Swift action needed on Indonesians in Islamic State refugee camps

Commentary by Alif Satria
Swift action needed on Indonesians in Islamic State refugee camps Women walk through the al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria, April 1, 2019.

 Earlier this month, the United States froze the assets of five Indonesian nationals for their alleged role in facilitating extremist activities in Syria and other places where the Islamic State (IS) extremist group operates.

These include two people – Rudi Heryadi and Ari Kardian – who were prosecuted in Indonesia in 2020 and 2019 respectively, and three others – Muhammad Adhiguna, Dini Ramadhani, and Dwi Susanti – who currently live at the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria.

Together, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, they facilitated money transfers in 2021 that were used to smuggle teenagers to IS recruiters; they advised others in 2019 on how to travel to IS areas such as Afghanistan; and they helped deliver nearly U.S. $4,000 to an IS leader in 2017.

Washington’s action, importantly, has shed light on the ability of Indonesians abroad to continue sustaining the threat of terrorism – threats that have targeted and can target Indonesia itself.

Indonesians in IS refugee camps

From 2013 to 2017, more than more than 2,150 Indonesians traveled to Syria and Iraq to join IS, according to a report by the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) in January 2022.

Of those, more than 555 were deported before they entered Syria, 194 voluntarily returned home, and 127 were confirmed dead. The BNPT categorizes the remaining 1,250 or so Indonesians as “still being in conflict zones” – a catch-all term for classifying those who live in IS refugee camps, people detained in Kurdish prisons, those still at large in Syria and Iraq, and others who are simply missing.

Indonesian citizens make up only a small percentage of the population in al-Hol and al-Roj. The latest data from UNICEF shows that there are more than 62,600 people in the two camps combined.

Indonesians comprise less than 0.01 percent of them. Numbers differ depending on sources, with 2021 BNPT data noting that there are 115 verified Indonesians living in both camps – 47 percent women and 44 percent  children.

In 2020, Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister of Legal, Political, and Security Affairs, stated that they had verified over 228 living in the camps.

The living conditions of these refugees were poor to begin with but have greatly deteriorated over time. Since 2019, these camps have been beset by poor sanitation, lack of access to water and food, and various illnesses such as measles and diarrhea.

With the Syrian Defense Force (SDF), which oversee these camps, now stretched in terms of manpower, there has also been a rise in IS activities.

Media reports have said IS members are smuggling out child recruits, beating those who want to go back home, and also catalyzing uprisings. As countries continue to ignore the camps’ conditions, the situation is only going to worsen.


While the Indonesian government in early 2020 debated repatriating their citizens from these IS refugee camps, it ultimately decided against doing so, fearing that the repatriated ex-IS members would become a “terrorist virus” among the population.

On February 2020, echoing the opinion of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Minister Mahfud MD stated that the administration believed that the “interests of the hundreds of millions of citizens in the country outweighed [those of the] … ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ in Syria and Turkey.” An exception, however, was to be made for children under 10 years of age whose repatriation would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Since then, the Indonesian government has established the Foreign Terrorist Fighter Task Force (Satgas FTF). This is an inter-ministerial body led by the BNPT whose role is to document and synchronize data of Indonesians FTFs (including those in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps), assess their threats and networks, and provide recommendations regarding their repatriation. However, this process has been relatively slow.

A 2021 report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) noted that as of then, only 18 people – five of whom were children – had been repatriated from Syria and Iraq with formal government assistance. This repatriation took place in 2017.

This repatriation of ex-terrorists is a slow process.

A person has to first be identified as Indonesian, a difficult task as national IDs are often burned by FTFs after they arrive in Syria. Then assessing individuals’ threat level is particularly challenging as available risk assessment tools commonly used on terrorist inmates need to be readjusted to accommodate children.

Assuming assessment is effective, there is also the complex task of developing sustainable reintegration programs for these IS refugees, a subject that did not get a mention in Indonesia’s 2021 National Action Plan on Extremism.

The risk of inaction

While rigor is important in the repatriation process, Indonesia also needs to keep in mind that time is of the essence. As recent arrests have shown, Indonesians held as far away as in al-Hol tapped into their country’s militant network.

Dwi Susanti, for example, while residing abroad throughout 2021, managed to coordinate money transfers from Indonesians to individuals in Syrian IS refugee camps. During this time, she also managed to liaise with Muhammad Adhiguna and facilitate his registration with IS.

Importantly, this is not the first time Indonesians abroad have posed a threat to their home country. In early 2015, Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian in Syria, taught IS-supporters in Solo, Central Java, how to make bombs and helped plan attacks against police and religious communities there, according to IPAC.

Also in 2015, another Indonesian in Syria, Bahrumsyah, transferred over Rp. 1 billion (U.S. $ 73,000) to Hendro Fernando who then forwarded it to the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) and the Ansar Khilafa Philippines (also known as Ansar al-Khilafah Philippines or Ansarul Khilafa Philippines).  

In 2019, an Indonesian in Syria named Daniel taught members of the Indonesian group IS-affiliated Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) in Bekasi, West Java, how to make bombs, a skill the JAD members then shared with other members in JAD Papua.

Indeed, not everyone has the same skills or networks as Susanti, Naim, Bahrumsyah, or Daniel, or poses similar threats. But without comprehensive documentation and assessment of Indonesians in IS refugee camps, along with quick repatriation of the children, Indonesia cannot separate those who pose a threat from those who don’t, and properly address them.

This task is only going to get harder as SDF’s resources to run al-Hol and al-Roj camps dwindle and IS’ influence within them increases. While Indonesians in IS refugee camps might be out of sight, they should not be out of mind.

Alif Satria is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia.


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