ISIS online cheerleader Musa Cerantonio spotted in PH

Maria A. Ressa
ISIS online cheerleader Musa Cerantonio spotted in PH
[Exclusive] Melbourne-born, the 29-year-old jihadist has been staying in the Philippines for nearly a year. He has been seen in Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga, according to Rappler’s sources.

MANILA, Philippines – For the first time, authorities in the Philippines and Australia confirm Melbourne-born Musa Cerantonio, whom a recent study named one of the top two most influential jihadist “inspirations” for fighters in Syria and Iraq, is in the Philippines. 

The 29-year-old Cerantonio is a Christian convert to Islam who’s using social media effectively to encourage terrorism and urge Muslims to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq.

Philippine and Australian sources verified to Rappler that Melbourne-born Musa Cerantonio is in the Philippines – and has been for a while. “Nearly a year,” one source privy to the information said. 

“He spent a lot of time in the Middle East,” said another. Reports said he appeared on numerous English language shows from Egypt and preached jihad in call-in shows broadcast globally. He combined traditional media with new media: his radical teachings are on YouTube, and he engages and spreads the same virulent ideology espoused by al-Qaeda on Twitter and Facebook.

Two weeks ago as jihadist forces captured Tikrit and Mosul, Cerantonio told his followers: “The black flags fly high today over Mosul and much of Iraq. Rejoice, O Muslims. Hasten to support the Ummah [Arabic for “community].”

On June 13, 2014, the Australian said Cerantonio was under investigation and that the Australian Federal Police may be moving against him where “he’s believed to be living” in the Philippines.

“Have fun finding me,” Cerantonio posted on Facebook in reaction. “I’ll be waiting for you or whichever dogs you send.”

“Come and meet us in the mountains of Sulu if you wish to find me,” he wrote in another post. “We will be waiting, no promises that we will be gentle though.” Soon after, Cerantonio’s Facebook account was shut down.

So far, Filipino sources said, there has been no request from Australia for his arrest.

Gray area

When asked why Cerantonio isn’t being arrested, a Filipino official not authorized to speak about him replied, “He’s always in the gray area…He knows what governments can do to him so he makes sure he stays in the gray area.”

It’s a gray area that was exploited by many radical preachers around the world, from the Middle East to London to Southeast Asia, where it once seemed difficult to hold accountable radical preachers like Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, once the emir of Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia. 

Shortly after the 2002 Bali bombings, it seemed Indonesians could only bring Ba’asyir in for questioning. He told intelligence officers: “I make many knives, and I sell many knives, but I’m not responsible for what happens to them.”

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) published a paper in April that studied the social media activity of 190 Western and European fighters in Iraq and Syria. 

“Social media represents an essential source of information and inspiration to them,” said the study. “Social media is no longer virtual: it has become an essential facet of what happens on the ground.”

Based on a detailed analysis of their activity on social media, Cerantonio was identified as one of the two most influential voices providing “inspiration and guidance” to fighters.

The ICSR study said that one in 4 foreign fighters followed Cerantonio’s Twitter account. More than 92% of his tweets involved an interaction of some kind: 53.8% involved interactions with other users; 38.4% of his tweets were retweeted.

ICSR wrote that on Twitter, “Cerantonio typically employs highly inflammatory language, for example, calling the State Department ‘pussy Yankee scum,’ and claiming that ‘the USA and its slaves like you are the greatest criminals on Earth.’ In one instance, he posted a modified image of the US State Department seal which read ‘US Department of Rape.’”

Cerantonio was far more active on Facebook: his Facebook page was the third most “liked” page among jihadists. He is “explicit in his endorsement of violent jihad and support for jihadist organizations operating in Syria” and is openly supportive of ISIS and “indirectly bringing in recruits.”

“I have been very clear about why ISIS are the best forces on the ground,” Cerantonio wrote on Facebook. “That is because they are doing what the others do not, i.e., establishing a state and declaring the intention to establish the Khilafah.”

The goal, like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia, is to establish an Islamic Caliphate, the “Khilafah.”

ISIS apologist

“He’s certainly a very powerful apologist for ISIS even though he claims not to be linked to ISIS,” Professor Greg Barton, from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, told Rappler. “He’s clearly laid out his position on the side of ISIS so you can argue that indirectly, he contributes to ISIS.”

ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, finds its roots in Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq, but it became so brutal that at one point, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disowned it. 

“ISIS, in some sense, is the most powerful manifestation of al-Qaeda today,” said Barton. “ISIS controls territory, is more powerful and more successful than al-Qaeda has ever been – because technically, ISIS is not an affiliate of al-Qaeda.”

The social networks that once formed al-Qaeda have been disrupted: with top and middle-rank leaders captured and killed, members of the cells merged, allowing diffferent affiliated groups to mutate in different ways.

The threat today is more dispersed: the central core is weaker, but the offshoot groups carry the same virulent ideology.

Social media spread

That ideology spreads far more rapidly on social media, connecting a Filipino or Indonesian to a global jihad much faster and cheaper (and with less risk) than ever before.

Now face-to-face meetings are no longer needed to preach and recruit, and that may be the soft underbelly for global counterterrorism forces.

It allows an Australian (although some say he’s renounced his citizenship) to proselytize globally from the Philippines using the Internet and social media.

Musa Cerantonio has been seen in Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga, according to Rappler’s sources. At least two Facebook accounts have been deactivated.

“He’s aware of the vulnerability of his circumstances,” Barton told Rappler. “He’s been clever enough not to divulge his position.”

As the US and its allies struggle with how to handle the crisis triggered by ISIS’ march in Iraq, another pressing question remains: how can authorities stop the spread of the virulent ideology that leads to terrorism and prevent new networks from forming? –









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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.