He Aimed to Fight in Syria. ISIS Had a Broader Plan: Southeast Asia

The militants fighting in Marawi opposed the government long before they announced loyalty to the Islamic State, known as ISIS or ISIL. But in addition to the propaganda value of linking themselves to the militant group, recent evidence suggests that they have received financing and other assistance from the Islamic State command.


The Philippines Air Force attacking militant positions in Marawi in July.

Ted Aljibe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Among those helping to recruit foreign fighters have been Indonesians who went to Syria, joined the Islamic State and rose to leadership positions, said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a research organization in Jakarta. Another who has taken a leading role in recruitment for the group is a former law lecturer from Malaysia who is part of the inner circle of militant leaders in Marawi, the authorities say.

Once Mr. Windyarto arrived in the Philippines, he was told to recruit his jihadi friends to come to Mindanao for a “big party” in May.

“The Marawi operations received direct funding from ISIS central and reveal a chain of command that runs from Syria through the Philippines to Indonesia and beyond,” said a recent report by the institute.

The siege of Marawi began in May, when Philippine troops tried to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State leader in Southeast Asia, and stumbled upon hundreds of militants massing for an assault.

In Manila, Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, a spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said that most of the foreign fighters had come from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia. Fighters from Arab countries and Bangladesh are believed to be among them, he said, but their sightings are unconfirmed.

“There have been a number of foreign fighters who made their way here under the guise of humanitarian workers,” he said. “Some come through the back door. It’s a very porous border.”

Indonesian Islamists, in particular, have long had ties to Mindanao. In the 1990s, they received military training at a camp near Marawi. In the 2000s, Mindanao became a transit point for Indonesians returning from fighting in Afghanistan and a sanctuary for others wanted in a string of terrorist bombings in Indonesia.


Philippine soldiers with a captured Islamic State flag in Marawi in May.

Jes Aznar/Getty Images

“Marawi is not strange for Indonesian jihadis,” said Ansyaad Mbai, the former head of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency. “All Indonesian jihadis are familiar with this place.”

A leader of today’s Marawi militants, Omarkhayam Maute, is married to an Indonesian, Minhati Madrais, whose father is a conservative cleric. The couple met while studying in Egypt. For a time, Mr. Maute taught his radical views at his father-in-law’s Islamic school in the city of Bekasi, east of Jakarta.

Today, the most prominent foreigner among the militants in the Philippines is Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian and onetime Islamic law lecturer who fled to Mindanao in 2014.

A seized video of a strategy meeting before the battle shows him in the militants’ inner circle with Mr. Hapilon, Mr. Maute and Mr. Maute’s brother Abdullah, a fellow leader of the Maute Group. The former lecturer is known among the militants there as Dr. Mahmud.

“Dr. Mahmud appears to be senior to anyone operating in Indonesia, meaning whatever the intergroup frictions, all recognize a chain of command within the ISIS hierarchy that they are obliged to obey by virtue of their oath,” the report says.

Among those Mr. Mahmud helped bring to Marawi was Mr. Windyarto.

The young aircraft mechanic grew up in a mostly Muslim neighborhood in the central Java town of Purworejo Klampok, a tolerant community about 250 miles east of Jakarta. The family is doing well by local standards: His mother is an English teacher, his father a town official.

A few years ago, Mr. Windyarto was accepted into a university. But his parents said the cost was too high and sent him to the Indonesia Aviation School, a strict boarding school in the city of Tangerang, west of Jakarta.


Philippine security forces transporting militants in Marawi in June. An estimated 600 militants, including foreign fighters, captured the city in May. The government says only a few dozen remain.

Jes Aznar/Getty Images

He began studying aviation maintenance there in 2013. At first he was despondent. His head was shaved and he was not allowed to leave or talk to anyone by phone for three months. He graduated in September of last year, shortly before his 21st birthday, and moved in with his uncle while waiting to start a job as a trainee at Garuda Indonesia, the state airline.

Mr. Windyarto had always been devout. And during his stay in Bekasi he expressed conservative religious views to some family members, including the idea that women should not work outside the home.

But in interviews, more than a dozen relatives said they had not realized that he had embraced a radical ideology. He never spoke about the Islamic State or Syria, they said, speculating that he had been recruited online.

But Ms. Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia, said evidence indicated that he had been recruited by Islamists in person after he was allowed to leave campus.

By 2015, he had joined a little-known Islamist network called Al Hawariyun, or “The Helpers,” and took part in military training outside Jakarta, according to her institute’s report.

The network’s first leader, the cleric Ustadz Nanang Ainur Rafiq, went to Syria in 2015 and was killed last year fighting Kurdish forces. The next leader, Abu Nusaibah, was arrested in November with eight followers on charges that they were plotting to set off a riot at a huge election protest against the governor of Jakarta.

Soon after, Mr. Windyarto began making plans to go to Syria along with another member, Anggara Suprayogi, whose wife worked as a maid in Hong Kong and was part of a radical cell of domestic workers there, Ms. Jones said.


Marawi, once the Philippines’ largest Muslim-majority city, has been destroyed by the battle against Islamic State loyalists.

Jes Aznar/Getty Images

More than 500 Indonesians have joined the Islamic State in Syria, including families with children, Ms. Jones said. About 100 fighters have been killed in combat or by airstrikes; others have risen within the Islamic State’s ranks.

But when the two militants contacted Indonesian operatives with the Islamic State in Syria, they were urged to go to Mindanao instead and told to contact Mr. Mahmud, the report says. He agreed to help and directed a member of a rival Islamist group in Central Java to organize their travel.

In mid-December, even before starting his job with Garuda, Mr. Windyarto quietly got a passport.

Mr. Windyarto was briefly ill in mid-February, and his mother went to Bekasi to care for him. Even then, she said, he gave no hint of his plan to leave.

But after she left, he emptied his bank account, dropped out of the family WhatsApp messaging group and sold his motorbike and laptop, she said. Then, on Feb. 27, he made a quick visit to the house in Bekasi when only his aunt was home, retrieving a flash data drive before rushing off. He never spoke with a family member again.

On March 20, his parents, suspecting that he might have run off to join militants, filed a missing person’s report and asked the police to block him from leaving the country.

Even so, they said they were shocked on May 31, when the Indonesian police announced on national television that their son and six other Indonesians were wanted for involvement in Islamic State terrorism in Marawi.

The phone call that Ms. Windarti dreaded came on June 20. A man speaking English told her that her son had become a “shahid” — a martyr.

He texted her the picture of her son’s body lying on the ground.

Family members cling to the hope that he may somehow be alive, perhaps having faked his death to escape. But there have been few answers.

“If we use our normal logic, it doesn’t make sense,” said his uncle, Anto Kuswanto, in Bekasi. “We educated him to be a good guy. He had never even been in an airplane.”

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