11 Sep, 2017

Radicalization through Social Media: How Governments Combat Terrorist Organizations While Preserving Freedom of Expression

By Jarred Boyer, Policy Group Intern, Goeman Bind HTO

The author, Jarred Boyer, is a student at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, where he is pursing a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and a second degree in Latino/Latin American Studies while minoring in Spanish and History. He currently holds the position of Policy Intern at Goeman Bind HTO, a Think Tank.
Anyone can quote from this paper but due acknowledgement and reference should be given to Goeman Bind HTO, Think Tank.
This paper is approved by Mr. Hemant Batra, Co-founder, Expert & Leader with Goeman Bind HTO.

How Terrorist Organizations Uses Social Media:

The current war on terror is unlike any type of combat situation any country in the Western World has faced before. This is because the war is of an ideological sort, instead of a war over land or resources between nations. This causes for organizations such as ISIS and other terrorist cells to have the unique ability to persuade people around the world that their way of seeing the world is the best way. This is much more useful and common than countries trying to switch citizen’s allegiance, even though that was possible in past conflicts.  Though the use of the internet by terrorist organizations predates 9/11, with the emergence of ISIS and social media, the approach that these groups take on the web has changed drastically. The use of social media for terrorist cells is twofold, on one hand they are able to spread propaganda and recruit, and then also they use social media to communicate with members and recruits. As these two types of usage work together to achieve the main goal of the organizations on social media which is to recruit individuals for their organizations. Even though each part is unique and run as completely different parts of the process, they are both crucial in achieving the goal. With the increasing social media presence in the western world, these fairly open and unregulated platforms have given terrorist organizations a vast global network of people to connect with and spread their ideas and ideology to. Since the networks are free of charge and there is no need to have anything transported and no need for people to travel to achieve goals, social media is a perfect weapon for terrorist cells to tap into to be able to spread their ideology and violence in a cheap and quick manner. In the current war or terror, social media effects every aspect. The news of breaking events spreads quickest on social media platforms, to be able to spin events and news into positives for your followers is best done through social media platforms and informing followers is quick and easy. Organizations such as ISIS understand this and have come to realize the importance of social media for achieving their goals, and because of that “the media people are more important than the soldiers… their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.”[1] Terrorist cells have been most likely to use the large social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube but have also been known to use sites such as “Ask.fm… WhatsApp, PalTalk, kik, viper, JustPaste.it, and Tumbler”[2]. These apps and sites are available to be used on mobile phones as quick communication outlets, to text and file share.

Propaganda:

This is the first stage of social media recruitment, each organization takes a different approach to this stage of the process as they try to decide the best way to influence people towards their organizational goals. ISIS has taken a more radical approach to propaganda on the web, they have begun to use of shock and awe tactics to bring in viewers. Live tweeting or using Facebook live to show the destruction of bombings or the horrors of beheadings helps these groups to capture an audience and then be able to disseminate their message to them. The groups also have been using things such as YouTube to produce type of propaganda/recruitment videos targeting the younger generation. These videos try to make terrorism popular by using a Hip-Hop music video approach, even dubbing in popular songs in the background.[3] The groups also use propaganda and social media campaigns to show how much support they have, hoping this urges others to join. Examples of this include ISIS “one billion campaign” and their “#theFridayofsupportingISIS”, which were used as ways to urge their supports to come out and post messages, photos and videos in support of the group and their current endeavors.[4]

Communication:

Social media also allows groups such as ISIS to “identify vulnerable individuals of all ages…spot, assess, recruit and radicalize–either to travel abroad to join ISIL or to conduct a homeland attack (if located in the west)”[5]. After a group has spotted and assessed a potential recruit then the first step of contact is a crucial part, “terrorist will try and reach out to possible recruits in a variety of ways, such as friend request of Facebook, follows on Twitter, and even direct messaging.”[6] Compared to terrorist organizations recruitment at home, through social media the possible demographics are much wider. In the Middle East, one of the biggest draws to these groups is the financial aspect. The ability for these, mostly men, to be able to take care of their family and have a way for their family to be taken care of if they die draws many in to the organization in theses financial unstable countries. For social media recruitment this is not the case, this is because the type of recruits the organization is looking for are completely different. At home, the group recruits soldiers to fight on the front lines for the cause, they look to mostly men for this type of work. On social media recruits “may be barely or highly educated, young or old, male or female. Even financial status is no indicator. Online radicalization occurs in all economic classes.”[7] Once the recruits are contacted and start the process of radicalization, the next step is to start to call these individuals to action. Some of the younger, more computer savvy recruits are brought into the fold to help create cyber disruptions or for cyber-attack purposes.[8] Others are able to share and receive information to do with bomb making, use and maintenance of weapons, as well as how to practice to improve tactical skills.[9]

Communication is also used in a way to threaten governments and countries, as a sort of scare factor, and also to take credit for terror events happening worldwide. The best example of this would be the Kenyan Westgate Mall attack in 2013. This attack was committed by Al-Shabaab, who during the four day event went to twitter to take credit for the deaths adding up (in end totaling 67, along with 175 wounded), and then continued to live tweet the events taking place. Their account was communicating with governments, media and world citizens at large during this event and others to be able to help their cause of striking fear into people who support the current state of the world. Al-Shabaab’s twitter account was disabled “after using the service to announce it had killed a French hostage and showing graphic photos of a French soldier killed during the rescue attempt.”[10] This was undertaken as another attempt to strike fear into people, by showing the brutality that the organizations is willing to go to in order to achieve their goals.

Legality of Stopping Terrorist Organizations Use of Social Media:

Many of the case studies that will be explained below use the basis that terrorist organizations use of social media is automatically a violation of each social media platforms Terms and Conditions and because of this are subject to being shut down, disabled or having their content removed from the site or the internet. For many of the units that have been implemented below this is the only available avenue that they are able to use when trying to justify their take downs because of the fact that international law in most countries does not hold the same weight to be able to act as national legislation does.

Legal Background to Freedom of Expression:

The international community has a legal structure in place to protect Freedom of Expression on a global platform, this instrument is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations General Assembly lays out the principle that “everyone should have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice… It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the right or reputations of other; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.”[11] This Covenant has been signed by all but 22 countries worldwide, signatures include the United States and all western powers as well as most Middle Eastern countries. The Middle Eastern countries who have not moved to sign the covenant are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates.[12] The majority of countries which ISIS and other terrorist organizations function out of are actively part of these international guidelines and because of this have loop holes to jump through in order to shut down social media accounts of these groups. As long as the terrorist organizations use their social media to spread their message and to build a following, in accordance to international law they have the right to do so. Only once these groups use their accounts to incite violence against nations, spread gory images that are disruptive to the public and/or spread ideas to harm other or directions of how to directly harm other individuals in a way that would affect people on a massive scale, then the governments are within their legal rights under international law to attempt to curb their ability to use social media in a free manner.

Case Studies:

U.K. – Teresa May, British Prime Minister, after the London terror attack of this year put the blame on the internet and their lack of regulations for the ability for radical terrorist to thrive on social media. This statement, along with a parliamentary committee who published a report in May stating that “social media firms have prioritized profit over user safety by continuing to host unlawful content… [and] called for ‘meaningful fines’ if the companies do not quickly improve”[13], seems to show that the U.K. government does not intend on making any meaningful legislation to combat the issues at hand. Rather, they have put the issue in the responsibility of the social media businesses to regulate and bar terrorist organizations from using their sites in unlawful ways. The U.K. lawmakers saw these businesses as giving terrorist a safe space to exchange ideas and communicate unlawful ideas.

U.K.’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit- Though it seems that the current U.K. government has no plans to implement further legislation to curb the ability of terrorist organizations, they do already have in place this group, the Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit. This unit was set up in February 2010, tasked with the removal of terrorist content on the internet and are given the ability to do so by pointing out that these terrorist organizations are breaking the websites “Terms and Conditions” by posting material of this nature.[14] From their creation in 2010 this police unit has grown each year, by December 2016 they had taken down 250,000 items of terrorist content on the web with over 120,000 of those takedowns taking place within the 2016 calendar year.[15] This unit is doing a commendable job and doing all they can within their power to help stop these organizations. But for the British government, being a world power both economically and politically, the lack of effort to make any meaningful attempts to work within the government to curb the ability of terrorist cells to be affective on social media within the U.K. and globally is a disaster.

E.U. Internet Referral Unit- This unit launched on July 1st, 2015 was purely started to be able to “combat terrorist propaganda and related violent extremist activities on the internet.”[16] This unit has no authority to take down social media content themselves, but rather are able to search for and find unlawful content upload by terrorist organizations then notify both the companies involved (internet providers, social media sites and owners), along with the Nation State that is being affected. Once this has taken place, the unit is also available to support any Member State’s that need the support to be able to successfully take care of the issues they are facing on the subject. Again, this force just as the U.K.’s Counter-Terrorism Internet Referral Unit is a reactionary group which has limited resources and a limited mandate to be able to act within.

France – After the 2015 terrorist attack on Paris, the French parliament moved quickly to pass a surveillance act that gave the government the ability to obtain massive amounts of data off the internet with little oversight.[17] As the government passed the bill without much opposition from the public, a public still in a state of fear post attack, the bill did receive push back from the internet companies, the press and activist groups who all saw the potential threat that a bill such as this one could bring to the French people’s ability to freely use the web without government oversight. This government oversight of what citizens say and do on the web could potentially end up harming their ability to have the freedom to speak and express their ideas and opinions on the web. The French government also had passed legislation making it possible for the country’s courts to prosecute internet service providers if they are found to be a site in which is not actively working to curb or stop the ability of people on their site to participate in or to spread hate speech.[18] To put pressure on the private companies has been the way that German has gone about dealing with terrorist on social media as well, and falls right in line with the comments made by the U.K.’s Prime Minister and Parliament. As many large social media companies are based in the United States (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube are all headquartered in California), to blame and fine them is a much more viable option for the European powers than the United States itself.

United States – Compared to other western countries the United States has faced more internal push back against legislation and agency directives to curb the ability for terrorist organizations to use the internet. This is because many Americans find the First Amendment to be a vital part of their lives and the country as a whole, the ability to have freedom of speech and expression is not something most Americans are willing to give in on even a little bit.[19]

Congress- Congress has continuously failed to be able to gain support to pass resolutions focused on the issue of social media use by terrorist. In 2015, the House made a viable attempt to passing an act to deal with the issue as the “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2015” passed through the House in December of 2015 before the end of the year recess.[20] When Congress returned from the recess a Senator form Wisconsin then introduced “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2016” on February 9th, 2016 but made it no farther than a report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that highlighted issues within the proposed bill.[21] Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union saw probably with government oversight on social media, stating “any government involvement in the use of social media runs the significant risk of impacting the right of individuals having nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.”[22] Organizations such as the Americans Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties lobbyist groups are a large part of the inability of the American government to be able to put any ideas into passable legislation, as these organizations have a lot of political influence in the country and because of the size of these organizations, their push back against the bills have caused major roadblocks for the passage of these bills.

U.N. – In May of 2016, the Security Council “requested that the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee present a proposal for a ‘comprehensive framework’ to counter terrorist narratives used in recruitment and incitement in violent acts.”[23] Out of this request the U.N. has made steps to start moving companies and countries to support combatting this issue. Tech against Terrorism is a new U.N. sponsored initiative implemented in hopes of United Nation member states working together with large tech companies to “provide resources and guidance, offer a think tank environment and encourage peer learning and support from others who have faced similar challenges, and to develop links between startups and larger businesses, government and academia.”[24] But so far this hope has been far from a reality. The large and small tech companies have given support and become a part of this initiative, but many of the powerful nations of the world have yet to make a commitment.

Iraq – The Iraqi government, going against international law and a convention which they are a signee of took a different step to stop ISIS uses of social media within their country. The government went to the extreme of blocking the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms for the whole country.[25] This, obviously, does not uphold the ideals of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Speech that the western world is trying to uphold and does not even come close to stopping the problem globally. Yes, in Iraq the terrorist organizations can no longer communicate with each other over social media sites but these groups such as ISIS have support and members across many Middle Eastern nations and all over the world now. Because of this, this step does well to slow communications in Iraq but has little effect on the rest of the world. Also, because of ISIS ability to adapt they have gone to using messaging apps and other forms of communication in Iraq. This attempt to hinder their communication ability slowed them and changed their methods, but did not stop them. The largest thing positive of the Iraqi way is that they have stopped the terror cells in the country from being able to preach their propaganda and recruit outside of their group.

Private Involvement:

A University of Miami professor has lead a research project that has come to the conclusion that it would be possible to use social media data and algorithms to predict terrorist attacks. The emergence or heighten activity of smaller pro-terrorist groups and social media accounts sky rocketed in the research right before attacks.[26] This was a small research project because of lack of funding but the findings were important, if they can be reproduced, as they would give social media sites the ability to help the governments and intergovernmental agencies worldwide to be able to predict, lessen and even stop potential terrorist attack attempts. Social media platforms are yet to attempt to implement these algorithms though, but instead have made started to make other steps in hopes of helping to curb the ability and the reach of terrorist networks on social media.

