ISIS recruiters are preying on vulnerable domestic workers in Hong Kong and Singapore
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For six days a week, the three women worked as domestic workers in homes across Singapore. But in their spare time, they promoted ISIS online, donated money to militants overseas, and became so radicalized that at least one was ready to die as a suicide bomber in Syria, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs.
The women (all Indonesian nationals) were arrested in September under Singapore’s Internal Security Act on suspicion of taking part in terror financing activities and face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 Singapore dollars ($362,000).
A spokeswoman for the Indonesian Embassy in Singapore confirmed the arrests and said it was providing consular assistance to the women, who do not have legal representation because they are still under investigation.
The women are yet to be formally charged. Terrorism experts say they are not the only domestic workers who are believed to have been radicalized online while working in big Asian cities like Singapore and Hong Kong.
As ISIS shifts its gaze towards Asia following the fall of its caliphate in the Middle East, these women are increasingly being targeted, albeit in a less organized way, experts warn.
“They are preyed upon and exploited by militant cells who essentially view them as cash cows,” said Nava Nuraniyah, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), an Indonesian think tank. “They have a stable income, speak English and usually have a broad international network, making them ideal (targets).”
Such women represent a tiny subset of the approximately 250,000 domestic migrant workers who live in Singapore and of the 385,000 who reside in Hong Kong.
“The vast majority of foreign workers are law-abiding and make a positive contribution to our society,” said a spokesman for Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs. “However, there are still individuals who continue to be radicalized by ISIS’ violent ideology.”
Most of the cases identified so far involve Indonesian nationals, according to terrorism experts.
CNN attempted to contact the three Indonesian women being held in Singapore but was unable to secure a comment.
Between 2015 and 2017, IPAC conducted its own investigation into the radicalization of domestic workers and found there was a “radical fringe” of at least 50 Indonesian women working overseas as nannies, maids or caretakers for the elderly. Among these, 43 were based in Hong Kong, four in Singapore and three in Taiwan. Due to the difficulty of obtaining first-hand data and testimonies, these are the most recent figures available.
According to a source in Indonesia with knowledge of the profiles of radicalized militants who were returned to their home country, at least 20 radicalized domestic workers were deported back to Indonesia, a country which has the largest population of Muslims in the world, including three who are currently undergoing a deradicalization program run in cooperation with the government.
For the handful of women who become radicalized, the process usually begins with a traumatic event, according to IPAC researcher Nuraniyah. And the radicalization can be extremely rapid. IPAC’s report details the case of one Indonesian domestic worker from Hong Kong who went from a secular fashion enthusiast to ISIS devotee in less than a year.
“They either go through a divorce, get into debt or suffer from the culture shock of moving to a place very different from home, which are all common issues encountered by migrant workers,” Nuraniyah said.
Living far from home in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes exposed to ill-treatment by unscrupulous employers, they are especially vulnerable to indoctrination online.
“They are lonely so they feel a need to engage with the Indonesian community, either online or in real life,” said Diovio Alfath, a program officer at The Coalition of Civil Society Against Violent Extremism or C-Save, an Indonesian organization which helps rehabilitate victims of radicalization. “But lacking the social networks they would normally turn to for advice, they aren’t equipped to deal with the radical messages that are being fed to them.”
They might already have a pro-ISIS contact in their Facebook friends and turn to him or her or seek out the pages of prominent militants, says Nuraniyah. Some are recruited by another domestic worker at a prayer group or at a social gathering on their day off, according to IPAC.
Often, it is a two-way street: the domestic workers might take the first step by reaching out to militants. In return, many are then rapidly brought into radical groups and groomed to become militants.
“I started listening to Salafi podcasts while cleaning the house,” one Indonesian maid from Semarang working in Singapore told IPAC — according to a transcript of the interview seen by CNN — in reference to a strict, orthodox branch of Islam. “On Facebook, I followed people whose profiles seemed very Islamic because I needed friends who could guide me.”
She said she was especially moved by an Instagram account which featured graphic pictures of the Muslim victims in Syria.
Then she met a 29-year-old Indonesian butcher living in Batam online. She said he encouraged her to travel to Syria to join ISIS there. But the Singaporean government found out about her plans and deported her back to Indonesia in 2017, according to Nuraniyah.
The tipping point usually comes after the women forge personal relationships with militants online who become their “boyfriends,” she says. They are then invited to join dedicated chatrooms on encrypted apps.
“This is where the real stuff happens, where bomb designs are shared and active coordination takes place,” said Zachary Abuza, an expert on ISIS’ operations in Southeast Asia at the National War College in Washington. For example, he says, there are several hundred groups on Telegram – an encrypted app often used by ISIS – for sympathizers of the islamic movement, many of which have content catering specifically to women, such as advice on feminine issues and child rearing. CNN reached out to Telegram but the company did not respond to our request.
Once the process of radicalization has been completed, a small number of domestic workers marry their jihadi boyfriends. One Indonesian woman working in Hong Kong returned to Banten, in western Java, in 2015 to become the second wife of Adi Jihadi, a militant who was arrested in 2017 for purchasing arms and training in Mindanao with Isnilon Hapilon, who had been declared ISIS’s emir for Southeast Asia.
Jihadi later admitted to having funded the weapons used in a 2016 attack in Jakarta where eight people died and was convicted for this.