I was almost recruited into a terrorism group
Six men were arrested in Batam on Aug 5 in connection with the terror plot against Singapore.
One of them was released later. He says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mr Tegar Sucianto's friend Hadi Gusti Yanda, 20, was one of the five Indonesians picked up by anti-terror police and later taken to Jakarta.
The pair were on the way to work when both were surrounded, pinned to the ground, had hoods placed over the heads and were bundled into a van.
Hours later, Mr Tegar, 19, learnt that his friend was a member of a terror cell group that had sworn allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
He tells The New Paper on Sunday that he was shocked, but also horrified that his friend had been actively trying to recruit him. And he had little clue.
Until the arrest, he thought he knew everything about the friend he had first met in secondary school seven years ago.
They grew up playing video games and football and both lived in the Batu Aji neighbourhood on Batam.
They even worked at the same Asus factory after they graduated last year.
Mr Tegar says: "Hadi seemed like a normal teenager, we were good friends.
"When we were growing up, I never noticed anything strange about him."
But Hadi changed last year and Mr Tegar says his friend would talk often about suicide bombers, Syria and ISIS.
He thought Hadi was just more religious than him.
"Hadi would always remind me to pray when I was lazy. It made sense that he knew all the news he talked about, I thought he was just keeping me up-to-date," he says.
But then Hadi invited him to meet a religious group to learn more about Islam.
Mr Tegar resisted at first.
"Why should I go? I wasn't really interested in all this religious knowledge.
"But Hadi would keep on asking," he says.
Mr Tegar finally relented late last year. He agreed to travel with Hadi to the Nurul Islam mosque in the Muka Kuning district, about a 30-minute drive from their village.
Mr Tegar believes the hour-long meeting was the first time members of the terror cell Katibah Gonggong Rebus met.
There were six people at the meeting, but Mr Tegar says nobody knew each other.
"They had only communicated via chat groups in WhatsApp and other apps. It seemed like they were all meeting for the first time," he says.
As the group introduced themselves and dwelled on religious issues, Mr Tegar became uncomfortable.
"I had no interest in what they were talking about and told Hadi I wanted to go home," he recalls.
Before they left, they were all instructed to download the Telegram messenger app, says Mr Tegar.
He did as he was told and was added into a chat group.
Mr Tegar says he received hundreds of messages daily over the next few days.
He tried to ignore the conversation by muting the chat.
"I didn't read it, there were so many messages. From what I saw, it was just a lot of things about Islam, like tips about how to pray and how to be a better Muslim."
He claims he did not participate in the conversation and was kicked out of the group a week after he joined.
"I was surprised, but I was fine being kicked out without warning," he says.
He deleted the Telegram app from his phone and the two friends never talked about the group again.
On Aug 5, Mr Tegar was giving Hadi a ride to work on his motorcycle when they were boxed in by several police vehicles.
The officers approached Hadi first, handcuffing him and blindfolding him before doing the same to Mr Tegar.
Mr Tegar says: "It was all happening so fast, I had no idea what was going on and I was panicking."
The two were taken to the Brimob special police headquarters for questioning. Later, Hadi was taken away while Mr Tegar was made to wait in a police car.
"The officers were nicer to me than to Hadi. They spoke to me in a friendly way and even apologised for arresting me," he says.
Mr Tegar was released that evening after questioning and was home at 8pm. He was embraced by his worried mother, 42-year-old shop owner Desi Fitrianti.
She says: "I hugged him so tight because I was scared.
"All of a sudden in the afternoon that day, there were all these reporters knocking on my door, asking me if I knew that my son was a terrorist."
He says of the experience: "Nobody's really scared of me because they know that I'm innocent. Some people stare and ask me, but I'm honest with them, there's no reason to be scared if I'm telling the truth."
But he says of the man he thought was his friend: "I guess you never know people really. I never thought he would be someone like that."
Indonesian authorities arrested a total of five suspects in an anti-terror swoop after preliminary investigations showed they were part of a little-known cell called Katibah GR or Cell GR.
Hadi, along with the remaining four suspects, Gigih Rahmat Dewa, Trio Syafrido, Eka Saputra and Tarmidzi, were later taken from Batam to Jakarta for investigations.
How are potential terrorists recruited?
The use of messenger apps like Telegram and Whatsapp to recruit would-be terrorists is not new, say experts.
Professor Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research says groups have been using social media and the Internet to grow their numbers for more than 12 years.
