Fulan was approached over his social media posts indicating his devout Islamic beliefs. Aboud was targeted because of his online presence as a Muslim student leader in his local community.
Both young Filipinos, resident in the Philippines’ restive southern Mindanao region, were found and contacted over Facebook Messenger by anonymous Islamic State (ISIS) recruiters. While neither ultimately joined ISIS’ extremist cause, it’s unclear how many Filipinos have been recruited by the terror group’s tech-savvy efforts to connect with a new generation of potential jihadists.
Both Fulan and Aboud featured in a new study released by the Asia Foundation, a US-based think tank, and Rappler, a local online media outlet, that shows how ISIS is using Facebook to spread propaganda and bolster its militant ranks in Mindanao.
The study, entitled “Understanding Violent Extremism: Messaging and Recruitment Strategies on Social Media in the Philippines,” says the vast majority of extremist online activities are “opportunistic and unsophisticated” and that “the scope for online radicalization and recruitment follows pathways already identified as being influential in the Philippines.”
That entails highly localized messaging that touches on local grievances, often in dialects that allow for the publication and dissemination of extremist content that is not readily or easily understood by wider audiences, including by law enforcement agencies.
While extremist posts in English and Tagalog are easier for authorities to track and delete, messages in local Moro dialects such as Maranao, Maguindanaoan and Tausug often slips through filters and other detection mechanisms that Facebook uses to screen objectionable content.
“Facebook is almost the exclusive theater in the Philippines through which extremist actors are able to grab the attention of local audiences and engage in dialogue with persons they’re seeking to influence,” the research says.
With as many as 60 million monthly Facebook users, the Philippines is frequently cited as the “social media capital of the world.” Facebook’s popularity in the Philippines, witnessed in over one billion total visits per month in late 2017, can be attributed in part to the fact that mobile phone users can access the platform even without paying for mobile data.
Facebook’s Audience Insights dashboard estimates as many as 10 million users in Mindanao. That penetration contributed to the fast and wide spread of highly viral extremist propaganda during the five-month siege of Mindanao’s Marawi City by ISIS-aligned Filipino militant groups in 2017.
Pro-ISIS groups used open social media not only to disseminate propaganda but also to contact ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Asia Foundation-Rappler research shows.
Once connected, the groups often shifted to encrypted private conversations on secure messaging services such as Facebook’s WhatsApp. They later used more secure messaging services such as Telegram, according to the research.
When the Marawi siege started in May 2017, Telegram provided enough security and features to allow violent extremist groups one-way broadcasts that reached up to 10,000 viewers, the research found.
The Marawi siege also brought together a mix of computer-savvy college recruits from university campuses in Mindanao, including through Muslim student organizations and their alumni at Catholic institutions as well as at state universities and polytechnic institutes.
The siege uprooted over 350,000 civilians and left the core of the country’s only Islamic city in shambles. At least 1,100 people, mostly Islamic militants, were killed in the urban warfare operation that took a page from ISIS’ conflicts in the Middle East.
When the siege started, Facebook was flooded with blurry images and videos of cloaked men carrying ISIS’ black flag well before mainstream media networks reported that state security forces and Islamist gunmen had clashed in Marawi’s main business district.
The ISIS-linked Maute Group also used Facebook to post video of a Catholic priest, Teresito Soganub, who it had taken hostage and who called on Duterte from captivity after the first clashes erupted to stop the military offensives and pull Filipino troops from the city.
“Do not use violence, because your enemies, they are ready to die for their religion. They are ready to die that their laws will be followed,” the priest said in a video addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte that Facebook eventually took down.
The research found that the spread of those viral materials has “diminished” since the siege ended, perhaps due to the killing or capture of those who disseminated the content, but that the existence of private networks means official efforts to eradicate violent extremism online will have only a “limited effect.”
That’s in part because online recruitment tactics have until now been poorly understood.
The Asia Foundation-Rappler study maps how ten ISIS-inspired Filipino militant groups recruit new adherents, starting with online offers of Arabic language lessons, to religious education, to indoctrination in violence to financial inducements to guerrilla training and swearing of allegiance.
The study emphasizes how social media “fuels an environment where offline worlds get reinforced online”, including through “closed special-interest groups to spam group members, drawing on limited shared connections between the recruiter and their target.”
So far, the government has reached for crude levers to repress ISIS’ recruitment. Duterte imposed martial law hours after the ISIS-aligned Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, aided by foreign jihadists mostly from neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, attacked Marawi in a bid to establish a wilayat, or Islamic State province.
The Abu Sayyaf, Maute Group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines – all of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State – continue to pose security threats in Mindanao and nationwide, according to the Philippine military.
These militant groups are now all bidding to rebuild their forces after sustaining heavy losses in the battle for Marawi and subsequent military operations on their bases, including in Maguindanao, Lanao de Sur, Basilan and Sulu provinces.
While less coherent than ISIS propaganda in the Middle East, catch phrases used in the Philippines to attract recruits include “widespread vulnerability, economic desperation, ineffective governance and ethnic marginalization” of the country’s minority Muslim population in the south, the research shows.
Nathan Shea, a senior program officer at the Asia Foundation’s Conflict and Fragility Program, said that simply removing offensive or extremist Facebook content will not be enough to stop the messaging and recruitment.
“Even when the original post is deleted, extremist messages and content can continue to be shared,” Shea wrote in the Asia Foundation’s weekly InAsia blog. “Meanwhile, those whose posts are censored or deleted may become isolated from more positive communities and begin to conduct their online activities in a secretive manner.”