He wanted to fight in Syria. IS sent him to South-east Asia instead

PURWOREJO KLAMPOK (INDONESIA) — The quiet young Indonesian aircraft mechanic dashed out of his relatives’ home in a hurry in February and disappeared. The next time his anxious family would get word of him would be three months later, on the television news.

The authorities announced that the man, Yoki Pratama Windyarto, 21, was one of seven Indonesians who had joined the Islamic State (IS) and gone to the Philippines to fight on the island of Mindanao.

His family had not even known that he had a passport.

And then another shock: Weeks later, his mother, Ms Sri Eny Windarti, received an anonymous call saying that her son had been killed, and got a text message with a picture of him lying dead on the battlefield, a pool of blood under his head.

“What caused him to go there is a big question for us,” she said. “We have no idea what happened to him.”

Windyarto was one of about 30 foreign fighters recruited by IS operatives to join the battle against the Philippine government in the city of Marawi, officials say.

That fight, which has raged for months, has become the most intense military campaign the IS has supported outside Syria and Iraq.

The militants fighting in Marawi opposed the government long before they announced loyalty to the IS, also known as Isis or Isil.

But in addition to the propaganda value of linking themselves to the militant group, recent evidence suggests that they have received financing and other assistance from the IS command.

Among those helping to recruit foreign fighters have been Indonesians who went to Syria, joined the IS and rose to leadership positions, said Ms Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a research organisation in Jakarta.

Another who has taken a leading role in recruitment for the group is a former law lecturer from Malaysia who is part of the inner circle of militant leaders in Marawi, the authorities say.

Once Windyarto arrived in the Philippines, he was told to recruit his jihadi friends to come to Mindanao for a “big party” in May.

“The Marawi operations received direct funding from Isis central and reveal a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and beyond,” said a recent report by the institute.

The siege of Marawi began in May, when Philippine troops tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the IS leader in South-east Asia, and stumbled upon hundreds of militants massing for an assault. Indonesian Islamists, in particular, have long had ties to Mindanao. In the 1990s, they received military training at a camp near Marawi.

In the 2000s, Mindanao became a transit point for Indonesians returning from fighting in Afghanistan and a sanctuary for others wanted in a string of terrorist bombings in Indonesia.

“Marawi is not strange for Indonesian jihadis,” said Mr Ansyaad Mbai, former head of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency.

“All Indonesian jihadis are familiar with this place.”

Today, the most prominent foreigner among the militants in the Philippines is Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian and one-time Islamic law lecturer who fled to Mindanao in 2014.

Windyarto grew up in a mostly Muslim neighbourhood in the central Java town of Purworejo Klampok, a tolerant community about 400km east of Jakarta.

The family is doing well by local standards: His mother is an English teacher, his father a town official.

A few years ago, Windyarto was accepted into a university. But his parents said the cost was too high and sent him to the Indonesia Aviation School, a strict boarding school in Tangerang, west of Jakarta.

He began studying aviation maintenance there in 2013. At first he was despondent. His head was shaved and he was not allowed to leave or talk to anyone by phone for three months.

He graduated in September last year, shortly before his 21st birthday, and moved in with his uncle while waiting to start a job as a trainee at Garuda Indonesia, the state airline.

Windyarto had always been devout. And during his stay in Bekasi in West Java, he expressed conservative religious views to some family members, including the idea that women should not work outside the home.

But in interviews, more than a dozen relatives said they had not realised he had embraced a radical ideology. He never spoke about the IS or Syria, they said, speculating that he had been recruited online.

But Ms Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in South-east Asia, said evidence indicated that he had been recruited by Islamists in person after he was allowed to leave campus.

By 2015, he had joined a little-known Islamist network called Al Hawariyun, or The Helpers, and took part in military training outside Jakarta, according to her institute’s report.

The network’s first leader, the cleric Ustadz Nanang Ainur Rafiq, went to Syria in 2015 and was killed last year fighting Kurdish forces. The next leader, Abu Nusaibah, was arrested in November with eight followers on charges that they were plotting to start a riot at a huge election protest against the governor of Jakarta.

Soon after, Windyarto began making plans to go to Syria along with another member, Anggara Suprayogi, whose wife worked as a maid in Hong Kong and was part of a radical cell of domestic workers there, Ms Jones said.

More than 500 Indonesians have joined the IS in Syria, including families with children, Ms Jones said. About 100 fighters have been killed in combat or by airstrikes; others have risen within the IS’ ranks.

But when the two militants contacted Indonesian operatives with the IS in Syria, they were urged to go to Mindanao instead and told to contact Mahmud, the report says.

He agreed to help and directed a member of a rival Islamist group in Central Java to organise their travel.

In mid-December, even before starting his job with Garuda, Windyarto quietly got a passport.

He was briefly ill in mid-February, and his mother went to Bekasi to care for him. Even then, she said, he gave no hint of his plan to leave. But after she left, he emptied his bank account, dropped out of the family WhatsApp messaging group and sold his motorbike and laptop, she said.

Then, on Feb 27, he made a quick visit to the house in Bekasi when only his aunt was home, retrieving a flash data drive before rushing off. He never spoke with a family member again.

On March 20, his parents, suspecting that he might have run off to join militants, filed a missing person’s report and asked the police to block him from leaving the country.

Even so, they said that they were shocked on May 31 when the Indonesian police announced on national television that their son and six other Indonesians were wanted for involvement in IS terrorism in Marawi.

The phone call that Ms Windarti dreaded came on June 20. A man speaking English told her that her son had become a “shahid” — a martyr.

He texted her the picture of her son’s body lying on the ground.

Family members cling to the hope that he may somehow be alive, perhaps having faked his death to escape. But there have been few answers.

“If we use our normal logic, it doesn’t make sense,” said his uncle, Mr Anto Kuswanto, in Bekasi.

“We educated him to be a good guy. He had never even been in an aeroplane.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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