Barrier to Intelligence Collection: ISIS Online Communication in the Philippines

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In a time when social media plays a major role in recruitment to violent extremism, Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) has become the most powerful tool in collecting intelligence on terrorists and extremists. However, such tools are only as useful as the ability of the analysts to collect and analyze its contents. In the Philippines, this proves to be an obstacle due to the diverse local dialects used to communicate terrorist intent.

 Philippine affiliates of the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) are increasingly communicating using their local dialects. The deliberate use of local dialects signaled a targeted approach in their recruitment and radicalization efforts. Some local Muslim communities in Mindanao have limited access to formal education and are not exposed to English or Tagalog languages. Therefore, messages from IS militants appears to be targeted at recruiting militants from their local community and to mobilize locals for violence. 

Nevertheless, it is difficult for any organization to develop such capabilities due to the diverse number of native dialects the southern part of the Philippines. There is also a limited resource for local translators as these dialects are only being spoken in the provinces of Mindanao. There are thirteen tribes in Muslim Mindanao each with their unique languages. Amongst which IS operatives were seen to have used online are the Maguindanaon, Maranao, Tausug, Iranun, Yakan, and Bisaya languages.

The languages were used according to the provinces where IS operatives are located. Members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), for example, often used Tausug to communicate as they are largely located at the Sulu Archipelago where members of the Tausug tribe are located. Similarly, members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and IS Lanao disseminates messages in the Maguindanaon and Maranao languages respectively due to their geographical location as well. 

These dialects, besides being used for recruitment and radicalization, are also being used to warn their supporters about threats. For example, Facebook user “Mujahidat B.,” a BIFF-linked account warned militants on Facebook about the arrival of Filipino soldiers using the Maguindanaon dialect on April 3, 2019, stating:

Warning that there are 14 trucks of soldiers arriving. Please be careful brothers and sisters. May Allah take care of it.

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Post Warning Militants (April 3, 2019)

The BIFF have a higher presence on Facebook and tend to be more aggressive - posting pictures of weapons, calls to jihad, and recruitment appeals, than any other IS-linked groups in the Philippines.

IS militants also use social media to warn sympathizers about attacks they are planning to launch. This warning aims to inflict the most damage to non-Muslims and minimize damages to fellow ‘believers’. This can be seen in March 9, 2020, when account “Mangoda S.” posted a warning in the Maranao dialect on Facebook to warn followers of a plan to bomb Iligan City in Lanao del Norte:

That will be the very first [missile] we will explode in Iligan. God willing. Takbir.

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Post Claiming to Bomb Iligan, Philippines (March 9, 2020)

Militants often use their own dialects too to issue threats online. The IS in Sulu, an ASG splinter, often boost fighter’s morale by issuing threats against Philippine authorities and groups working with the government such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This is observed in a Facebook post on February 27, 2017, when a member an ASG-linked account threatened to kill both President Duterte and chairman of the MNLF, Nur Misuari in the Tausug dialect:

Come here and be killed, your brains will be blown out.

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Tausug Post Threatening to Kill Duterte and Misuari (February 27, 2017)

While threats and incitement are often accompanied by an overt jihadi image or video, threats issued purely in text are often unnoticed by the authorities and social media companies. This is because there are few resources devoted to developing the linguistic expertise of local dialects.

IS, however, recognizes the importance of developing linguistic capabilities to appeal and recruit local communities in Mindanao. In 2019, IS-linked media groups expanded the Filipino translation of IS materials on Telegram, advancing from Tagalog to five additional native tongues, all of whom were spoken in the Mindanao region. These groups been actively translating IS materials to Filipino dialects and called for more translators of other regional dialects aiming to target a larger pool of recruits:

We need volunteer translators for Khilāfah News from Arabic /English/Tagalog to Tausug, Maranaw, Maguindanao, and other dialects not mentioned above. Inshā-Allāh, someone who is prepared to allocate even a little time every day, insha -Allāh...

Anyone who is interested in the work mentioned, please just PM this account…

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Tagalog Post on Telegram Calling for Volunteer Translators (February 1, 2019)

Jihadists in Mindanao will continue to avoid detection by disseminating messages using their unique local dialects. The linguistic deficiency of the authorities, social media platforms and international counter-terrorism agencies have cost them valuable intelligence as IS operatives continued to benefit from this strategy and enjoy the freedom of warning sympathizers publicly about threats in their native languages. IS have noticed this gap in the linguistic capability and have further exploited this loophole by recruiting more translators to attract new fighters and non-fighters within the area of Mindanao.

It is thereby imperative that intelligence agencies in the Philippines, as well as social media companies, develop the language capabilities needed to intercept and analyze IS messages online. Language is often used as a screening mechanism for IS militants to distinguish a true sympathizer from a government associate in social media. This inability to communicate in local dialects hampers efforts in data collection, let alone any intelligence analysis.

As Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, notes “ISIS is still extremely dangerous. It has the tools and foundations needed to build insurgencies across the world.” Unless IS in Philippines is curbed both offline and online, the group will continue to grow and operate in the country. In order to win the battle against extremist groups, quality intelligence is needed now more than ever. It is the ultimate weapon against terrorism. 



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