He tells TNPS: "Since late 2004, terrorist groups have relied on exploiting social media.
"However, with the advent of ISIS, especially when it comes to the recruiting of youths, the group has developed a mastery of social media and the Internet."
ISIS takes in young, computer-savvy recruits, which Prof Gunaratna says is testament to their prowess in "harnessing the web effectively".
Their latest tool of choice? The messenger app Telegram.
"Of all tools, Telegram is the most favoured by IS in transmitting instructions. It's difficult for governments to check Telegram, and thus cannot be monitored," says Prof Gunaratna (below).
BH FILE PHOTO
Telegram's secret chats, channels and bots boost its popularity, says Mr Remy Mahzam, an associate research fellow, also from the Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.
Secret chats, a feature that Whatsapp has also made available since April 5, allow end-to-end encryption of messages.
Channels are a broadcasting tool that enable a person to reach large audiences with an unlimited number of members.
Bots are third-party interfaces within Telegram that allow auto-generated messaging that send up to date information and alerts.
All these features work in tandem to make Telegram "a natural choice for extremist communication", says Mr Mahzam.
He adds: "A Telegram network can easily be constructed with the convenience of inviting contacts taken from mobile phones, 'friends of friends' and like-minded individuals sharing a common interest.
"A Telegram channel is also searchable and hence its level of visibility is similar to Facebook groups or pages, but at the same time, it is 'hidden' from the eyes of those who do not have the channel's name or web hyperlink. This makes surveillance and tracking challenging."
Mr Mahzam says: "With regards to the nature of content shared on extremist channels, it is common to find spiritual or religious anecdotes being intermixed with messages calling to take up arms."
Mr Remy Mahzam. BH FILE PHOTO
Prof Rohan Gunaratna says initial conversations about Islamic practices serve to not just entice potential recruits, but also to weed out the less likely candidates.
He adds: "They do so to identify who is most susceptible to their propaganda and most eager to carry out attacks."
The ones who do not make the cut or appear uninterested, as happened with Mr Tegar, are cut off from the communication and kicked out.
"Those whom they suspect are not convinced, they will get taken out of the group," says Mr Tegar.
"They wouldn't feel comfortable with members who do not share their ideology."
He did not know son was terrorist
TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
The terror cell did more than just try to build a rocket.
Reports say the Katibah GR was a coordinated group, with its own command structure, and it also conducted training sessions.
Led by 31-year-old Gigih Rahmat Dewa, the five-man group had a field coordinator in Trio Syafrido, 46, and weapon assemblers in Eka Saputra, 35, and Tarmidzi, 21.
Hadi Gusti Yanda, the youngest of the group at 20, was its treasurer.
With the exception of Syafrido, a bank officer, the Indonesian authorities say the men were factory workers.
The group had trained openly with replica guns in a public field near the Nongsa district, located in the north of Batam.
Batam District Police Chief Helmi Santika says they used the field for shooting practice, complete with mock guns to simulate real-life battles.
Mr Helmi says: "Unlike other terror groups, which train in the forests, they exercised and practised handling airsoft guns (a type of replica gun) in a field near a housing estate."
These guns, including one fashioned to resemble an AK-47, were seized by police and taken to Jakarta for investigations.
The police also seized bomb-making materials, a laptop and other weapons from the homes of the suspects, including a bow and arrow set.
The five men from the KGR are also accused of sheltering two suspected Uighur militants.
Police are now tracking down other members of Gigih's cell on the island as well as in other parts of Indonesia.
The New Paper on Sunday met Hadi's father on Aug 10 at his village.
Shocked at what his son has been accused of, he says: "I have no words left. I'm shocked, I'm sad and I do not know what is going on with my son.
"When did he start doing this, and why, I do not know."
He said his wife is sick from worry and cannot face the world as she is ashamed of his son's actions.
Hadi's father says he never suspected his son would be involved in terror-related activities.
"It is such a surprise to me. I only found out when all the reporters turned up outside my house last week.
"Why would he do this? I don't know," he says.
"Nobody wanted to come here... everyone is scared. They advised me not to go too, but I have a home here and I need to check on it."
- Azman Selamat, 45, a Singaporean who owns an apartment in Batam
"We're not like Jakarta or Bali, where there were attacks and people used to feel safe. But it's like a ghost town here now. There are no more Singaporeans, they're all scared to come."
- Mr Dimas, a driver of 10 years, who says his business has been hit