these rules, we also update this list as new ones emerge.”

Included on the list are Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a local terror group banned in 2005, and Islamic State Bangladesh.

Government leaders have long denied the existence of Islamic State members in the South Asian country, even after IS propaganda channels on social media claimed that the terror group was behind a massacre of hostages carried out during an overnight siege at a café in Dhaka in July 2016 – Bangladesh’s deadliest terrorist attack to date.

A Bangladesh security analyst applauded Facebook’s efforts and said more must be done. He and a cyber-security expert said the government needed to take action.

“The Facebook move to list a handful of Bangladeshi militant outfits and an individual in its dangerous list is a good decision, but it is not enough. In terms of the magnitude of the militants’ presence in Facebook and other social media, the action is a tip of the iceberg,” the analyst, retired Maj. Gen. A.K. Mohammad Ali Shikder, told BenarNews.

Shikder noted that the militant groups have recruited their own “tech-savvy experts,” and he expected they would open fake accounts to hide their online activities.

“But the unfortunate part is that the Facebook authorities do not always respond to the government request to block the accounts proved to have been involved in spreading extremist and militant ideologies,” he said.

“So, the cyber security units of the law enforcement agencies must work more closely with the experts and the social media platform authorities to track the militants’ online network.”

Tanvir Hassan Zoha, a cyber-security expert working with the law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh, said the list was bad news because those on it pose a “huge security risk.”

“The Facebook list has exposed an unseen danger. We all know about the JMB, HuJI-B [Harakat ul-Jihad al-Islami – Bangladesh] or Ansarullah Bangla Team as referred in the list, but we know little about Al Mursalat Media and Tariqul Islam. This means that there are more militant outfits involved in social media platforms which we do not know about,” Zoha told BenarNews.

“The counter terrorism officials must intensify their efforts to detect the suspected militants’ activities online. There is no way to be complacent that we have crushed the network of militants – the upcoming challenge is huge,” he said.

Blacklisted Filipino, Indonesian groups

The Facebook list names various Islamic extremist groups in the Philippines, including Ansar al-Khialfah and the Maute Group. The Maute band, a pro-IS Filipino group, took part in a five-month militant siege of Marawi city in the southern Philippines in 2017.

Facebook’s Philippine list also included the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its founder, Jose Maria Sison, who lives in self-exile in the Netherlands.

In 2020, the government placed the CPP and its military wing, the New People’s Army, on its list of terrorist organizations. In June, the government added the CPP’s political wing, the National Democratic Front (NDF), to that list and froze bank accounts linked to the movement.

At the time, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed the move, noting there had been probable cause to brand the NDF as a terrorist organization, pointing out that Sison had said it was one of the party’s “allied organizations.”

“His wife, Juliet De Lima-Sison was also recently named as the interim chairperson of the NDF negotiating panel,” Lorenzana said. “The CPP/NPA themselves continue to launch attacks against the Filipino people, victimizing innocent civilians and destroying billions’ worth of crucial public infrastructure for a principle that has long since been rendered obsolete.”

In addition, the list names individuals with alleged links to the Abu Sayyaf Group, an Islamic extremist group based in the southern Philippines and which was involved in the 2017 takeover of Marawi, as well as alleged members of Jemaah Islamiyah. JI, the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda, was blamed for terrorist attacks in Indonesia in the 2000s, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. 

In Indonesia, Facebook listed under the category of terror groups Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an IS-linked Indonesian militant network, which has carried out suicide bombings and other attacks in recent years in the country.

Facebook’s blacklist also included a dead man – terrorist Santoso – who was killed by Indonesian government forces in July 2016. He was the first militant from the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country to publicly pledge allegiance to IS.

Santoso founded and led the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which is on the list as well.

In June 2020, Indonesia’s counterterrorism chief, Boy Rafli Amar, sought congressional backing for a 65 percent hike in his agency’s budget, saying it needed more cash and resources as he warned that MIT and other militants were looking to increase recruitment during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Radical groups are still actively carrying out recruitment propaganda both online and offline during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “We are seeing today the rampant abuse of the cyberspace to spread the ideology of terrorism.”

Meanwhile, the tweets by Fishman, the Facebook executive, challenged The Intercept’s story, saying it used misleading information to allege that Facebook did not take some terror groups seriously.

“I don’t condone this leak. In the aggregate it makes everything harder. There will be criticism. But we’ll use it as an opportunity to get better,” Fishman tweeted.

“I don’t want to suggest that FB’s Dangerous Orgs list, or its enforcement, is perfect. It isn’t,” he wrote. “We don’t get to every organization as quickly as we’d like and the policy, as we’ve long stated, is blunt. Enforcement is not perfect, in part because groups are adversarial.”

This reported has been updated to include more information about Southeast Asian organizations and people blacklisted by Facebook.

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