SINGAPORE – They were in the same secret society when they were in their early 20s and spent time together every day. But Yan (not his real name) lost contact with Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad when Shahdan, then 24, was sentenced to six years’ jail for burglary in 2002.
In 2015, Yan was surprised to receive a message on social media from Shahdan. It was the start of a two-year reconnection that saw Shahdan try to radicalise his old friend and persuade Yan to stage lone wolf terror attacks here such as driving a truck into a crowd and attacking a police station.
By then, Yan had come into contact with officers from the Internal Security Department (ISD), who guided him on how to engage Shahdan in a bid to get information on the radicalised Singaporean and steer him away from causing harm in Singapore.
Yan learnt that Shahdan, who began sending him messages on religion, had moved to the Middle East for work in 2014.
After they reconnected, they stayed in touch almost every day, often into the wee hours.
Soon, Shahdan – who came under the radar of security agencies after appearing in an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) propaganda video in 2017 – let on that he was in Syria. “I thought he was working at a mosque or an Islamic organisation,” Yan told The Straits Times in a recent phone interview, recalling the conversations they had after they reconnected.
“Then he sent me a photo. He was holding an AK-47, and wearing military attire. I was in shock. I never thought he would go to that extent,” he said. “We were hardcore gangsters. But this was way beyond the limits of being a gang member.”
Shahdan kept using the phrase “fisabilillah” – in the way of God – and soon spoke of how countries like Singapore were the “land of infidels”. If Yan wanted to be a good believer, Shahdan told him he should embark on a hijrah, or migration, to Syria. “At one point, my mind was so afraid and confused,” Yan said. “He kept sending me quote after quote about religion, ISIS. I started thinking: Why not go over?
“Luckily, I did not make a move.”
Yan did not want to leave his young family and cash was a concern. But Shahdan, then in his late 30s, kept trying, and asked him to travel to Turkey, saying someone there would smuggle him into the conflict zone in Syria.
Shahdan spoke of his family – he was married to two women, and had a young child with each.
“He said this is his life, this is his future, this is the generation of the caliphate,” Yan recalled. “He wished his children would be like him.”
Each time Shahdan broached the topic of his friend joining him in Syria, Yan protested that he had a family to take care of.
By then, the ISD had been alerted to the Singaporean ISIS fighter.
One day, several officers from the ISD investigating Shahdan’s case approached Yan at home.
Upon discovering that he had recently been in constant contact with his old friend, they advised him not to stop communicating – so that they could keep Shahdan on their radar.
When Shahdan accepted that Yan would not be able to join him in Syria, he changed tack.
He floated the idea of his friend taking the bai’ah – oath of loyalty – to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Under Shahdan’s remote guidance, Yan wore a keffiyeh (traditional Arab headgear) over his head and took a video of himself with his index finger raised, and sent the video to his old friend over social media.
He was guided by ISD officers to ensure a line of communication remained open, so that Shahdan would not approach others.
Now that there was a sign of Yan’s commitment to the cause, Shahdan egged him on: Why not conduct an attack in Singapore?
He told Yan to rent a lorry and head to where there were a lot of people, like at a religious festival, and drive into the crowd.
This was after an ISIS supporter drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. The attack on a national holiday in July 2016 killed 86 people and injured over 400 others.
Another time, he suggested Yan target a police station and kill policemen on duty there.
Yan kept buying time each time.
An ISD spokesman said investigations into Shahdan and his contacts showed the Singaporean fighter had attempted to radicalise his family and friends here to support ISIS. However, he was unsuccessful.
“Shahdan’s communications with Yan provided us with information on Shahdan’s attempts at radicalising and instigating his Singapore-based contacts to stage terror attacks in Singapore,” the spokesman said.
“ISD would then actively pursue these lines of inquiries to ensure that Shahdan’s contacts have not been influenced.”
As ISIS was being beaten back in late 2016 and 2017, each time Shahdan called, Yan could hear noises in the background that revealed the intensity of the conflict. Explosions and gunfire were more frequent and, sometimes, Shahdan would hurriedly hang up.
Around the middle of 2017, Shahdan went offline.
A month earlier, he had appeared in the first of his two propaganda videos, which were circulated online.
In the video, he called on fighters to join ISIS. He could also be seen executing three prisoners with two other South-east Asian ISIS fighters. “I did not hear from him any more,” Yan recalled.
“He would tell me: ‘My time is limited.’ I tried getting in touch, but there was no response. Then his accounts went offline. Most likely, he died in the conflict zone.”
ISD said it had reliable information that Shahdan was killed while in the conflict zone.
Yan acknowledged that he might have been radicalised by Shahdan.
“I’m very grateful I did not go down that path. What he wanted to do will bring harm. It does not represent Islam at all,” he said.
“I want to do my part to keep Singapore safe and protect my family, to keep future generations safe from terror.”
Singaporeans who joined ISIS
Megat Shahdan Abdul Samad is one of four radicalised Singaporeans known to have travelled to territories controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror group.
He left for Syria from a location in the Gulf, where he was working and became radicalised.
The Internal Security Department said it had reliable information that Shahdan was killed while in the conflict zone.
One of the other three – Fauziah Begum Khamal Bacha – is believed to be dead as well. Fauziah, who was living in Melbourne and married to Australian Yasin Rizvic, was reportedly killed in Syria with her husband, who died in 2016, and their eldest boy. Their three surviving children were evacuated by the Australian authorities.
The other two Singaporeans, Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali and Maimunah Abdul Kadir, both travelled to Syria/Iraq with their families and are believed to have participated in the armed conflict there.
There is no indication that they intend to return to Singapore.
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