What might come as a surprise to those who meet Harris* is that the 30something is a former recruiter for a notorious international terror group, the so-called Islamic State (IS) or Daesh.
“I have always been like that (calm), except when it came to the topic of jihad. Then I would become a hard person because I was blinded by anger,” he tells Sunday Star in Kuala Lumpur recently.
Having spent a decade or so working in the hospitality field, Harris is comfortable speaking in both Malay and English, moving between both languages with ease.
In 2016, he was detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) and Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) and consequently served two years in prison for terrorism-related offences.
But after intensive rehabilitation, Harris says that he is now reformed and is looking to turn his life around.
And one of the ways he is doing this is assisting the Prisons Department’s deradicalisation and disengagement programmes.
According to a 2017 research paper titled Guidelines for the Prevention of Extremism & Radical Ideology Among the Youth and Community by the Institute for Youth Research Malaysia, 85% of youths convicted of terror-related offences received their first exposure to militant ideology through social media.
Like the many others who fell for IS propaganda, Harris was initially lured via social media posts on the Middle East crisis. He was also curious about the terror group’s apocalyptic narrative – in their messaging, the radical group positions itself as the prophesied army that will rise at the End of Times.
“When I saw their writings, a lot of it was echoing what I felt. So it started with what I felt, not based on fact or true knowledge. That was the problem,” he says.
It started with social media
Harris was recruited through Facebook, and when the man who recruited Harris was eventually caught by the authorities, Harris initiated his own group.
After scouting like-minded social media accounts, Harris, who was based in Malaysia, would approach and interview individuals who showed interest in militancy to join his chat group. The new group eventually had about 50 members after vetting through 100 people.
“I recruited old members, I recruited new ones. All through social media,” he says.
According to Harris, there were also minor chat groups under his purview across the country – cell groups – consisting of about 10 to 15 people.
Most members were youths and they came from diverse backgrounds.
“There were lecturers, doctors, engineers, mechanics, fishermen, farmers,” he recalls.
Although the chat group he controlled only comprised Malaysians, Harris says that he was also in other groups that crossed borders – one was a regional South-East Asian chat group administered by someone from the Middle East.
“I am glad we got caught. I do not know what would have happened otherwise,” he says now.
The filtering process for group members was meticulous. Potential members were even asked to produce pictures of their identity cards to make sure the group was not infiltrated by security personnel.
“In this group we would share ideologies and other radical things,” Harris says.
For someone who has given the bai’ah, or pledge of allegiance, to former IS leader Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi, Harris is an anomaly in that he had his own sets of rules for his group, and even in his radical years claims he did not abide by IS instructions wholesale.
“I drafted some terms and conditions but they could only be controlled within the Telegram group. Because in reality, we do not know,” he says about the more radical splinter groups that sprouted, one of which fell under the influence of IS member Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi who was killed in Raqqa, Syria, in 2017.
“My rules were that we are not allowed to talk of weapons, bombs, or planning attacks. If they broke the rules I would kick them out,” he says.
When asked why he imposed these restrictions, Harris explains that while he subscribed to IS ideology, he did not agree with all its instructions, particularly the call by IS to carry out attacks in chat group members’ home countries outside of Syria and Iraq.
“To me, those who are at war and oppressed are there (in the Middle East),” Harris says.
“They (IS) released a fatwa (religious edict) for us to attack all American interests, strategic areas. But I really did not agree with that. Here, we only recruited, fundraised, and served as a transit point,” he elaborates.
“Because the conflict is not in Malaysia,” he says, explaining that many Malaysian jihadists in Syria also disagreed with attacking home countries.
A change of heart
Initially after his arrest, Harris was uncooperative and held very strongly to some of his ideas.
However, he says that learning more about religion helped him to understand how his actions were wrong and he began opening up to rehabilitators and prison guards.
“When I was caught I was jahil (ignorant). I only took information from social media and websites,” he says.
“When I was detained, it was the first time I completed reading the translation of the Quran. I had never read it before then. When I was arrested, I could not read the Quran very well. From that moment, I looked back on myself and reflected.
“I cried alone in detention when I realised how ignorant I had been.”
The discussions that Harris was able to engage in while in detention also helped to reshape his worldview.
“Even when I was supporting (IS), I still had doubts. One of the reservations I had was with (IS) questioning the caliphate of the Turkish Ottomans. Many of the lingering questions I had were answered during our classes at Bukit Aman.
“Now, after being released from prison I am in a better place because I have more knowledge of the world and of religion. Now I just have to improve on that,” he says.
“Alhamdulillah. Life now is better than before.”
To stop others from straying down the same path that he did, Harris believes proper education is necessary – beginning in primary school.
“Perhaps the Islamic studies subject in school has to be improved. Because currently it is too basic. To me, it is very difficult for those who study religion in depth to become involved in extremist groups because they are able to tell right from wrong,” he says.
Today, Harris’ past experience drives him to become involved in programmes countering violent extremism.
“Being someone who was once involved in wrongful activities like this, I know the trajectory, how far they can go and the damage that they can inflict,” he says.
“As a human being, how could I just keep quiet?”
Parents, too, must be more involved in their children’s activities, he adds.
Harris shares that his parents did not worry too much about him because they considered him to be a mature child.
“But there are things that we cannot expect. We need to have some caution, a check and balance,” he says.
He also urges parents to introduce basic guidelines for their children when using social media.
“At the very least we need to watch over our family,” he says.
*Not his real name.
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