Ahmad Hussin says he hardly knows his son-in-law, the self-proclaimed Malaysian jihadist Muhammad Wanndy Mohamad Jedi, who took his daughter to Syria nearly nine months ago to join the Islamic State extremist group.
A cobbler from Kedah state in northern Malaysia, Ahmad told BenarNews he last saw daughter Nor Mahmudah a year ago. And he lost touch with her after Mahmudah and her new husband – both in their twenties – left the country in late January.
Asked whether he knew that Mahmudah had given birth to a baby girl in Syria, Ahmad shook his head. Then he grew silent and stared at a pile of shoes before him.
"I pray that she and her child are safe there," Ahmad said feebly.
‘Staring at death’
Ahmad told BenarNews he wasn’t aware that his son-in-law was a radical, so the news that Mahmudah had gone to the Middle East with Wanndy jolted him as “the shock of his life.”
Ahmad says he prays for the safe return of his daughter. But he’s mindful that he may never again see Mahmudah, the third of his four children.
"Over there, they are staring at death day in and day out. As a father, of course, I am deeply concerned for her safety,” Ahmad told BenarNews during an interview at his shoe repair stall near a taxi stand in the border town of Baling, where he has worked for the past 30 years.
"But if they return home, they are facing the imminent risk of being punished under our law and even getting sentenced to jail," said Ahmad, who uses a wheelchair after a stroke a decade ago paralyzed him from the waist down.
Mahmudah’s father described his daughter as a person with a good heart, but he was struggling with the realization that she had fallen in love with a jihadist.
"She is married and now under the care of her husband. I have done my responsibility as a father to raise her, and now she is someone's wife. There is nothing I could do to stop her husband's decision," said Ahmad.
Malaysian authorities are looking for Wanndy as part of a crackdown on IS militants. They hope to prevent people like him from recruiting other youths via social media, or mounting terrorist attacks on home soil after returning from Mid-East combat tours.
Wanndy, who hails from the small town of Durian Tunggal in Malacca state, reportedly belongs to an IS unit, Majmu’ah al Arkhabiliy (previously known as Katibah Nusantara), which is made up of Malay-speaking combatants from Indonesia and Malaysia.
In late February, Wanndy made headlines back home when he and another young Malaysian, Mohd Faris Anuar, were reported to be part of an IS video crew that filmed the execution of a Syrian prisoner. A still image taken from the video showed Wanndy smiling and crouching over the headless man’s body.
“I must say that I do harbor the hope of returning to Malaysia, but it is not my priority, as my focus now is to stay here and fight, to achieve my dream of defending the IS,” Wanndy told BenarNews in an interview conducted via Facebook last month.
Couple met in Penang
A close family friend described Mahmudah as not the type of person who espoused extremist views.
Growing up, she had attended a state school – not a religious school – said the friend, an elder in Mahmudah’s home village who requested anonymity. The village is located in a rural and religiously conservative part of Malaysia.
He said he suspected that Wanndy had “brainwashed” his bride into agreeing to move with him to Syria.
Mahmudah met Wanndy when she worked at an electronics factory in Penang state, the friend said, and the two married not long after Mahmudah divorced her first husband.
"Just months after the divorce, Mahmudah asked the family for a blessing to marry Wanndy,” the friend told BenarNews.
"At first, her family was a bit reluctant as they did not know his background, but finally agreed as she was persistent.”
Buy your own ticket
Royal Malaysia Police’s Special Branch in Bukit Aman has identified Wanndy as one of 69 Malaysians who have joined the IS ranks in Syria or Iraq. But the number could be closer to 100, including children, according to Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, assistant director of the counter-terrorism unit in the Special Branch division.
Back home, the authorities have arrested at least 111 people within the past year suspected of links to Islamic State.
Although they face the prospect of being taken into custody under Malaysia’s new Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) – which allows suspects to be held without trial for renewable two-year periods – some jihadists have even asked authorities to help them come home, Ayob said.
“If they wish to return, they will have to make their own arrangements since they had entered Syria illegally. So how are we supposed to help them?” Ayob told BenarNews.
“There are some of them who sought our help to bring them home, but it is hard for us because they are in Syria and there is no proper government there at the moment. Even if we decide to help bring them home, the government will have to request a help from a third country,” he added.
Hata Wahari contributed to this report.