Last July, Malaysia‘s Minister for Higher Education Idris Jusoh stated that the country’s university enrolment rate is at an all-time high, with almost 40 per cent of eligible students pursuing higher education.
The increasing number of students in universities is, however, viewed by the terrorist group Islamic State (IS) or Daesh as an opportunity to recruit vulnerable students for its jihadist agenda.
Since the emergence of IS in June 2014, more than 420 Malaysians have been arrested for clandestine activities related to the group.
Police and security agencies in Malaysia fear that terrorist ideology is gaining traction among university and school students, and have been briefing them on the dangers of joining IS.
What causes university students to join or sympathise with an extremist group such as IS, and how should the government respond to this phenomenon?
Statistics also show that at least 40 students from schools, colleges and universities have been arrested for their involvement in IS-related activities.
Three students from public universities were detained in 2016 and four more were arrested in the first three months of 2017. They included two female students who were planning to travel to Turkey before entering Syria and Iraq.
Most of them were in contact with Abu Muhammad Wanndy and Zainuri Kamaruddin who are part of IS’ South-east Asian militant wing, Katibah Nusantara, in Raqqa and Aleppo.
Four private university students have also been detained — two of them had connections with another two graduates from Malaysia’s Monash University, who were directly involved in the Dhaka restaurant bombing in July 2016.
In January, two more students from Madinah International University (Mediu) were arrested for having links with IS’ terror network, by mostly channelling funds to the group’s terrorist activities.
The university in Shah Alam also came into the spotlight after police announced that two of its students who were planning an attack against an international school in Malaysia were arrested on suspicion of involvement with IS.
So far, eight secondary school students have also been found to be involved in IS-related activities.
The youngest detained student was 16 years old and from an Islamic private school in Kedah. He was in possession of an IS flag, symbols, books and his written oath of allegiance (bay’ah) to IS’ leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
Youth below 25 years old have been found to be more susceptible to radical ideology.
Their relatively young age and inexperience render them vulnerable to exploitation by groups such as IS, which is able to recruit them for jihad in the Middle East through a number of avenues. These include social media and usrah groups (religious discussion group) in local schools, colleges and universities.
Students lacking in critical thinking skills and whose world view is black and white in nature are more easily influenced by jihadists. Teenagers and youngsters also have this incessant urge to act like adults, driven by notions of independence and feelings of adulthood.
As discussed by a renowned psychology consultant Zac Parsons, teens tend to be more vulnerable to the appeals of IS for similar reasons why they are attracted to sex, drugs, alcohol, and other adult activities.
Additionally, some younger individuals who have been engaged in wrongdoings seek an avenue through which they can atone for their past misdeeds and return to the correct path. Some seek a shortcut to this atonement.
Radical preachers and ideologues exploit such individuals by asserting that they can achieve redemption through violent jihad.
IS also tailored its message to recruit female university students. The group used the romanticised notion of jihad and the symbolic heroicness latent in the image of the IS fighter to lure young women into engaging in IS activities.
They become love-struck and fall for Arab and Caucasian fighters in IS. For instance, in December 2014, police arrested a 27-year-old female university student in Klang Valley, who had married a Western IS fighter through Skype.
New technological platforms such as YouTube, social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and chat applications (WhatsApp and Telegram), are used to cajole and lure university students to join IS activities.
Syamimi Faiqah, 20, a former student at the International Islamic University College of Selangor, was swayed by IS in October 2014 through Facebook.
Another 22-year-old male student from the Public University in Perlis became an IS sympathiser after watching the latter’s propaganda videos on YouTube.
IS has also used usrah groups to propagate its message. University students join usrah groups not only to expand their religious understanding but also to seek guidance.
Traditionally, an usrah group would follow a particular teaching or idealism espoused by certain groups.
Some of these teachings and narratives are extremist in nature. For instance, 24-year-old Muhamad Razin Sharhan Mustafa Kamal, who was arrested in Beirut in 2012, admitted that he was exposed to IS ideology through his usrah group, which was led by the former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) member Yazid Sufaat.
Students who come from broken families are also susceptible to radical ideology, as are followers of Islamist political parties. Some adhere to the bay’ah system (oath of allegiance to the leader), which compels them to be secretive and obedient to the group’s leader. Introverted students who do not mix with other students, can also be exploited by IS jihadist recruiters.
Given the growing number of people, including young university students, arrested for having ties with IS, the Malaysian authorities should formulate a comprehensive strategy to reverse this phenomenon.
First, the government needs to provide more space for students to express their views, ideas and desires. This freedom and inclusion into the system would dissuade them from looking at alternative avenues.
One such programme is the #Mahasiswa Islam Tolak Keganasan (Muslim University Students Reject Terrorism), which was launched in 2015 by the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) at the National Muslim Undergraduate Leadership Convention, Selangor.
This programme was initiated by the Malaysian government to allow students to convey their ideas on religion and politics. The government hopes to stimulate discussion and address potential problems faced by students.
Second, the Ministry of Higher Education must provide more training for the university administration officials in charge of managing students and their problems.
This can help the officials monitor students who are known to have extremist views on Islamic issues.
To do so, universities need to partner with the police and the special branch to monitor extremist activities.
There is a need to establish usrah/ religious studies that promote religious moderation, and programmes that counter IS narratives and expose the group‘s atrocities.
For instance, in 2014, Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCCM) ran a programme that highlighted IS’ crimes and brutalities.
Parents are important stakeholders and should be involved in detecting early signs of radicalisation.
Mothers, who share a deep emotional bond with their children, can play a crucial role in this regard.
IS has adversely impacted Muslim countries. Some have become targets of attack by the group. Malaysia and Indonesia, for instance, have been mentioned as targets for IS attacks and recruitment. This makes the youth, especially science students in institutions of higher learning, important, because their technical expertise can be exploited by IS. It is therefore critical that a partnership is established between the government, policy-makers, security officials and parents to prevent IS’ recruitment of university students and the latter’s participation in IS activities.
Mohd Mizan Mohammad Aslam is the first rector of the Islamic university College of Perlis (KUIPs). He is a former Director of the Sustainable Development Unit, University Malaysia Perlis (UNIMAP) and also a senior lecturer at the Centre for Communication Technology and Human Development (PTKPI) since 2003. This is adapted from a longer piece in the Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis journal published by the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
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