Ahmad Salman Abdul Rahim chose to leave his job at a Malaysian construction company to fight alongside jihadists in Syria for a reason he says is 1,400 years old: The Prophet Muhammad demands it.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, once advised a companion to fight in the area that makes up modern-day Syria and predicted that Allah would send an “army of mujahideen” to the region, Ahmad said. He said he’s there to avenge Muslims tortured and killed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“We are portrayed as terrorists but I don’t care as this affair is between me and God,” U.K.-educated Ahmad, 38, said via Facebook messages from near Kfar Zeta in Syria’s Hama region. “Many of the end-of-times battles will happen around Syria. That’s among the reasons why I am here.”
As nations around the world grapple with the threat of Islamic State, the Southeast Asians fighting in the Middle East pose a risk in several ways, security analysts say. They could return and breathe new life into militant groups in a region with a history of extremism and occasional large-scale terror attacks, and they could radicalize friends and family at home via social media, aided by slick Islamic State promotional videos.
“It is not IS per se that might pose a danger to the region but rather its extreme militant ideology as well as the skills, battleground experience and international networks that Southeast Asian jihadists got from Syria and Iraq,” said Navhat Nuraniyah, an associate research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who looks at terrorism and radicalization.
“If even a small minority of them do return, they will be highly respected by existing local groups,” she said. “If they do intend to continue their mission they will have no problem finding recruits and support.”
The total number of Southeast Asians fighting alongside Islamic State is estimated by governments and police to be a few hundred. The violence and brutality committed by terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria poses a threat to the Middle East and, if left unchecked, the world, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a statement Sept. 27.
Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir is seen during his hearing verdict at the South Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 16, 2011. Bashir, is the co-founder of Jeemah Islamiah, the organisation behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.
Among those overseas is Akel Zainal, the drummer from a 1990s Malaysian pop group known for songs such as “You’re the Only One.” From Syria he solicits requests from Facebook followers to write their names on mortar shells, printing their names -- as many as five per shell -- next to the words “Malaysian Citizens Together with the Islamic Revolution.”
‘Eat. Pray. Jihad’
“U.S. soldiers and other infidel armies usually write down names on bombs that they use on Muslims as a taunt,” Akel wrote on his Facebook page, which showed photos of him walking through the rubble of buildings destroyed by Syrian forces, a gun slung across his back. “Is it wrong then for me to want to taunt them back, these enemies of Allah? It’s my idea, it’s my way of sharing the fervor of the battlefields with my friends. Eat. Pray. Jihad.”
The counter-terrorism division of Malaysia’s police force has identified Ahmad and Akel as among those who have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight, said Ayob Khan Mydin, deputy chief of the unit. As many as 40 Malaysians may be there and police haven’t identified them all, he said.
“This is the first time a state committed to the application of Islamic law is actually winning victories and controlling oil, controlling territory and attracting an international body of fighters,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
Members of Islamic State have committed crimes such as torture, murder, enforced disappearances and forcible deplacements as part of attacks on civilians in Syria, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a report released last month. Public executions have become commonplace in Islamic State-controlled areas, the report found.
Foreign fighters have been linked to the beheading of aid workers and journalists in the Middle East. Journalist James Foley was beheaded in a video released last month in which the executioner preached jihad with an English accent.
Iraqi security forces and gunmen inspect the wreckage of cars following a suicide bomb attack that killed at least seven people in Ramadi, the capital of the western province of Anbar, Iraq, on Sept. 17, 2014.
Terror attacks in Southeast Asia -- home to about 15 percent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project -- have declined as security forces arrested or killed militants from regional groups like Jemaah Islamiyah. That group orchestrated the deadly 2002 nightclub bombings on the island of Bali, where tourist arrivals, a driver of the economy, fell 22 percent the following year.
Islamic State-trained militants could re-energize groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, which was formed in the early 1990s by jihadists returning from Afghanistan with the goal of setting up an Islamic state across parts of Southeast Asia. Returnees may also form their own groups and seek to interrupt efforts to bring stability to areas such as Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
“Jemaah Islamiyah was very much weakened after Bali but now you can see these groups are reviving because the Syrian and Iraq conflict has given them political oxygen,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Southeast Asians in Iraq and Syria, when they return they will bring new skills, new expertise, new motivations, new ideologies, new networks.”
