WASHINGTON/JAKARTA - Naila Syafarina was 19 years old when she traveled to Syria with her family in 2015 to join the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
It all started when her younger sister searched the internet for religious reading materials and later became acquainted with someone online who then persuaded her to go to Syria.
"My sister was looking for religious knowledge as she longed to live during the era of the Prophet [Muhammad]," she said during a recent panel discussion in Bandung, Indonesia, concerning the online radicalization of youth throughout the country.
"From there, she felt that ISIS lived that life, during the time of the Prophet, so she wanted to try to go there," Syafarina added, using another acronym for IS.
Syafarina's sister finally succeeded in persuading the family to leave for Syria. But life under IS rule was completely different from what the terror group had promised online.
Determined to escape the harsh reality in Syria, Naila Syafarina and her family managed to return to Indonesia in 2017.
Syafarina, now 23, along with several young Indonesians who also had joined IS, are advocating among youth about the perils of online radicalization, as it remains a major concern in recent years in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
She has been actively campaigning for anti-radicalism in Indonesia, touring the country to advise young people on seeking safety while accessing information on the internet.
"Look for a second and a third opinion. Afterwards, don't accept it right away, keep thinking critically," Syafarina said, adding that many verses in the Muslim holy book, the Quran, ask people to think.
Returning from Syria
Syafarina is one of hundreds of people who returned home after spending time in Syria.
There are about 600 Indonesian nationals who have returned home after joining IS in Syria, according to Civil Society Against Violent Extremism (C-SAVE), a network of civil society organizations that combats violent extremism in Indonesia.
"Among them, there are about 20 percent who are ready to reintegrate with society," said Mira Kusumarini, director of C-SAVE.
"It's easier to work with returnees since they have seen false promises in Syria, which is really different from what the ISIS propaganda said," she told VOA.
There are about 30 IS fighters of Indonesian origin who are now imprisoned by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, Indonesian officials have said. The SDF says it holds more than 2,000 IS foreign fighters.
Upon returning from Syria, former IS members receive de-radicalization courses sponsored by Indonesia's National Agency for Combating Terrorism, or BNPT.
But despite the efforts, experts say, the internet remains the most popular platform to spread radicalism and extremism among youth in Indonesia and elsewhere.
In Indonesia, "Facebook is the preferred channel [for extremists]," Kusumarini said. "The prospective recruits are first exposed. Then they can search for [information] themselves and then they meet. After that they proceed to using private channels, such as Telegram."
And while companies such as Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their crackdown on extremist groups online, IS still relies on certain social media platforms for internal communication and recruitment.
According to a report released in June by The George Washington University's Program on Extremism, Telegram serves "as a stable online platform for pro-IS content, an ecosystem for building extremist networks, an effective and secure internal communications tool, and a forum for recruiting new IS members."
Indonesian authorities say they have increasingly engaged more religious figures in their de-radicalization programs.
Habib Husein Ja'far al-Hadar, a preacher whose videos are popular among young people in Indonesia, offers three ways to reduce the impact of radical content on the internet.
"If you're looking for materials such as a religious lecture, make sure the source of the lecture is clear and the preacher has a good reputation," he said during remarks at the Bandung event.
"Second, see whether the lecture spreads love or hatred. If it is delivered in an ill-mannered way, even though it's true, you have the right to refuse. The Prophet was sent with the morality of politeness," he said.
"Third, if the lecture teaches violence, then leave. Basically every person is given a heart full of love by God," al-Hadar added.
Al-Hadar said, for this purpose, he has produced more than 70 videos about moderate Islam.
Activist Syafarina believes an effective way to tackle youth extremism is by encouraging interfaith dialogue.
"Continue to engage in conversations with other people, especially those from different ethnicities [and] religions. … This is what makes us more open-minded," she said.