Recurring traits in youths involved in militancy, research finds
PUTRAJAYA: Adam* is a youth in his late 20s who feels frustrated and is looking for meaning in his life.
As he surfs the Internet, he often comes across Facebook posts highlighting the plight of Syrians in the ongoing civil war.
Oftentimes while surfing the Internet, he will come across postings on his Facebook newsfeed of the deaths and agony faced by the Syrians.
Driven by empathy for the oppressed Syrians and a strong desire to help, Adam then seeks out online blogs and news to understand more about what is happening in the Middle East, and the cause becomes something that is very close to his heart.
Ultimately, Adam becomes "addicted" for more information on Syria and in his search, he stumbles on a blog published by a Malaysian in Syria.
The Malaysian posts about his first-hand experiences fighting wars as part of a militant group.
Adam visits the page daily and eventually reaches out to communicate with the militant, who invites him to join a closed social media group on Telegram.
Once on Telegram, Adam meets others who are equally interested in militant activity, and is exposed directly to individuals who encourage and influence him to embrace radical ideology.
This is an example of the path of radicalisation youths may undergo based on the findings of a new research led by the Institute for Youth Research Malaysia (Iyres) under the Youth and Sports Ministry.
In an interview with The Star Online Tuesday, Iyres CEO Dr Zainah Shariff explained that according to the research, 85% of youths convicted for terror-related offences received their first exposure to militant ideology through social media.
"When a youth convicted for terror-related offences was asked what would he do if he wanted to fight radicalisation, he said he would ban Facebook and social media because that is the main source and a starting point for the ideology to spread," she said.
Although Zainah admits that it is impossible to "ban" social media, she advised users to be aware of the websites and content that they find while surfing the Internet.
If an individual feels a strong need to help Syrians and make a difference, Zainah advised them to look to humanitarian means as a better alternative.
"When we talk about wars and militant activity, let the authorities tackle it. We as civilians - especially youths - must look to other platforms to contribute.
There are many ways of contributing and carrying out jihad. For example, we can focus on humanitarian missions. We just have to establish what NGOs or entities are the ones with the authority to conduct humanitarian missions," she said.
Zainah urged for an official list to be set up which would give details of legitimate humanitarian bodies so that donors do not end up funding organisations that instead support militant groups.
At the moment, there is no such conclusive list but Zainah advised the public to look to organisations that have been recognised by the Malaysian Government, such as the Malaysian Medical Relief Society (Mercy) and Islamic Relief Malaysia.
Similar character traits among detainees
Over a span of five months, the team of researchers led by Iyres visited prisons across the country to interview detainees and gather first hand data.
The data was then compiled and published this year.
The study, which was conducted between August and December 2016, was a joint project between Iyres, the Youth and Sports Ministry, the Home Ministry, the police, Prisons Department and the Islamic Development Department Malaysia (Jakim).
It involved a team of 12 researchers, including psychologists, academics, terrorism experts, a criminologist and former military personnel.
Out of the 48 individuals convicted of terror-related crimes as of August 2016, 47 of them fit the "youth" category as they were aged between 15 and 40.
Out of this number, 39 responded to research questionnaires which helped to shed light the convicts' psychological profiles while a further 11 agreed to take part in additional in-depth interviews.
From the information obtained in the research, Iyres was able to produce a psychological profile that highlights nine recurring character traits that could suggest that an individual could be open to militant-leaning ideologies.
The nine traits are:
> Low self-worth
The individual feels "empty" and does not have much self-worth. Some embrace militancy in order to look for meaning in their lives.
> Distance with parents and peers.
The individual does not have a strong relationship with his or her parents, either due to the parents' inability to connect with their child, or due to the individual withdrawing themselves from their family.
They are also not very close to their peers. According to Zainah, the individual may not have many real-world friends but instead is active when it comes to using and communicating on social media.
The individual has a tendency to want attention or praise from others, and the individual has a desire to be the "hero" among a group of followers.
> Distorted cognitive reasoning
They are quick to jump to wrong or false conclusions, and may have a strong bias.
> High levels of aggression
They are quick to react emotionally, verbally or physically and may show hostile traits.
> Misinterpretation of religion
Those interviewed showed a propensity of interpreting religion based on their own understanding.
> Impulsive-sensation seeking
They are risk-takers and are prone to acting spontaneously on impulse without fully considering the consequences of their actions.
> Emotional sensitivity
In this case, these people are individuals whose emotions are easily affected.
They are attracted to the words "jihad", "martyrdom" as well as humanitarian missions and relations between Muslims.
> A desire for change
There is a desire to improve themselves but these individuals often look for an "easy way" to atone for past sins. They also refer the wrong sources or individuals for guidance on their path towards "redemption".
*Not his real name.