Facebook- Jihadist are finding Facebook to be extremely useful, even calling for a Facebook Invasion to reach “the misled American people, and second, to reach the vast people’s base among Muslims.”[27] Facebook has approach the issue by using artificial intelligence, matched with employees who then review the content in which has been flagged.[28] Facebook hopes that overtime the artificial intelligence will then learn from what the employees take down and do not take down, then be able to start to do even more than just flagging the content on their own. Currently, the team of employees working in conjunction with the artificial intelligence numbers at 150 working with the capability of 30 different languages.[29] The use of artificial intelligence is an important move in the right direction for social media companies because just based on the large amount of accounts to search through, the amount of employees needed to do so would not be financially capable for any company. With the use of artificial intelligence the computers will be able to search constantly and more quickly than employees will, in turn giving the company a better chance to make a safer online environment.

Twitter- Twitter finds itself trying to be rigid on their beliefs of the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of speech, because of this defense of these freedoms only occasionally will the company succumb to the pressure of shutting down accounts. Most of the time this is a useless attempt at combatting extremist activity as they are able to open a new account and regain their followers within days. The company has implemented multiple teams to investigate and report on rule violations and then work in part with the proper authorities on cases it would apply too.[30] This attempt to combat this issue seems far from the answer though because of the amount of sites, official and unofficial, having to do with these terrorist organizations. Along with the fact one person is able to open multiple accounts, giving terror cells social media personal the ability to continuously open these new accounts when old accounts are shut down.

YouTube- This video site has an extremely hard task when it comes to curbing the ability of terrorist to post terrorist propaganda videos, on their site as over 300 hours of videos are uploaded onto the sight every single minute.[31] Because of the sheer volume of videos, the company cannot possible monitor each video themselves. Instead they ask for the help for people using the site to flag any content that may be harmful to the viewers or that is going against the Terms and Conditions of the site. The site also has a unique challenge as the videos that these groups upload can give much more information to the intelligence community of the western countries than most of the tweets or Facebook post can. So it is hard to decide in many cases if the video should be taken down immediately or left up to be analyzed by experts first. This leaves for an interesting grey area for employees to decide which videos are to extreme to be left up and which are not.

Latest News:

Reported in June of this year Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft will be “forming a global working group to combine their efforts to remove terrorist content from their platforms.”[32] This group will work with the U.N. to initially focus on technological solutions, research and knowledge-sharing. As all four of these companies are already apart of the U.N.’s Tech Against Terrorism, if they continue to lack to bring on board major power such as the U.K. and the U.S. to help get everyone on the same page and working together this working group could possibly be just another headline with no actual solution to the problem.

In light of more facts being complied and analyzed about the London Bridge attack, BBC has reported that a reporter staging as a British Muslim on social media in 2016 was approached by ISIS recruits and at that point the group was already in the planning stages of the operation of the London Bridge attack that would be taken out in 2017.[33] The reporter then was asked to join a private chat on a more secure communication site[34] and with this insight along with more details that are being complied about the attack, it will give the social media sites and the governments a better chance to understand and combat the issue of terror group’s use of social media outlets.

As late as July of this year two ISIS agents were arrested in Singapore and both had connections to ISIS social media use. For Imran Kassim, who in support of ISIS used non official social media accounts to help spread pro ISIS propaganda to help gain support for their cause[35], showing how the web of influence and ability to spread their message to larger audiences is so available for ISIS on social media through people such as Kassim willing to spread the message of the terror organization on many different sites and with many different accounts. For the woman arrested, Shakirah Begam Abdul Wahab her ties to social media began when she was recruited by ISIS through social media sites, starting with the contact of one overseas individual and expanding to many more over time.[36] This is important to show that these threats are very real and very pertinent. Terror groups are using social media to radical people around the world right now and both governments and social media companies need to understand the risk in this and take serious actions against it.

What, If Anything, Has Worked:

Currently all the possible attempts at subduing the problem have failed and failed all in unique ways. Social media outlets are giving the best attempt at solving the problem and it is possible with the latest news that substantial changes for the better will take place, but there is a lot of time before those programs get off the ground. For many European powers self-reflection may do them good, as many have shunned and laid blame on the social media outlets instead of bringing them in to help make a joint team that could actually make headway into solving the issue. The current deadlock of the United States Congress and struggle for Congress and the President to get on the same page makes it look as if Republicans, who control both houses on Congress and the White House, will keep this issue sidelined until domestic issues such as healthcare and taxes are reformed. As for Iraq, the answer to people harming people is never for the government to start infringing on their constituents rights, they must pull back from their current approach and try something more in line with international law. The U.N., E.U. and other intergovernmental agencies must push to do more as this global problem will not be able to be solved solely by the private sector or by national legislation. There has been instances of success in shutting down social media accounts of terrorist organizations, but because of their ability to start a new account and regain their followers these successes in the long run are not very meaningful in stopping their ability to use social media to connect. Across the board the lack of action and commitment to solving these massive global issue is both disturbing and worrisome, as this issue directly correlates to terrorist cells ability to achieve attacks on citizens of Western countries.

