Rooted in Research

Research analyst Remy Mahzam (MSc’13) covers the topic of cyber terrorism and online radicalisation, a field of work that takes him to far-flung countries such as Afghanistan to conduct in-depth research. 

Research analyst Mahzam was in Afghanistan for a week in February to conduct on-the-ground research on terrorism. PHOTO: HENG HUI MEI

Research analyst Mahzam was in Afghanistan for a week in February to conduct on-the-ground research on terrorism. PHOTO: HENG HUI MEI

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While at work, he uses social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Telegram.

But Remy Mahzam, 29, is not reading his friends’ social media updates. Instead, he is tracking terrorism-related content on the internet, hoping to identify any trends.

Two years into his job as an Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,  Mahzam has travelled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, and has even been to Kabul, Afghanistan to conduct his research on the links between new media and terrorism.  

Currently researching on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia, he looks at the motivations behind messages sent out by the terrorist groups. 

“Right now, the extremists are clever in crafting their messages. They are much more discreet and the information is not easily found in the public domain,” explained Mahzam, who graduated with a Master of Science from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2013.

To overcome this, he has to decode cryptic messages and hashtags to be able to get a look at the content these extremists put online. 

“In my area of research, the bigger risk is to not let the truth be heard, understood and known.” ”

Remy Mahzam

“We get a chance to look at them (videos of pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) before they are taken down and analyse what we see and observe,” said Mahzam, who noted that the amount of content on social media platforms targeting Southeast Asia has increased significantly, reflecting an “aggressive all-out media campaign.”

A major part of Mahzam’s work is field research.   

For instance, he was in Afghanistan for about a week last February, visiting prisons to interview Taliban fighters who are willing to cooperate with the authorities. 

“It’s like a reporter’s job, where we have to get our hands dirty and live with interviewees to appreciate their culture and get answers from them,” he shared.

In this regard, he said his WKWSCI education brought his technical and communications skills “to another level.”
“I was better able to articulate technical knowledge in a way that non-experts can understand, and package the information in a way that will sell or promote the good of it,” he said. 

Sharing a technique he uses to approach his interviewees, be it a former terrorist or the man on the street, he said:  “You don’t want to be mistaken as a spy. If you are perceived that way, they will not answer your questions and may even take action against you.”

Despite the challenges of field research, the experience of getting first-hand information is something he enjoys.

“My job is risky and my life may be at stake but I just need to be careful in the way I introduce myself and how I ask the questions,” said Mahzam. 

“In my area of research, the bigger risk is to not let the truth be heard, understood and known. I see myself as part of those who are committed to make life more comprehensible and meaningful.”  

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