‘I just wanted to go there and fight alongside ISIS’: Former radicalised S’pore youths tell their stories
The year was 2015 and, like many teenagers, Hamzah (not his real name) would spend hours every day playing video games, including first-person shooters, in his room.
The difference was that the 18-year-old considered this part of his prep work – alongside watching videos of beheading and hostages burned alive – to desensitise himself ahead of joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In the popular video game Grand Theft Auto V, Hamzah created a “clan” where players could join him in dressing up their avatars in black fatigues and bulletproof vests, just like ISIS fighters, before terrorising other players.
“We would go around shooting other people and then shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest), shooting all around, just killing for fun,” he said.
“What I did was trying to get mentally prepared, because I had made up my mind to join ISIS and fight alongside them.”
By then, Hamzah had imbibed the teachings of extremist preachers such as American Al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar Al-Awlaki and Indian extremist Zakir Naik over the Internet for four years.
He had become fascinated by the idea of armed jihad to right the injustices he believed Muslims were suffering from in places like Syria.
“(The preachers) said it’s the duty of Muslims to help the other brothers and sisters...
“Through fighting alongside (ISIS), God will forgive our sins, and then even if you are killed, you will die as a martyr and you don’t have to go through any kind of punishment in the hereafter,” he said.
His activities caught the attention of the authorities, and he was detained in 2015 under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
The story of how a young person in Singapore could become radicalised right under the nose of his immediate family is worrying, as there have been nine people below the age of 21 dealt with under the ISA since 2015.
Most recently, the Internal Security Department (ISD) in February said it had dealt with three youths, among them a 15-year-old student who wanted to carry out knife attacks at tourist spots in Singapore.
He is the youngest detainee to date.
The Sunday Times dived into the radicalisation journeys of four youths, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and their road to rehabilitation.
Descent into fanaticism
For Daniel, the path down the rabbit hole started in 2017 when an online friend introduced the then 15-year-old to pro-ISIS social media groups.
Gaining access to these private chat groups made him feel like part of an exclusive circle, and he was wowed by the slick quality of the videos being circulated within.
“They were like Hollywood movies – I imagined fighting alongside ISIS,” he said.
“The videos boosted my ego. I felt a sense of brotherhood.”
Before long, he was listening to teachings by firebrand preachers such as Indonesian cleric Abdul Somad, who talked up the virtues of suicide bombing through the concept of “Istisyadiyah” (self-sacrifice).
It was a similar path for Aakeel, who, as a 16-year-old in 2014, began watching videos on ISIS and the Hamas militant group on YouTube, before getting sucked in by even more radical propaganda videos.
Though these youths were spending more time each day consuming such content – even openly standing up for the actions of the terror group – their parents did not deem their interest serious enough to report to the authorities.
In interviews with ST, the youths recalled simply being told by their parents and relatives to stay away from such videos, and that it was wrong to follow ISIS.
Hamzah recounted that he would speak up for ISIS to his relatives when the topic came up.
But they did not believe he supported the terrorist group or that he was preparing to travel to Syria to fight.
He had looked up the prices of flights, and was going to use a school bursary to pay for the ticket.
“Even on my television, the wallpaper was the ISIS flag.
“So when they came over, they did realise, but I don’t think they took it seriously that I supported ISIS,” he said.
“I said I wanted to join ISIS to fight, but maybe they took it as a joke.”
For Aakeel, an incident at school when he was bullied made him turn further to ISIS materials for comfort, and he began to cut out newspaper articles and images of militant fighters and stick them to his wardrobe.
“When my mother found out, (she) warned me about supporting terrorist groups,” he said. “I ignored her advice.”
Another youth, Saad, also shrugged off the warnings of his father who found out that his son was enthralled by the teachings of former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The terror chief was killed in a US commando raid in Syria in 2019.
In the dragnet
The most brazen of them was Daniel, who in 2017 posted defaced images of President Halimah Yacob on social media and called on ISIS to behead her for being an apostate as the head of “infidel” Singapore.
“I wanted to show my support for ISIS and to show off that I was an ISIS supporter. I wanted to prove my loyalty to the group,” he said.
“I was prepared to design posters and images for ISIS to spread their propaganda.”
As he was very young and assessed by the authorities not to pose an immediate threat, he was not dealt with under the ISA, but instead given counselling to steer him away from the radical path.
For a while, Daniel’s mother, Rosnah, thought he had been rehabilitated, as he became quieter and more obedient.
But to him, the investigation was a test of his faith and loyalty to ISIS, and he doubled down on his support for the terror group.
“I believed he needed space, and I did not want to be seen as intrusive or being an ‘overprotective mother’,” said Rosnah in an e-mail interview with ST.
“(After he was radicalised), I did not notice any sudden changes in his character or suspect anything amiss.”
