Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism – four former radicalised Singapore youths share 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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