Indonesian militant suspect Gigih Rahmat Dewa had specific orders – set up a travel agency in Tanjung Pinang on Bintan island as a cover to facilitate the safe passage of others to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Seed money of 27 million rupiah (S$2,800) to start the business was sent to Gigih from his handler Bahrun Naim, a senior Indonesian counter-terrorism official told The Sunday Times last week.
Bahrun is an ISIS operative in Syria known to have had a hand in several terror plots in Indonesia.
The ruse could generate revenue or launder money for their cause, Bahrun told Gigih in text messages sometime in 2015, said the official. But Gigih’s cover did not last long, according to details from an ongoing trial against him and five suspects from Indonesian sleeper cell Katibah Gonggong Rebus.
Within a few months after the travel agency was set up, Gigih and his men were nabbed by Indonesian counter-terrorism police Detachment 88 for planning an attack on Singapore. Gigih, Hadi Gusti Yanda, Tarmidzi, Eka Saputra and Trio Syafidro were rounded up on Aug 5 last year in Batam. The sixth member, Leonardo Hutajulu, was arrested last September.
Indonesia’s National Counter-terrorism Agency (BNPT) chief Suhardi Alius had said the foiled plot involved plans to fire a rocket at Marina Bay from a hilltop in Batam.
The order to mount the strike also purportedly came from Bahrun.
Security analysts such as Institute for International Peace Building executive director Taufik Andrie say using travel agencies as fronts is a throwback to how Al-Qaeda used to operate in Indonesia before the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, and the Bali bombing the following year.
But the trend of late, starting in 2010, also included the use of businesses selling airsoft guns to launder money from overseas to fund domestic terror activities, they said. Airsoft guns, which shoot off pellets, are often made to resemble assault rifles.
“All these are hard to detect because they are run as legitimate businesses,” added Mr Taufik. “In the past, Bahrun Naim also taught people how to buy and sell goods online using another person’s identity to avoid the authorities.”
Gigih, 31, and his five men have since been charged with harbouring militants and funding terror activities. All have pleaded not guilty.
A former information technology manager at a Batam factory, Gigih has yet to take the stand to defend himself at the trial.
The hearing, which started on Feb 1 at the East Jakarta District Court, continues this week .
Evidence presented by prosecutors, along with details from sources close to the investigation, indicate that Gigih’s travel agency was a front for other illicit activities traced to Bahrun.
They include helping to arrange for militants to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS, or to Poso, Central Sulawesi, to link up with the East Indonesia Mujahideen terrorists.
Last week, a police source told The Sunday Times that Gigih allegedly helped two Uighurs from a Muslim separatist group in Xinjiang, China, escape from Malaysia to Indonesia. One of them was nabbed last year in Bekasi in West Java with plans to mount a suicide bombing.
These activities were allegedly funded by Bahrun, whom the US had placed on a terrorist watch list two weeks ago.
According to the US Treasury Department, Bahrun has transferred nearly US$72,000 (S$100,600) “to an associate in Indonesia, purportedly to conduct attacks on his instructions”.
The US authorities did not identify the associate, but prosecutors in Jakarta said a bank account used by some Indonesian militants with ties to ISIS was found in Gigih’s name.
Money drawn from the same account also funded terror plots in Indonesia, added the prosecutors.
According to Indonesia’s anti- money laundering agency PPATK, fund transfers into the country allegedly linked to terrorism amounted to more than 10 billion rupiah in 2014 and 2015.
General Alius confirmed that terrorists have been using virtual payment gateways such as PayPal and bitcoin cryptocurrency to move money across borders. He spoke last Wednesday after the BNPT and PPATK signed a pact to trace and block fund transfers to terrorists.
“The use of Paypal and bitcoin is high-tech, therefore we need a breakthrough to detect and prevent the flow of funds (to terrorists),” he said.