For two years, the 52-year-old resident of East Java’s Lamongan regency has dreamed of emigrating to the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria, drawn as if by a magnet to the conflict zone.
According to this father of two, who did not want to be named, violent practices carried out by the Islamic State (IS) group such as beheading non-believers and chopping off the hands of criminals are indeed taught in Islam.
“If we want to see how the Islamic Law is actually implemented, we have to go there,” he said. “Indonesia does not move forward because it does not implement Islamic law properly.”
At least 16 fellow inhabitants of Lamongan – a relatively prosperous farming and fishing area on the north coast of Java – have departed to join IS in the Middle East in recent years, according to locals.
At least seven of them have died there, according to family members, village officials and media reports.
The Lamongan man said he and some friends had started an underground group to talk about the situation in Syria, Iraq and Indonesia. They get information about IS over Telegram, the messaging app, and use it to coordinate their almost daily meetings.
“Most of the time we’re just napping and grilling fish,” he confessed. Traveling to the Middle East has become difficult.
“All the routes are known. Lots of friends have been arrested,” said the man, a manual laborer.
Area spawned Bali bombers
Before it became a hotbed of IS support, Lamongan had another distinction. It was the home of three brothers who carried out the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in October 2002, and was blamed on the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian branch of al-Qaeda. Amrozi and Ali Ghufron were executed in 2008; Ali Imron is serving a life sentence.
A network of radicals originating in Lamongan has extremist roots that run deep in the area and have changed over the years into pro-IS sentiment, according to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank.
“The trajectory of an extremist network in Lamongan, East Java illustrates how support for local jihadi struggles has been transformed into support for ISIS,” IPAC said in a report published in April 2015.
“One of the most important lessons of the Lamongan network is that pro-ISIS groups in Indonesia have emerged from existing radical networks that have never gone away. They may have morphed, realigned, regrouped and regenerated but they are not new,” the think-tank added, using another acronym for IS.
‘We cannot reject their request’
Under Indonesian law, it is not unlawful for people to emigrate in a quest to join groups like IS. As of August 2016, some 237 adults and 46 children from Indonesia had arrived in Syria or Iraq, according to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).
Lamongan police said they do not have exact numbers for how many residents have left for what locals call Daulah Islamiyah, the Islamic State.
“They don’t go openly. Some go to Malaysia first, then transit to Syria,” Suratman, chief of police in Brondong sub-district, told BenarNews.
Residents have two ways to leave the country to join the Middle East-based group, according to a village official in Brondong who declined to be identified.
The first is by putting in paper work in which they claim to be migrant workers.
“As a village official, we cannot reject their request because it is our duty to serve people if they request a supporting letter,” the official told BenarNews.
The other way out is by claiming they want to study aboard – the method used by Wildan Mukhollad, who died in Iraq in early February 2014.
His brother acknowledged that his family encouraged and supported Widan’s dream of studying overseas.
“We chipped in to collect money because he said he wanted to go to Egypt,” Abdul Latif Al-Haq said of his brother.
Before he left, Wildan attended the al-Islam Boarding School in Tenggulun, founded by the late Ali Ghufron and Amrozi.
Wildan was smart, his mother, Fadhillah, 65, told BenarNews in an interview at her home in Payman, a village in Solokuro sub-district of Lamongan. He was always in the top of his class.
When he was at the senior-high school level, he left the al-Islam Boarding School to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where his half-sister was studying at the time.
But one day in mid-2012, he left his sister without telling her where he was going, his mother recounted. The youth made his way to Syria where he communicated with his family via Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram, said his brother, Abdul Latif.
“When we heard the news about Wildan’s death, ISIS had not been known as it is now. Nobody knew about it. After he died, then the name of ISIS emerged in the media,” Abdul Latif told BenarNews.
The family believed that the young man was fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. Assad has been accused of war crimes in the conflict, which involves many factions of fighters including jihadist groups al-Nusra Front and IS.
“Why was my son called a terrorist? As a parent, I cannot accept this,” Fadhillah said.
“You cannot say that. It is a fact that he joined ISIS. We have to admit it,” Abdul Latif told his mother.
The family has not received any official word of Wildan’s death.
“Only my heart says that the news is true. But if you get information that he is alive, please let me know,” Fadhillah said.
Fadhillah, a resident of Lamongan regency in East Java, shows a video of her son, Wildan Mukhollad, an IS fighter killed in the Middle East, Feb. 26, 2017. [BenarNews/Anton Muhajir]
Seven members of another family – a husband, wife, and five children – departed Lamongan for the Middle East at different times since 2015. The family has broken apart since then, relatives said.
The husband, Muammal, and one of his sons were captured by fighters with the al-Nusra Front, according to relatives in Indonesia.
Another son, Wasius Shodri, reportedly was killed in battle; the oldest son was injured in action. A fourth son was deported by Turkish authorities when he was caught trying to cross into Syria. He is back in Lamongan.
The family sold a home to finance the trip, according to the niece of Muammal’s wife, Tholiatun.
Tholiatun visited her suddenly one day and “asked me to sign a handwritten letter saying I allowed her to sell the family house,” said Maghfiroh, the 27-year-old niece.
The house sold for 80 million rupiah (U.S. $5,970).
Maghfiroh has communicated with her aunt in Syria, and learned about the death of one of her cousins, through Telegram.
“When I knew she was in Syria, I was very sad because she was the only aunt I have. I consider Mak Tun like my own mother, as she took care of me since I was a child,” Maghfiroh told BenarNews, using a nickname for her aunt.
Rizal Amin is another son of Lamongan who died fighting for IS. Twenty years ago, he was infamous as the leader of one of three gangs in Brondong sub-district, with a reputation for drinking and brawling.
But after his father’s furniture business went bankrupt, he changed. He became religious, and began diligently attending an exclusive Quran study group. Three years ago, he left.
“I heard he joined IS,” said a neighbor, Heriyanto.
“He was one of our residents who died in Syria because of joining ISIS,” a village administrator who declined to be identified told BenarNews.
A 27-year-old man who lives in the same village has a similar story to Rizal. A construction worker who has worked in Malaysia, he recently stopped drinking and hanging out with his friends. He talks a lot about jihad, and dreams of hijrah to Syria.
“I am waiting for the readiness of my heart, and funding,” he said.