“It is very likely that those who return from Syria and Iraq will form the nucleus of a new set of groups that will emerge in the region,” he said. Asean is the fourth-largest exporting region, accounting for 7 percent of global exports, according to McKinsey & Co. -- if it were a single country, Asean would be the seventh-largest economy in the world.
The Philippine government has been alerted to the possible entry of Islamic State operatives, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported yesterday, citing President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Abigail Valte. Authorities are tapping into the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has signed a peace treaty with the government, to gather information, according to the report.
In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Muhammad In’am had never heard of Islamic State until his 19-year-old brother, Wildan Mukhollad, blew himself up in a suicide attack in Iraq earlier this year.
“We found out he died in February from news on the Internet,” In’am, 38, recalled. “We had no idea about IS.”
As a child Wildan wanted to become a cleric and attended an Islamic school in east Java founded by the family of one of the Bali bombers. In 2011 he moved to Egypt to study. About a year and a half later, Wildan disappeared, In’am said.
“The fight in Syria, or the so-called struggle in Syria, is the first tweeted ‘jihad’” -- Mohamed Bin Ali, vice chairman and counselor at the Religious Rehabilitation Group
Several months after he vanished he contacted his family to tell them he was in Syria to wage jihad, In’am said. He ignored their pleas to return and late last year, in his last call to his mother, Wildan told her to make peace with the fact he would probably die there.
“The danger of IS is that it recruits young people whose understanding of Islam is not yet comprehensive,” In’am said. “IS degrades the morals of Islam itself.”
Islamic State, like other militant groups over the past decade, has a heavy online presence, using the Internet to communicate and organize, as well as release sermons and magazines touting its cause. Fighters share nearly real-time updates from the front lines, often gruesome photos and videos, on social media accounts.
“The fight in Syria, or the so-called struggle in Syria, is the first tweeted ‘jihad,’” said Mohamed Bin Ali, vice chairman and counselor at the Religious Rehabilitation Group, a group of Islamic scholars and teachers in Singapore that counsels extremists detained by the government. “Many of those who have been influenced, not only in Singapore, but from across the globe, they are indoctrinated, influenced via the Internet.”
Amir Mahmud is an Islamic studies teacher in the central Java city of Solo who said he founded the Islamic State Supporters Forum in July so that Indonesian jihadi groups could harness interest in the “heroic movement” happening in the Middle East. He said early meetings drew several thousand people, though the group since stopped its gatherings.
“I don’t see anything wrong with people here showing support for IS,” Amir said. “There’s no harm in expressing ideas that will always grow in Indonesia.”
Amir, who spent three years in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said he doesn’t support using violence to spread the ideology in Indonesia, though he understands why Islamic State has used it in Iraq and Syria. “You cannot spread your ideology, movement with words if you are at war.”
Even so, opponents of Islamic State in Indonesia are going online to reject it in what Sidney Jones called “the biggest popular backlash we have ever seen in Indonesia.”
“Many mainstream Muslim leaders are coming out in a way we haven’t seen before rejecting things out of hand,” she said.
Mohammad Fadhlan, 21, left an Islamic boarding school in Kedah state in May to travel to Syria. He received instructions on getting there by contacting Lotfi Ariffin, a former official with an Islamic political party seen as the leader of the Malaysians in Syria, through social media.
“His dream was to go to Syria to join the jihad,” recalled his classmate Ameerul Hafeez. Lotfi and Fadhlan were killed earlier this month in the same battle.
Ameerul, 18, said he envies Fadhlan. “It’s not just me, it’s everyone who wishes to die as a martyr,” he said by phone.
“The people who went there didn’t go for fun or adventure, it’s for Islam and because the Syrians need help from foreign fighters,” said Ameerul, who had former pop star Akel write his name on a mortar. “We get our information from the Internet, we can decide for ourselves what we feel is right.”
While former construction company worker Ahmad fights on in Syria, his family frets at home.
“There’s a bit of sadness, a bit of pride and there is fear that we will lose him,” his sister Aini Salina said.
Ahmad said he doubts he’ll see Malaysia again, given the risk of arrest -- and if he did, he wouldn’t commit violence in his home country. Still, “I left behind all of life’s luxuries for Islam,” he said. “I am sacrificing it all.”