Pro-ISIS Airline Pilots Tracked by Law Enforcement in Southeast Asia

Two Indonesian pilots were the subject of a recent Australian intelligence report obtained by <em>The Intercept</em>.

Prior to September 2014, the Facebook profile for Ridwan Agustin appeared to be that of any proud pilot and aviation enthusiast: He posted pictures of himself in front his plane, by the engine, on the tarmac, with his crew, inside the cockpit and in various stages of flight. Sometimes he is accompanied in the photos by his wife, a flight attendant, and their children.

Along the way, between jaunts around East Asia, he documented his training and career, which included a trip to the Airbus office in Toulouse, France, with his AirAsia team in 2009; graduation from AirAsia Academy in January 2010; and then his life as pilot for AirAsia, where he flew international flights to Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as domestic routes.

Then in September 2014, something changed. Interspersed with photos of pristine white sand beaches, motorcycle rides and goofy tarmac photos with his colleagues came postings in support of the Islamic State. He began friending and interacting online with other pro-ISIS profiles — including Indonesian foreign fighters documenting their battles in Syria or Iraq. Agustin changed his profile name to Ridwan Ahmad Indonesiy and expressed interest in joining the fight in Kobani.

While Agustin was indicating an interest in joining ISIS in Syria, he was interacting with another Indonesian pilot for a different airline who also increasingly began posting in support of the Islamic State.

By mid-March 2015, Agustin posted his current location as Raqqa, Syria.

The apparent radicalization of these two Indonesian pilots and their potential threat to national security was the subject of a March 18, 2015 operational intelligence report compiled by the Australian Federal Police and distributed to their law enforcement partners in Turkey, Jordan, London and the U.S. It was also sent to Europol.

A copy of the document, “Identification of Indonesian pilots with possible extremist persuasions,” was obtained by The Intercept.

“Both [pilots] appear to be influenced by pro-IS elements including extremist online propaganda by well-known radical Indonesia outlets and a suspected Indonesian foreign terrorist fighter who is likely to be in either Syria or Iraq,” the report states.

“Pilots, air crew and others with access to and within the aviation environment can pose obvious threats if these persons are radicalized. Their access and knowledge of security and safety regimes provides the ability to attempt attacks as witnessed by past global events,” warns the report, which also notes that a recent issue of Inspire, the magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, encouraged attacks by those involved in aviation.

“It makes a lot of sense that the Australians would be extremely nervous,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

Jones, whose organization has tracked the recruitment of Indonesian foreign fighters by ISIS, says there appears to have been a sharp increase in the number of Indonesians fighting with ISIS in the last few months. Between March 1 and June 1, 2015, 44 Indonesians have been killed in Syria and Iraq, according to estimates compiled by Jones’ institute and shared with The Intercept.

Among those recently killed is an associate of Heri Kustyanto — a well-known militant Agustin was interacting with on Facebook, according to photos of since-deleted posts included in the AFP report. Kustyanto, also known as Abu Azzam Qaswarah Al Indonesy, is one of just three Indonesians trained as elite ISIS forces, according to Jones.

One of Kustyanto’s elite forces associates was Maskur, the Indonesian who appears as an executioner in the video of the beheading of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig. He was killed in May, according to IPAC’s tally.

There are about five different centers or nodes where recruitment is taking place in Indonesia, Jones says, including one that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed over 100 people.

Historically, Indonesians could not go to Syria or Iraq to join ISIS unless they knew someone who was already there, according to Jones. Recruitment was done through several groups that largely centered on two major radical clerics and their followers.

“Up to now, most of the data we have is from people we have affiliated with radical associations,” she said.

Jones said she hadn’t previously heard of pilots being recruited. The Australian document shows that ISIS appears to be “recruiting skill sets, professional groups” she said, after The Intercept shared details of the report.

The apparent recruitment of pilots and other aviation workers comes as Indonesia struggles to counter the ever-increasing numbers of foreign fighters heading for Iraq or Syria — some of whom have recently carried out domestic attacks after returning home.

According to the U.S. State Department’s annual country report for 2014, Indonesia expanded its counterterrorism cooperation with countries including the U.S. last year, but has failed to stem the flow of Indonesians fighting abroad.

“The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) became a major impetus for further counterterrorism efforts. The emergence in July of a recruitment video calling for Indonesians to join ISIL focused the attention of the government and civil society and religious groups on countering the ISIL threat,” the report says. “Indonesian government officials have estimated that up to 300 Indonesians may have traveled to the Middle East since 2012 to engage in terrorist activities.”

More recently, the Indonesian government has said that number is now 518 foreign fighters, according to Jones. Her organization’s list of documented names runs just over 200.

According to a National Counter Terrorism Center Weekly report from March 3-10, 2015, Malaysians and Indonesians have formed their own unit based in Raqqa, Syria, called Majmu’ah al’Arkhabiliy, which is commanded by the Islamic State.

“Upon arriving to Syria, the men received a month of weapons training and the families stay in apartments,” the report states, basing its information on a local media report.

One of these foreign fighters, authorities believe, is Ridwan Agustin, who is now in Syria, according to the Australian report. The whereabouts of his wife, Diah Suci Wulandari, who was also an AirAsia employee, and also shared posts from groups supporting the Islamic State, is unknown.

In recent months, after several changes to his profile name, The Intercept saw Agustin friend more than one hundred profiles of what appear to be foreign fighters from all over the world now fighting on behalf of the Islamic State. (Their profiles show photos with guns, videos of battles and indications that they are likely fighting with the Islamic State.)

