An Indonesian man labelled a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government last week is still in Syria where he is a trusted aide to Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, terrorism experts said.
The U.S. Treasury Department on Friday declared Mohammed Karim Yusop Faiz (alias Muhammad Saifuddin or Abu Walid) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist along with a Malaysian and a Filipino.
The department alleged that the trio, who appeared in an IS propaganda video in 2016 showing them beheading three captives, had recruited foreign fighters to pledge their allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
Sofyan Tsauri, a former terrorism convict, said Faiz was known to be close to al-Baghdadi, whose whereabouts are unknown.
“Saifuddin has even been a figure trusted by al-Baghdadi to be an influential leader of ISIS followers in Southeast Asia,” Sofyan said, using the other acronym for IS.
“He’s a pious person, can memorize the Quran and has good religious knowledge, a convincing track record, allowing him to get an important position within ISIS,” he said.
Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy and Analysis of Conflict, a Jakarta-based think-tank, said the Treasury sanctions against Faiz and those of Malaysian Mohamad Rafi Udin and Filipino militant Mohammad Reza Lahaman Kiram, would not affect their reputation within the militant group.
Jones said Washington should have included the three men on its list of global terrorists in 2016 immediately after they appeared in an IS video in which they declared support for Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Islamic State branch in the Philippines who would later lead a five-month battle with the Philippine military in the southern city of Marawi.
Philippine security forces killed Hapilon in October last year, effectively ending the Marawi siege that killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.
The Treasury sanctions against the three men would require U.N. member states to prohibit their travel and deny them access to the international financial system, among other measures.
Jones said she believed three were still alive in Syria.
“But Rafi isn’t as important as Walid,” she said, using Faiz’s other alias.
Inspector-General Hamidin, deputy for international cooperation at Indonesia’s National Agency for Counter-Terrorism, said the government continued to monitor Indonesians suspected to be fighting alongside terrorist groups overseas.
“He has been overseas for quite some time and it is our job, whenever there are Indonesians who have become part of ISIS, to watch their domestic networks,” he told BenarNews.
On Aug. 22, in his first purported audio recording in almost a year, IS leader al-Baghdadi urged his followers to keep fighting despite recent defeats, according to the Associated Press. The 54-minute audio, titled “Give Glad Tidings to the Patient,” was released by the extremist group’s central media arm, the al-Furqan Foundation.
The secretive militant leader has frequently been reported wounded or killed during the past few years. He was last seen in public in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, but U.S. officials believed he was still alive. Reports said IS had lost about 90 percent of lands it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, where al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014.
‘In the land of the prophets’
Faiz’s mother, Sa’adah, said she did not remember the last time she had contact with her son, whom she calls Udin.
“I don’t know where he is. People say he has become a terrorist. They say he is a butcher and likes to kill people. But I have never seen proof, and I don’t want to know,” she told BenarNews on Monday in Klaten regency, Central Java, about 552 kilometers (345 miles) east of Jakarta.
“I only remember when he called on Eid al-Fitr and said that he was in the land of the prophets. But I have totally forgotten what year that was,” she said. “It was a long time ago.”
The U.S. Treasury, in a statement published on its website, said Faiz appeared in the IS video where he also took part in the execution of a prisoner. The statement did not give the current location of the three militants.
After the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, Indonesian security officials believe that Faiz travelled to the Philippines together with Bali bombers Dulmatin and Umar Patek, members of the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah.
In 2005, Faiz was arrested by Philippine police and charged with possession of illegal weapons and explosives. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Faiz returned to Indonesia in 2013 upon his release and later married the widow of Urwah, one of the suicide bombers who attacked J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in 2009.
He then left for Syria with his wife in 2013 or 2014, counter-terrorism chief Hamidin told BenarNews.
“He was said to be a religious teacher for people from Southeast Asia – Malaysians and Indonesians who were there [in Syria],” Hamidin said.