Pro-ISIS Airline Pilots Tracked by Law Enforcement in Southeast Asia
Prior to September 2014, the Facebook profile for Ridwan Agustin appeared to be that of any proud pilot and aviation enthusiast: He posted pictures of himself in front his plane, by the engine, on the tarmac, with his crew, inside the cockpit and in various stages of flight. Sometimes he is accompanied in the photos by his wife, a flight attendant, and their children.
Along the way, between jaunts around East Asia, he documented his training and career, which included a trip to the Airbus office in Toulouse, France, with his AirAsia team in 2009; graduation from AirAsia Academy in January 2010; and then his life as pilot for AirAsia, where he flew international flights to Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as domestic routes.
Then in September 2014, something changed. Interspersed with photos of pristine white sand beaches, motorcycle rides and goofy tarmac photos with his colleagues came postings in support of the Islamic State. He began friending and interacting online with other pro-ISIS profiles — including Indonesian foreign fighters documenting their battles in Syria or Iraq. Agustin changed his profile name to Ridwan Ahmad Indonesiy and expressed interest in joining the fight in Kobani.
While Agustin was indicating an interest in joining ISIS in Syria, he was interacting with another Indonesian pilot for a different airline who also increasingly began posting in support of the Islamic State.
By mid-March 2015, Agustin posted his current location as Raqqa, Syria.
The apparent radicalization of these two Indonesian pilots and their potential threat to national security was the subject of a March 18, 2015 operational intelligence report compiled by the Australian Federal Police and distributed to their law enforcement partners in Turkey, Jordan, London and the U.S. It was also sent to Europol.
A copy of the document, “Identification of Indonesian pilots with possible extremist persuasions,” was obtained by The Intercept.
“Pilots, air crew and others with access to and within the aviation environment can pose obvious threats if these persons are radicalized. Their access and knowledge of security and safety regimes provides the ability to attempt attacks as witnessed by past global events,” warns the report, which also notes that a recent issue of Inspire, the magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, encouraged attacks by those involved in aviation.
“It makes a lot of sense that the Australians would be extremely nervous,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
Jones, whose organization has tracked the recruitment of Indonesian foreign fighters by ISIS, says there appears to have been a sharp increase in the number of Indonesians fighting with ISIS in the last few months. Between March 1 and June 1, 2015, 44 Indonesians have been killed in Syria and Iraq, according to estimates compiled by Jones’ institute and shared with The Intercept.
Among those recently killed is an associate of Heri Kustyanto — a well-known militant Agustin was interacting with on Facebook, according to photos of since-deleted posts included in the AFP report. Kustyanto, also known as Abu Azzam Qaswarah Al Indonesy, is one of just three Indonesians trained as elite ISIS forces, according to Jones.
One of Kustyanto’s elite forces associates was Maskur, the Indonesian who appears as an executioner in the video of the beheading of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig. He was killed in May, according to IPAC’s tally.
There are about five different centers or nodes where recruitment is taking place in Indonesia, Jones says, including one that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed over 100 people.
Historically, Indonesians could not go to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS unless they knew someone who was already there, according to Jones. Recruitment was done through several groups that largely centered on two major radical clerics and their followers.
“Up to now, most of the data we have is from people we have affiliated with radical associations,” she said.
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