Questions over help received in bid to reach Syria

Mustafa had left Singapore in late May this year for a neighbouring country.
Mustafa had left Singapore in late May this year for a neighbouring country.PHOTO: ST FILE

The announcement that a Singaporean has been detained for trying to join militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has revived questions over the reach of the group in South-east Asia, and why it continues to win followers.

A key concern, analysts say, is how much help Mustafa Sultan Ali, who was captured in Turkey and deported last month, received in his bid to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS.

Counter-terrorism analysts said accounts of how fighters from Malaysia and Indonesia made their way to Syria suggest that ISIS may have cultivated a South-east Asian network of online recruiters capable of communicating with, and arranging passage for, would-be fighters from the region to enter Turkey and then Syria.


Mr Jasminder Singh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said Mustafa likely made contact with an ISIS fighter or recruiter through social media.

"For him to fly to Turkey, he would most likely have made contact with an agent - someone from the other side to take him across the land border to Syria," he said.

This agent would likely have been a European or Malaysian fighter who spoke to him in English or Malay, Mr Singh added.

He said there is also the possibility that Mustafa might have met a secondary handler in the neighbouring country he travelled to.

Mr Singh noted that the e-mail addresses and phone numbers of militants have been routinely shared on extremist websites and on social media.

He believes Mustafa likely travelled to Turkey through Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia to avoid being detected by security agencies.

Experts also say Mustafa's case is significant, given that a large number of those investigated for radical activity in recent years tend to be youths or young adults.

At 51, Mustafa has a profile similar to that of members of regional terror group Jemaah Islamiah detained from around 2001 who, like ISIS, sought to establish a caliphate.

Fellow RSIS analyst Vikram Rajakumar said that for a middle-aged person with some religious grounding to embrace ISIS' ideology could mean he has a strong anti-establishment streak, for instance.

"If you have a perceived way of how you want to live your life, and you are unable to do so, you might see this as an avenue out... where you leave your worldly belongings and have a fresh start in some utopia," he said.

He added: "Ideologically, if this person is for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and he is unable to travel to Syria to fight, Singapore then becomes a target."

Lim Yan Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'Questions over help received in bid to reach Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe