He was such an obedient kid – an idealist with a promising future. But all of that changed on Oct. 22, 2013.
That night the 22-year-old medical student, who had been studying in Ireland, called his parents back home in Southeast Asia to tell them he had gone to Syria.
The young man, in his father’s words, had fallen "into the Arab Sunni Muslim terrorists' trap."
Within a few days the father embarked on a quest to reclaim his son – a perilous journey that would take him into the heart of Islamic State-claimed territory in Syria, but ultimately end in heartbreak.
The father told his story on condition that BenarNews name no one in his family. Other personal details have also been withheld to protect the family.
The father feared the publicity would deepen his family’s distress and potentially bring negative consequences for his business.
Yet he wanted to share his story because, he said, others should know about the tragedy his family experienced and possibly take something from it.
A BenarNews correspondent first met the father in December 2013 in Hatay, Turkey.
The young man had been studying medicine in Ireland. From there, he began to worry his mother and father by expressing a wish to travel to the Middle East. He wanted to ease the suffering of people afflicted by war, according to his father.
"I advised him, since he was studying medicine, the best way to help these people was by opening up clinics and hospitals. And I promised him I would provide the funds," the father told BenarNews in an exclusive interview.
"My only condition is that he start the humanitarian work after graduation.”
They hadn’t heard from their boy for several days when the call from Syria came. Within an hour, the father filed a police report with authorities in his country.
Then he began doing research on the internet – the technological marvel that militant groups like the Islamic State (IS) used to lure young men from Southeast Asia and other corners of the globe to its extremist cause.
Back in October 2013, IS was not yet a household name. But the son’s call aroused the father’s suspicions that the youth had fallen into the clutches of a group like IS.
In subsequent phone calls, he sensed a change and growing distance in his boy.
“He was secretive about his exact whereabouts and his plans. I could sense clearly he was in a total brainwashed state while talking to us. Nevertheless he was polite throughout all the calls,” the father said.
The businessman undertook his own research into the Syrian conflict, reading up about an assortment of rebel groups that were fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“I was soon adopting these social media platforms, which IS and these rebel groups were using to recruit new group members. I started to use Whatsapp messaging, Telegram, WeChat, Facebook and other platforms – all these were unfamiliar zones for me back then,” he said.
Through the internet he got in touch with organizations in Syria and Turkey whose help he would enlist for a physical quest for his son that would soon follow.
In November 2013, his son confessed during another call that he had joined IS, but he would not say where he was.
“He was advised and guided by his Emir [chief] not to disclose their whereabouts, even to parents. We can sense clearly from his calls that not only he has been brainwashed but also been heavily monitored and guided on calls by the Arab terrorist,” the father said.
Into the war zone
A few days later, the father was on his way to Syria via Turkey – the gateway to the theater of conflict.
He crossed into Syria from Reyhanli, a border town in the Turkish province of Hatay.
Before crossing the frontier, he had contacted organizations that were ferrying medicine, food, aid, equipment and supplies to rebel groups inside Syria. One of them agreed to allow him to go in with them.
“I was based in Babalhawa, an area not too far from the border, and stayed in a huge warehouse. I was informed that it was one of the safest places in Syria,” he recalled.
A picture of the warehouse in Babalhawa where the father was based in his search to find his son in Syria, December 2013. [Special to BenarNews]
The men who accompanied him were armed.
“I knew I was in good hands, but in Syria anything is possible.”
When he first met the group, he paid its members U.S. $40,000 to cover their expenses in helping him find his son.
But they eventually gave him back his money. The dumbstruck father asked the group’s leader why he was returning the cash.
“And he said one of the most beautiful words I’ve heard in years – ‘You’re a Muslim and we are Muslims. To help you to find your son is our duty and this is our Islam,” the father recounted.
‘Ready for the worst’
Altogether the father spent about five weeks in the region – staying mostly on the Turkish side of the border.
During his time inside Syria, the armed men with whom he traveled introduced him to locals as “a volunteer doctor.”
He was in Syria only for a week, but the menace of danger was never far off.
As they drove near Aleppo one day, a Syrian warplane dropped a bomb about 10 meters (33 feet) from their car, the father said.
On another occasion, the traveling party narrowly escaped an encounter with pro-government forces.
The group’s car broke down on the road between Babalhawa and Aleppo. Tense moments followed. The father and the other men walked to the nearest village to find a mechanic.
They were greeted by weapon-toting residents who offered them food. They also found a mechanic, but the repair took longer than expected.
“After having some food and conducting our prayers, we had coffee while waiting for our car to be fixed. Out of nowhere, one of the villagers came and shouted that Bashar’s government army was just 500 meters [1,640 feet] away,” the father said.
“The army was getting closer and … the armed group from the village was ready to fight. I was offered a handgun but I refused because I had never used a weapon in my life. I was ready for the worst,” he added
The mechanic fixed their car and the traveling party managed to drive off in the nick of time.
‘So close, yet so far’
During his week inside the conflict zone, the father met with different groups to gather as much information as he could to find his son.
“All the groups were welcoming and understood my pleas, and promised to hand over my son if he was in their camp. But they warned that it would be an impossible task if my son was in an ISIS camp,” the father said.
He went to different IS camps to inquire about his son. He also developed his own network of local informants whom he paid to furnish him with intelligence on his son’s whereabouts.
The intelligence gathered by this network soon led to a breakthrough in evidence that pointed to his son being based at an IS camp for European fighters in Dar Ta Izzah.
“I had covered in total seven different ISIS camps with my local connections, using a polite approach,” the father said, referring to IS by another acronym.
“I still can remember vividly during our visit to the ISIS European Camp in Dar Ta Izzah, I was told to stay in the car and they left all their weapons in the car,” he said.
Leaders of the camp declined to say whether the young man was there, saying they weren’t permitted to give out such information.
“Looking around the surrounding area, it actually matched the area my son was describing in our conversations. I really felt in my heart, it was that camp.
“Even the head of the convoy reaffirmed that my son was in that camp, through his observation at the camp. So close, yet so far,” the father said, his voice choking.
Members of the traveling party talk with an emir (leader) of a Syrian rebel-group faction. [Special to BenarNews]
The father kept in touch with his son throughout this journey without revealing his own whereabouts. But one day, the businessmen confessed to his son that he was in Syria looking for him.
And coincidentally, starting late in December 2013, communication became less frequent.
Having been unable to set eyes on his son, the businessman abandoned his quest and returned home in January 2014. But he kept in touch with his network of informants.
According to their intelligence, his son’s IS unit moved into Iraqi territory.
“Phone calls got lesser and I was informed that his hand phone was taken away by his Emir,” he said.
In April 2014, the calls stopped altogether.
That August, five days before the end of Ramadan, one of his informants notified the man that his son had been killed four months earlier during a clash near Mosul in Iraq.
This informant, the wife of an IS member, also told the father that the extremist group had recruited his son to be at the frontline.
“I knew the information provided was true and accurate because there was no contact since April and till today. I trust the source because she told me she’s been keeping this information for far too long and she felt guilty about it,” the father said.
No country has listed the young man as among those killed in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
Contacted by BenarNews, the Iraqi government could not confirm the death.
The father said he does not know of other families whose children have vanished in Iraq or Syria, their fate never officially confirmed.
“It was like a disaster … He was my motivation all along, and then this came. You can just imagine how it was for all of us,” he said tearfully.
During Eid in 2014, the father held a prayer session with family members in his hometown for his late son.