When terror comes home

Recruit promised cash to do humanitarian work

A resident of Solo, in central Java, painting over an ISIS flag.
A resident of Solo, in central Java, painting over an ISIS flag.PHOTO: TEMPO

With hundreds of ISIS followers returning home from the front lines in the Middle East, South-east Asian nations are facing a growing problem on how to identify hardened militants who are intent on radicalising their fellow countrymen and, possibly, planning attacks on home soil. Regional Correspondent Amy Chew discusses the risks with senior regional security chiefs and meets one returnee in a jail near Jakarta.

JAKARTA • In a small room in an Indonesian jail, meatball seller Mazlan (not his real name), a slightly built, young father of four, tells of the fear and horror of his life in Syria as a member of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

It was nothing like he was told it would be, he said in an interview with The Straits Times. He now faces trial and likely jail.

Mazlan, 32, who cannot be named for security reasons, cuts a forlorn and nervous figure. Dressed in Muslim garb with an orange-coloured prison jacket, he spoke to The Straits Times at the prison in Depok, near Jakarta.

He says he has received death threats since returning from Syria. Those who cannot endure the conditions and return home are viewed by ISIS as traitors and infidels who should be killed.  "Those threats were communicated through my wife after I was presented to the press when I was first arrested (in March 2015)," says Mazlan, who then covers his face with his hands.


He was arrested in March this year during counter-terrorism operations. He now faces the prospect of a maximum prison sentence of 15 years under the Anti-Terrorism Law 15/2003 for allegedly being a member of a terrorist organisation, according to the police. His dossier has just been submitted to the Attorney-General's Office but no date has been set for the trial.


I really regret going to Syria. My advice to anyone wanting to join ISIS is to think very carefully and to think it over many times before making a decision... Nothing good comes out of going there.

MEATBALL SELLER MAZLAN, who went to Syria after being promised a lot of money

He says he was not a fighter but instead carried out menial tasks for ISIS and was lured with the promise of money to do humanitarian work.

Now back in Indonesia, he presents a challenge to security officials on how best to deal with Indonesians returning from the conflict in Iraq and Syria and the problems of accurately assessing whether they present a threat to society.

An estimated 280 Indonesians have gone to Syria, out of which 20 have returned. Of the returnees, 13 have been arrested. The remaining seven are under surveillance, according to Indonesian police.

Indonesian police say Mazlan is not a hardened militant. "He is not a fighter. He is a naive man. We believe he was recruited because he is fluent in Arabic," a police official told The Straits Times.

It is often difficult for police and media to independently verify the stories of returnees.

Mazlan says he went to Syria in March last year after being recruited by an Indonesian militant named Salim Mubarok Attamimi, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Jandal al Yemeni al Indonesi.

Jandal, who remains in Syria, became infamous after appearing in a video threatening to return to Indonesia to wage war on the country's security forces to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Mazlan said Jandal knocked on the door of his home in Malang, East Java, early last year. "I was told I was going there on a humanitarian mission and that I would be paid lots of money. I had no idea what Syria was like," he says.

"I accepted the offer to go as I had incurred a debt of nine million rupiah (S$920) which I borrowed as capital to start my meatball business."

"When I got there, I was paid only US$50 (S$70) a month. I made more money back home. I could earn at least 3.5 million rupiah a month," he added. "I was very disappointed as the reality was not what I had been promised."

Jandal provided Mazlan with the air tickets and travelled with him and 19 other Indonesians to Syria in March last year. 

He flew from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur, stopped over briefly,  then flew to Istanbul. From there, his entourage travelled by bus for 18 hours before arriving at Gaziantep, a town on the Turkey-Syria border. 

"An Arab man came and cut through the barbed wire for us to cross into Syria," Mazlan said.

In Syria, he says he was given basic training on how to handle weapons and was then assigned to teach the children at his camp how to read the Holy Quran. He said many of the Indonesians were given menial jobs, such as cooking. Very few were selected as fighters.

He denied witnessing any executions or beheadings at his camp. But he spoke of the poor conditions and the death of colleagues in fighting. He said he asked to leave within weeks of arriving, a request that was rejected.

A few months later, Syrian government forces attacked the city of Aleppo, near his camp, with barrel bombs."The bombings lasted for an hour. I was terrified. I thought I would never see my family again. I never imagined such a thing could happen to me," adds Mazlan as he buries his face in his hands again.

He asked again to leave, which was approved, but he said he had to pledge never to reveal he had been to Syria and that he would not return. He paid around US$800 for his travel expenses home which he funded out of his earning plus some extra cash from Jandal, using the same route he took to get in.

"I really regret going to Syria. My advice to anyone wanting to join ISIS is to think very carefully and to think it over many times before making a decision," said Mazlan.

"Nothing good comes out of going there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2015, with the headline 'Recruit promised cash to do humanitarian work'. Print Edition | Subscribe