Asian Governments Confront Youth Radicalization

Imran Vittachi
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160812_YOUTH_RADICALIZATION.jpg This combination of photos released by the Bangladesh branch of the Islamic State (IS) group shows five men who allegedly carried out a terrorist attack at a café in Dhaka in which 20 hostages were killed, July 4, 2016.

Days after terrorists slaughtered 20 hostages in a Dhaka café last month, a ruling party politician wept in front of journalists because his son was among them.

“This is sorrowful, painful and embarrassing. I am a failed father. I apologize to all through you,” Imtiaz Khan Babul, an official with Bangladesh’s Awami League party, told reporters tearfully on July 5 as he spoke about his son, Rohan Ibn Imtiaz.

Imtiaz and some of the other young men who allegedly attacked the Holey Artisan Bakery on the night of July 1 were members of Bangladesh’s affluent class who had attended the nation’s top schools – and then gone missing.

The story of Rohan Ibn Imtiaz illustrates the challenge that nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia and India face in trying to shield young people from the pull of extremist groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Indonesia, India and Bangladesh are among five countries with the largest Muslim populations, according to Pew Research Center, a U.S.-based think tank.

Officials in these countries acknowledge that they have a tough fight ahead, but say they are committed to crushing the threat.

“It is without a doubt that this is a battle on all fronts – in cyberspace, on the ground and in the mind,” Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Zahid Hamidi told an international conference on de-radicalization in Kuala Lumpur in January.

“We must ensure the effectiveness of our rehabilitation programs, we must include all relevant parties,” Zahid added. “There is a very real need to engage and re-engage our youth.”

‘We should be worried’

Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia have implemented programs that aim to reform convicted militants. Their governments also are monitoring and clamping down on social media sites that promote radicalism.

In Malaysia, officials have visited campuses of schools and universities to give talks to dissuade students away from the extremist path.

“As far as sociological measures are concerned, a lot needs to be done,” Professor Zaini Othman, who heads the Strategic Security Research Center at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a counter-terrorism and intelligence expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia, says the government needs to be creative in countering the potent online narrative of IS and like-minded groups, such as by disseminating comic books that promote an anti-IS messages.

When there is “youth recruitment in a country, we should be worried” because radicalization spreads silently, he told BenarNews.

Indonesia has taken a multi-pronged approach in dealing with the problem, officials say.

The government has launched websites that promote peace, non-violence and a positive spirit among young Indonesians, and it won’t hesitate to block sites that promote the opposite, they say.

“We are using pictures, narration, advertisement and animation in media. We hope that it can counter radicalization of youths against the influence of IS," Inspector General Arif Darmawan, the deputy head of head of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), told BenarNews.

The BNPT is turning to members of a young generation hooked on video games, mobile phones and computers, and who are skilled in information technology – including hacking – to help the government fight IS in cyberspace.

“[I]f we see children change in their behavior, then we approach them through soft ways. They usually cannot be directly deradicalized, because if we act directly and fast, they will run away and it’s a danger,” Arif said.

Officials in Malaysia and Indonesia for many months have warned of a threat of citizens who have joined IS launching attacks on home soil after returning from combat tours with the group in the Middle East.

In January, Indonesia suffered its first IS-claimed attack, a suicide-mission in downtown Jakarta that killed eight people, including the four attackers. In late June, Malaysia was hit by its first attack claimed by IS, when a grenade explosion injured several people at a nightclub on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Approximately 568 Indonesians are now fighting in the conflict in Syria-Iraq, and an estimated 73 Malaysians have joined, or tried to join, militant groups in that region, according to the Terrorism Financing Regional Risk Assessment 2016 report, a document that was released this week and co-published by Indonesia and Australia.

IS has a Malay-language combat unit, known as Katibah Nusantara, for fighters from countries where forms of that language are spoken. The unit has posted propaganda videos online, including one that showed children undertaking military training and indoctrination.

‘They grow up without role models’

In Bangladesh, the attack on the café was not the first act of violent militancy committed by members of the country’s privileged class.

Before the attack in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter, the country had been gripped by a wave of smaller-scale killings targeting secular writers, intellectuals, religious minorities and others. Some of the suspects in those murders were products of prestigious private schools and universities, too, officials said.

A.K.M. Nurun Nabi, a professor of population science at Dhaka University, sees detachment from parents as driving young people – especially from the well-to-do class – toward radicalism.

“The youths have no role model. The parents of most of the youths are running after money; they do not interact with their children. The servants take care of the children and youth and the chauffeurs take them to the schools. Thus they grow up without any idols,” Nabi told BenarNews.

IS claimed the café attack. But before and even afterward, Bangladesh’s government denied that IS has a presence in the country and blamed the home-grown Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh instead.

IS released photos of five men it said had carried out the café attack, toting guns and smiling in front of an IS flag. Families of the five subsequently confirmed their identities.

To combat the extremist threat, the government has mounted a crackdown on suspected militants. Apart from taking a hard approach, the authorities have enlisted the support of 100,000 Muslim clerics and scholars who have issued a fatwa condemning religious extremism.

“We have been holding meetings with the school teachers, students and guardians on a regular basis to spread the peaceful message of Islam. The Islamic scholars have been working with the government to fight militancy and extremism,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.

“The imams have been preaching anti-militancy sermons at the mosques so that the youths are not misguided.”

Targeting 300,000 madrassas

In neighboring India, at least 35 Indians have left the country for Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State, according to latest figures available from Indian intelligence agencies. Of these, six have died in battle.

More than 50 Indian Muslims have been arrested for allegedly working directly for or showing leanings toward the Middle East-based terror outfit.

Indian security forces have prevented more than 30 Indian youth from boarding flights to the IS strongholds, while 32 others who sympathized with the group are currently undergoing counseling with help from their parents and local clerics, a National Investigation Agency (NIA) source told BenarNews.

In a written reply to the parliament last week, Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir said the IS had managed to attract “very few Indian youths” and the government had launched various de-radicalization programs to help those youth return to the mainstream.

Among them, the government has launched a program, Nai Manzil (New Goal), that will offer financial aid to young people who have studied at madrassas – Islamic boarding schools – so they can pursue modern education and vocational training. The program, funded through a loan of U.S. $50 million from the World Bank, aims to shield some 30 million Muslims studying at some 300,000 madrassas across India from radicalization.

But some Indian security experts say the government needs to do more.

“The government needs to work on changing their mindset. Children as young as five years need to be educated. De-radicalization of a person over 15 years of age has no meaning,” retired Maj. Gen. Afsir Karim, an expert on terrorism and internal conflicts, told BenarNews.

Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka, Akash Vashishtha in New Delhi, Tia Asmara in Jakarta, and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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