Via Telegram, Western Union: How ISIS in Syria funded Marawi terrorists

Natashya Gutierrez

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Via Telegram, Western Union: How ISIS in Syria funded Marawi terrorists


A report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict details how funds are transferred from the Middle East to the Philippines, and how foreign fighters are recruited to join the siege

MANILA, Philippines – In January 2017, an Indonesian terrorist named Achmad Supriyanto alias Damar, a member of the extremist group Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), was contacted by a Malaysian professor named Dr Mahmud Ahmad. Damar had done a short training course in Basilan in Western Mindanao 8 months prior.  

Dr. Mahmud asked Damar’s help to get funds from Syria to the Philippines. 

He then gave Damar, who was based in Banten, Indonesia, an account to contact via messaging app Telegram. The person instructed him to go to East Java in Indonesia, and once there, gave him another person to contact via Telegram. 

Damar followed instructions. He went to the town told to him via Telegram, where he met a man he did not know. The man gave him an envelope with $10,000 or about P500,000

Similar instructions were given to Damar by Dr. Mahmud in February, which resulted in a $25,000 cash release. In March, Damar was asked to contact an operative in Syria directly. The operative, Munawar, gave him instructions via Telegram to pick up $20,000 from another Indonesian town.

Every single time, Dr. Mahmud asked Damar to send the money to different recipients in the Philippines via Western Union. 

Foreign cash 

Damar’s account was revealed by Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), in a report released on Friday, July 21, titled “Marawi, the ‘East Asia Wilayah’ and Indonesia.” (READ: Marawi inspired, strengthened pro-ISIS fighters in region – report)

It’s not clear how IPAC got hold of Damar’s account of what happened – whether in an interview with him or interrogation reports.

Indonesia arrested Damar in March 2017. In May, another man was nabbed, Rohman Septriyanto, who took Damar’s place as the cash pick-up point person.

The report said that the arrested Indonesians “explained how the Malaysian arranged for funds to be sent from Syria through Indonesia and then on to the Philippines through Western Union.” The disclosures were made before the May 23 attack on Marawi, IPAC said.

The report added that the money transfers from Syria through Indonesia to the Philippines, “were likely used for the preparation of the Marawi attack.”

But it also raised the concern of other transfers from Indonesia to other countries that are still unknown.

All this indicates that the command structure in Marawi, which refers to itself as the East Asia Wilayah, received funding from ISIS in Syria – although the amount is unclear.

“According to the Philippines armed forces commander, ISIS channeled $600,000 through Dr. Mahmud, but he provided no details,” the report said.

IPAC also said that Dr. Mahmud was the main facilitator of ISIS funding for Marawi operations to be laundered through Indonesia. His whereabouts remain unknown.

On May 23, clashes between the military and local pro-ISIS terrorist groups Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, erupted in the capital of Lanao del Sur province. This, after the military moved to hunt down Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who had been spotted in the city.

The military said the raid served to foil a terror plan to seize Marawi City. As of July 10, 2017, the fighting, which continues to this day, has claimed the lives of more than 500 people, including soldiers and cops, rebels, and civilians.

The siege prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao, which is supposed to lapse on Saturday, July 22.

But on Saturday, the Senate and the House will hold a special session to tackle Duterte’s request to extend martial law in his home region up to December this year.

Local funding 

Aside from ISIS funds, there were also local funds funneled to Marawi, the report said, citing P80 million or $1.5 million cash and checks found in a Marawi house by soldiers. (READ: Maute Group waves ISIS black flag on Marawi streets)

But there’s another source of funding often overlooked, that the report points out: funding from local families.

The report said that the youth that were recruited by pro-ISIS fighters in Marawi “were reportedly devout youth from well-off families with the ability to contribute substantially to the cause.”

“Pro-ISIS groups also reportedly raised funds through supporters working at Muslim charities and dakwah centres, though not necessarily with knowledge or approval of the organisations involved,” the report added.

The report also noted that Duterte “accused the Mautes of raising funds through illegal drug-dealing but without offering evidence.”

Foreign fighters

It was not just funding that pro-ISIS fighters sought from foreign supporters, but fighters as well.

Around early May, calls for Indonesians to come to the Philippines were explicit, according to the report.

“If you find it difficult to go to Sham [greater Syria] because of cost and security concerns, why not try the Philippines? Truly, our brothers in the Philippines are awaiting your arrival, why are you so slow in answering their call?” the report quoted one call for support. (READ: ISIS to followers in SE Asia: ‘Go to the Philippines’)

Another one said, “Does it make sense that we have a neighbor being attacked by a swarm of criminals, but we aim for a further neighbor rather than one closer by? We give more importance to the further neighbor and make the closer one lower priority? Brothers, this is not to demean efforts to emigrate to Sham, but to advise those of you who are still in the land of kafir but have not yet set out on your journey: if you find it hard to get to Syria, strengthen the ranks in the Philippines.” 

The report claimed that two main ISIS networks in Indonesia – some from JAD, and others from a smaller group called al-Hawariyun – eventually joined the fighting in Mindanao and sent about 20 fighters to the Marawi front. 

All foreign fighters wanting to join the fighting in Marawi were also said to have first gone through Dr Mahmud. (READ: Regional intel: ISIS fighters in Mindanao triple PH’s estimate)

The report warned that once these Marawi veterans return to their home countries, through their links through Dr Mahmud and to Syria, they could “not only train Indonesia’s extremist to a higher level of competence but become the instruments for the implementation of a regional ISIS strategy.”

“The risks won’t end when the military declares victory,” said Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.” –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.