Solution:

To begin to be able to create technological and legislative solutions to the use of social media by terrorist cells, first the powerful nations of the world need to come together to point out the importance of issue. By doing this then they will be able to get greater international support to be able to make task force and receive the needed resources to be able to be successful. These task force or committees would most likely be through the United Nations would need to have the support of all major nations fighting terrorism and would help to fund research into algorithms being able to pin point terrorist activities online, as well as be able to get the private and public sectors on the same page on how to best work together to be able to stop the threat as quickly as possible. This solution, with all the bureaucracy and politics in the United Nations, would take time to get off the ground but once active this joint private and public committee would be the best option possible to get all countries and service providers on board to fix the problem at hand. The U.N.’s Tech Against Terrorism is a step in this direction, but has yet to get the proper backing and support needed to be able to seriously affect the problem. The lack of support is mostly coming from the nations right now, as Spain is the most powerful nation involved, and is the difference between being able to detect and stop the individuals that are communicating and recruiting for the next terror attack. The powerful nations of the Western World have the resources and ability to better combat radicalization on social media, but they need to be able to see the importance of doing so. This would help to stop potential terrorist attacks in the West, as well as help to hinder the ability of the forces that are fighting in the Middle East. Being able to stop their ability on social media platforms would be a major step to winning the war on terror that has plagued many of these countries for over a decade now.


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[1] “How Terrorists Use the Internet,” Operation250, 2017, accessed July 19, 2017, https://www.operation250.org/how-terrorists-use-the-internet/.

[2] Jytte Klausen, “Tweeting theJihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38, no. 1 (2014): December 9, 2014, accessed July 19, 2017, doi:10.1080/1057610x.2014.974948.

[3] Maeghin Alarid, “Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology,” in Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition (Washington, DC: Center for Complex Operations, 2016), 2016, accessed July 19, 2017. http://cco.ndu.edu/Portals/96/Documents/books/Impunity/CHAP_13%20Recruitment%20and%20Radicalization.pdf?ver=2017-01-19-102815-587.

[4] Faisal Irshaid, “How Isis Is Spreading Its Message Online,” BBC News, June 19, 2014, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27912569.

[5] ISIL Online: Countering Terrorist Radicalization and Recruitment on the Internet and Social Media, 114th Cong. (2016) (testimony of Michael Steinbach, Executive Assistant Director, National Security Branch, Federal Bureau of Investigation).

[6] “How Terrorists Use the Internet,” Operation250, accessed July 19, 2017.

[7] Maeghin Alarid, “Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology,” in Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, accessed July 19, 2017.

[8] Maeghin Alarid, “Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology,” in Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, accessed July 19, 2017.

[9] Gabriel Weimann, New Terrorism and New Media, report no. 2, The Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program, Wilson Center, 2014, accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/STIP_140501_new_terrorism_F.pdf.

[10] Harriet Alexander, “Tweeting Terrorism: How Al Shabaab Live Blogged The Nairobi Attacks,” The Telegraph, September 22, 2013, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/kenya/10326863/Tweeting-terrorism-How-al-Shabaab-live-blogged-the-Nairobi-attacks.html.

[11] United Nations General Assembly, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” OHCHR | International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1996, accessed July 20, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CCPR.aspx.

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[20] “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2015 (2015 – H.R. 3654),” GovTrack.us, 2016, accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr3654.

[21] “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2016 (2016 – S. 2517),” GovTrack.us, 2016, accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/s2517.

[22] “RE: S. 2517, Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2016,” Karin Johanson to The Honorable Ron Johnson and The Honorable Thomas Carper, February 9, 2016, in American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation., 2016, accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-letter-s-2517-combat-terrorist-use-social-media-act-2016.

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[31] Maeghin Alarid, “Recruitment and Radicalization: The Role of Social Media and New Technology,” in Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, accessed July 19, 2017.

[32] Reuters, “Social media giants team up to combat terrorist content,” New York Post, June 26, 2017, accessed July 20, 2017, http://nypost.com/2017/06/26/social-media-giants-team-up-to-combat-terrorist-content/.

[33] Zack Adesina, “IS planned London terror attacks in 2016,” BBC News, September 04, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-41012408.

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[35] Danson Cheong, “2 Singaporeans arrested under ISA for terrorism-related activities,” The Straits Times, September 07, 2017, accessed September 10, 2017, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/2-singaporeans-arrested-under-isa-for-terrorism-related-activities.

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