Hamzah’s mother, Aishah, said she was stunned when she found out her son had plans to go to Syria and join ISIS, as there had been no outward change in his behaviour or any indication that he wanted to carry out armed struggle abroad.
She said she tried to discourage him from following through, but did not report his radicalisation nor seek outside help.
However harmless the families felt the situation was, they could no longer deny the problem when officers from ISD intervened.
Hamzah and Daniel were detained when they were 18 and 17 respectively, while Aakeel and Saad were handed restriction orders at the ages of 19 and 16 respectively.
The orders required them to abide by conditions such as limited access to social media and not travelling abroad without approval.
None of them thought they would be caught.
While the four youths bore the brunt of the consequences, their families were also hit hard.
Rosnah remembered breaking down as Daniel was led away.
“That fateful day, I cried, fell sick and my whole body was weak... Even worse was seeing my husband cry, and he even knocked his head against the wall,” she said.
“I could understand my husband’s disappointment with Daniel.”
Meanwhile, Aishah feared for Hamzah’s safety, as she had heard from relatives that detainees would be mistreated, or even tortured.
The housewife, who is in her 50s, was allowed to visit her son after his first month in detention.
“After my first visit, I was relieved that my fears of Hamzah being mistreated were unfounded,” she said.
“I firmly believed Hamzah was in safe hands, and would benefit from the rehabilitation programme.”
The long road back
As with other detainees, Hamzah had regular meetings with religious counsellors, who cleared his doubts about Islam and explained that the Quran has to be read in context.
They also explained to him that jihad does not necessarily mean fighting, but a spiritual struggle to be a better Muslim by doing good and avoiding evil.
“They explained that in Singapore, Muslims can freely practise their religion without any interference,” Hamzah said, adding that the context in Singapore is different from other countries without religious freedom.
While case officers worked with him, other officers were assigned to his family to update them on his rehabilitation.
A private tutor was also provided to prepare him for his O levels.
After his first month in detention, Hamzah’s family was allowed to visit him in person each week.
“It’s good to know that when you’re released, someone will be there to care for you,” said Hamzah.
For Daniel, the realisation that he had squandered his earlier warning made his detention a painful one.
It was also challenging being in a cell by himself.
“When I was alone in my cell, I would reflect and think about the lessons I learnt (in detention),” he said.
“It was a painful process, but I was determined to go through it to change.”
A bright spot was that he was allowed to watch some television programmes, including documentaries, religious talks by local asatizah (religious teachers), and movies in English and Malay and on national education.
His case officers also took care of him when he was sick and ensured that he got treatment from a doctor.
With the help of his school and three Religious Rehabilitation Group volunteers who were also trained teachers, Daniel sat his N-level exams and eventually scored four distinctions.
He is now pursuing post-secondary education.
ISD also allowed Aakeel to use the Internet for his school work despite being under the restriction order, on the condition that he be closely supervised.
Looking back, Daniel said his detention equipped him with skills to better evaluate information, as well as to manage his emotions in times of stress. It has also brought him closer to his family.
“They visited me regularly and kept me motivated to remain focused on my rehabilitation. I see them as my heroes,” he added.
Prior to his release, ISD arranged for Hamzah to break the news to his family.
“We were overjoyed with the news and broke down in tears... The family took turns to hug him and expressed our gratitude towards the ISD officers,” said Aishah.
Both Hamzah and Daniel spent two years in detention before they were released and placed on restriction orders. Daniel continues to serve out his restriction order.
Learning from past mistakes
While the four of them are doing well to reintegrate into society, they continue to hold their past close to their chest, in fear of being stigmatised for having been radicalised before.
While Saad was not detained like Hamzah and Daniel were, he said the electronic tag he had to wear to school caused him to be ridiculed. His classmates laughed at him when he told them why he had to wear a monitoring tag.
“It took me a week, or even a month, to process what I had to go through – every day, I cried,” he said.
“Most of my classmates were judgmental... but to me, it was motivation to move forward in my studies and do better than them.”
Saad is now a logistics and administrative executive, while Aakeel, whose restriction order also lapsed in 2020, is a technician.
Hamzah, who is now a marketing executive, said he does not share his past with most people.
“There’s definitely a stigma, but what happened in the past is in the past. The only way is to keep moving forward,” he said.
“Only people who are close to me know what I’ve been through. But other than that, I just live a normal life.”
All four urged young people to seek clarification from reliable sources, such as local religious leaders, if they have doubts about their faith.
How parents choose to respond matters too, said both Rosnah and Aishah, who both have other children.
Daniel’s experience has taught her to be more attentive in managing her children, said Rosnah.
“I should have more open communication with my children and listen more to what they say, or their intentions,” she added.
If she could turn back time, Aishah said she would have told Hamzah to seek help from a religious counsellor when he revealed his plans to travel to Syria.
“I should not have just dismissed it and assumed that he would take my advice.”