AirAsia spokesperson Audrey Petriny would only say: “Please be informed that Ridwan Agustin and Diah Suci Wulandari are no longer employees of AirAsia Indonesia. Therefore, we are unable to comment further on either individuals.”

AirAsia would not provide dates of employment or answer any of The Intercept’s questions about Agustin and his wife’s flight routes.

He may no longer be working as a pilot, the intelligence report says, but he “would still possess requisite skills to fly and together with his wife’s previous employment, they would have current contacts within the aviation sector.”

Indonesia’s aviation sector has attracted negative attention over the past year following two fatal accidents, including last week’s crash of an Indonesian military airplane that is believed to have killed at least 135 people. In December last year, an AirAsia Airbus 320 en route to Singapore crashed into the Java Sea, killing 155 passengers and crew members. The report on that crash is expected later this summer.

The Second Pilot

The Australian report also highlights the apparent radicalization of an online associate of Ridwan Agustin, identified as Tommy Hendratno, also a pilot from Indonesia, according to his social media posts.

According to the report, Hendratno also goes by Tomi Abu Alfatih. His current Facebook profile gives his name as Abu Alfatih Hendratno.

Hendratno is a former member of the Indonesian military who trained in Paris and worked at a major Indonesian flight school, according to the report, as well as his social media posts and photos. Most recently, he flew private charter and commercial flights for Premiair, an aviation company that specialized in charter and VIP flights. Hendratno’s online profile says he attended flight school training in the United States as recently as February — one month before Australian authorities identified him in their report.

In an emailed response to The Intercept, Norman Sukardi, the quality and safety manager for Premiair, confirmed that Hendratno had stopped working for the company on June 1. Sukarki declined to provide any details about Hendratno’s routes, or U.S. flight training while at the the company.

Sukarki said there were “no compaints and employment issues” related to Hendratno, but declined to provide a reason for why he stopped working at the company last month. “We heard that he is a symphatism [sic] of ISIS. But we do not know that he actively publish his articles and did some meetings or trainings with ISIS Organization. Otherwise the police or other competent organziation in the government already told us about his involvement in ISIS,” Sukarki wrote.

According to numerous photos and posts on his Facebook profile discovered by The Intercept, Hendratno trained at Flight Safety International, a flight school in St. Louis, Missouri, on at least three separate occasions over the last three years, most recently between February 1 and 7, 2015. During that time his Facebook postings about St. Louis and simulator training were interspersed with videos of ISIS beheading hostages, among other terrorism propaganda.

Photos posted in August 2013 show Hendratno posing in front of a Flight Safety International sign and in front of the St. Louis arch, wearing a “Gateway to the West” T-shirt. At this time, his profile consists of frequent postings about his flights — to Bali, Malaysia, Dubai — and he shared photos of himself inside a cockpit, and with his co-pilot and crew at their home base airport or elsewhere around the world.

A spokesperson for Flight Safety International did not respond to multiple emails requesting confirmation of Hendratno’s training at their St. Louis facility. On Monday, when reached by phone, the company spokesperson, Steve Phillips, said: “I don’t really know anything about this so can’t comment.”

When pressed to confirm the dates of attendance in Hendratno’s social media postings, he told The Intercept, “We don’t disclose names of our customers. You sent us a whole variety of names so I’m really unable to help you.” (The Intercept had sent three names.)

Like Ridwan Agustin prior to September 2014, Hendratno mostly documented his travels around East Asia and the Middle East.

By mid-2014, his postings, like Agustin’s, began to address grievances about the plight of Muslims across the world. By December 2014, he was posting pro-Islamic State material, around the same time he says he returned to the U.S. for more certification training.

One post described police as “ansharu thagut,” which the Australian report says is a term often used by Jihadists “to describe police as helpers of the oppressive government.”

He soon began posting Islamic State-related posts nearly every day, often multiple times a day. Many of the posts share video and images from Islamic State media groups, including photos of currency to be introduced for the Islamic State — and the group’s opening of English language schools for children in Syria.

Often, other apparent pilots supported his comments and posts by sharing or liking the post in the same way Hendratno initially supported Islamic State posts by Ridwan Agustin.

On social media — including Instagram and Facebook — the two pilots belong to a larger group of about 300 pilots, flight attendants, flight instructors, radar and air traffic control operators, and grounds crew in Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Middle East, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Hendratno recently updated his Facebook profile to say that he left Premiair on June 1.

Agustin’s profile has been removed from Facebook and he could not be reached for comment. Agustin’s wife and Hendratno did not respond to messages sent to their Facebook accounts. Following this article’s publication, Hendratno’s wife responded to an earlier Facebook message from The Intercept. “My husband just a pilot not a terrorist.”

“On my Facebook I was only trying to give balance to media statements about what’s right. I am not bai’at (pledged) as ­accused,” Hendratno told Indonesian reporters, according to The Australian.

Australian Federal Police declined to provide any information in response to questions about the report. “The AFP does not comment on matters of intelligence,” said an AFP spokesperson in response to The Intercept’s request for comment.

“The AFP maintains strong relationships with its domestic and foreign law enforcement partners to ensure the ongoing safety of Australians both within Australia and abroad,” the spokesperson added.

The FBI, which is noted on the report’s distribution list, also declined to comment.


Photo: Hendratno: Facebook; Agustin: Instagram

 This article has been updated to include remarks from Hendratno given to The Australian, and a response to The Intercept, from his wife.

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