Special | By Wong Chun Wai

Of Facebook, selfies, jihad and PAS

Ready for action: Lotfi (left) with another militant jihadist in Syria.

Ready for action: Lotfi (left) with another militant jihadist in Syria.

For years, radical Malaysians have been fighting alongside jihadist militants overseas but they kept a low profile at home to avoid detection by the authorities. Nowadays, some are using social media to flaunt their ‘heroics’.

UNTIL Ustaz Lotfi Ariffin got thrust into the limelight by heading to Syria to wage a war against the Shias in the Syrian civil war, his only claim to fame was being a regular face in the political-religious ceramah circuit in the northern states, especially his home state of Kedah.

But the sacked Kedah PAS Youth information chief has always been a firebrand, who preached to his listeners of mostly farmers and traders that it is a heroic and religious duty to die as a martyr (syahid) in a holy war against enemies of Islam.

So influential was he that the Pakistani-trained religious scholar was elected into the Islamist party’s powerful PAS ulama council at federal level.

In fact, in the official Kedah PAS Youth blog site, the party announced a book written by Lotfi, entitled Siasah Syar’iyyah, detailing his detention under the Internal Security Act, and a short biodata boasting his involvement in militant activities with al-Qaeda leader Samir Saleh Abdullah al-Suwailim in the Tajikistan civil war in the 1980s.

The Saudi-born Samir, also known as Emir Khattab, died in 2002. He fought in Chechnya against the Russians and was credited with forming the Islamic International Brigade with many foreign fighters.

Zainon (on the right and inset) manning heavy artillery in Afghanistan.

Zainon (on the right and inset) manning heavy artillery in Afghanistan.

Lotfi was one of the followers of the gun-toting bearded and turbaned commander, who had turned into a legend among terrorist groups.

But Lotfi’s radical actions had been closely monitored by our police and in 2001, he was arrested on his return to Malaysia and detained in Kamunting, Perak, until 2006.

The blog also proudly declared that Lotfi had fought alongside the mujahideens in Afghanistan against the Russians. The mujahideens eventually turned into the al-Qaeda movement.

But the PAS leadership has now distanced itself from Lotfi, saying he has been sacked since May 11 following the party’s investigation into his militant activities while Lotfi claimed in his Facebook that he had actually quit in April.

Still, from his postings on YouTube and Facebook, he must have left a strong impression on the young. From what can be discerned in the video clips featuring the Malaysian militants, the Bahasa Malaysia spoken had a northern accent, indicating they are likely to be Kedahans, and likely to be influenced by Lotfi.

But Lotfi isn’t the first PAS leader to have gone into jihad. In the late 1980s, before the age of the social media, they were already fighting for the cause, but most of the Malaysian militants preferred to be shadowy and low profile, to stay away from police attention.

Back in May 2010, I had written a comment about their exploits, “Path of martyrs taking wrong turn”.

One jihadist, Zainon Ismail, wrote about his exploits in a book entitled Jihad Anak Melayu di Afghanistan – Merintis Jalan Syuhada (Young Malays in Afghanistan – Following the Syahid Route).

The then PAS branch committee member used a pseudonym, C.N. Al Af Ghani, and while giving sketchy details of himself, used pictures of himself dressed up as a mujahideen, in his book.

The 112-page book also carried pictures of other heavily-armed Malaysians who had decided to fight the Russians, who occupied Afghanistan then.

But everyone in PAS and the Special Branch knew the author was Zainon, a farmer who was active in the party’s grassroots operations.

He had made his way to Peshawar, Pakistan, before heading towards Afghanistan to join a group which called itself Harakat Ul Jehad al Islami, headed by commander Khalid Zubir.

The author wrote about his experience in using the famed Russian made AK-47 automatic rifle, favoured by terrorists, in his jihad pursuit. In the group was another Malaysian, one Fauzi Ismail.

Upon his return to Malaysia, Zainon was eventually arrested under the ISA together with seven others for alleged involvement in Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM), a local militant religious group with international links.

The eight, aged between 32 and 45, were picked up in Terengganu, Perak, Kedah and Johor in August, 2001.

Zainon, like Lotfi, was also sacked by the party but in Zainon’s case, it was due to his big fight with the PAS leadership over the use of funds collected for party members and their widows in the Memali incident.

In the 1985 incident, 18 people including four policemen were killed in Memali, Baling, during the clash between the police and followers of Ibrahim Libya, a PAS member who believed jihad was the only way to topple the Government.

In the case of the KMM members, they were detained under the ISA for alleged links to the murder of Lunas assemblyman Dr Joe Fernandez in 2000. They were also believed to be responsible for bombing a church and a Hindu temple, and also the attack on the Guar Chempedak police station on Feb 4, 2001.

Then Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Norian Mai said the seven were Sungai Benut PAS branch chief Noorashid Sakid, Larut PAS youth committee member Ahmad Tajuddin Abu Bakar, Solihan Abdul Ghafar, Alias Ngah, Abu Bakar Che Dol, Asfawani Abdullah and Ahmad Pozi Darman.

Subsequently arrested and detained were Nik Adli Abdul Aziz, son of then Kelantan Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, and Lotfi.

Nik Aziz admitted that his then 34-year-old son went to Afghanistan to support the Muslims there in the struggle against the Russian invasion.

Members of the KMM were said to have received military training and fought in “holy wars” in Afghanistan and also in Ambon, Indonesia.

But one of the most dangerous detainees was former army captain Yazid Sufaat, a US-trained biochemist, who was detained under the ISA for seven years.

He had fought against the Christians in Ambon, Indonesia, before going to Afghanistan, where he put to use his chemistry training.

Yazid, who has been accused of being a Jemaah Islamiah leader, has openly boasted of his meetings with Osama bin Laden in Afganistan.

If there is one thing that is consistent in the PAS agenda, it is its ambition to push for the implementation of hudud laws and to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.

But more than that, there are also members who are cheering for the militants in Syria and it comes as no surprise that many PAS members have ended up with radical groups in hot spots like Pakistan, Afghanistan and now Syria.

But now, they have become more daring by openly uploading selfies, blogging about their experiences on Facebook with videos on YouTube.

There is another difference – their targets are no longer Russians and Americans but Syiahs, Muslims from another school of Islam.