Bangladesh will bar citizens who left to join the Islamic State in Syria, authorities told BenarNews on Tuesday, as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines took divergent steps in preparation for the possible return of their nationals after U.S.-backed forces demolished the extremist group’s last territorial pocket over the weekend.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. airstrikes, announced on Saturday that they had captured the last IS stronghold in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province and arrested almost 800 foreign fighters, including an unspecified number of Bangladeshis.
“If any suspect, in some ways, manages to arrive, we will arrest them and try them in accordance with law. We will not allow any terrorists to come to Bangladesh,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews, when asked about the government’s policy in case any Bangladeshi who fought for IS tried to return home.
The United States and other countries have largely refused to reclaim their nationals. During the past two weeks, thousands of people fled Deir Ezzor, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, according to an SDF spokesman.
Dhaka authorities have not determined exactly how many Bangladeshis left the country to join the militants who rampaged across Syria and Iraq and seized territory in 2014. But Khan said suspected IS fighters or supporters would be taken into custody if they landed at any airport in Bangladesh.
“We have instructed the airports to remain alert for them,” he said.
Hundreds from South, Southeast Asia
According to the United Nations, more than 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries might have travelled to join terror groups in Syria and Iraq.
That figure includes 800 from Indonesia, 154 from Malaysia, 100 from the Philippines and 40 Bangladeshis, according to a July 2018 report from the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College in London.
Meanwhile, a Malaysian security official who requested anonymity said Kuala Lumpur would expedite its efforts to repatriate 23 Malaysians who had sought help to return home.
“We are still in negotiation with several parties to bring them home,” the source told BenarNews in a phone interview, referring to the suspected militants. “Efforts are still ongoing and there are many procedures we have to follow and go through because their passports were destroyed because of the war.”
He said 51 Malaysians, including 17 children, were still believed to be in a Syrian prison manned by Kurdish forces. “Malaysia will bring them home on a few conditions,” he said.
Nationals returning from Syria or Iraq would be assessed on a case-by-case basis to evaluate the degree to which each one was involved in IS, and action would be taken accordingly, Malaysian police counter-terrorist chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told BenarNews last month.
Returnees, he said, would not be automatically jailed.
“If they are not arrested, they will still need to undergo a de-radicalization program that is run by us before they are released back into society. Apart from that, we will continue to keep contact with them (returnees),” Ayob said.
As many as 102 Malaysians have ventured to Syria and Iraq since 2013 in hopes of joining IS, but 40 have been killed in combat or other circumstances, including nine in suicide bombings, and 11 have since returned home, Malaysian police officials had told BenarNews previously.
On Monday, Indonesia’s national police spokesman, Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo, told reporters in Jakarta that the elite police anti-terrorism unit Densus 88 would continue hunting suspected terrorists and monitoring terror cells in the country despite IS’s defeat in Syria.
“Densus 88 are also still profiling and implementing mitigation efforts by implementing preventive strikes to anticipate lone-wolf terror attacks,” Dedi said.
Last year, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told BenarNews in an interview in Washington that some 700 Indonesians had joined IS.
At its height in 2014, the Islamic State, also known by other acronyms such as ISIS or ISIL, controlled Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and considered large tracts of land on both sides of the border among its important bastions.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who ruled the region in past centuries, declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Mosul and persuaded thousands of Muslims around the world, including Bangladeshis, Malaysians and Indonesians, to travel to the region and fight.
In August 2017, 18 Indonesians who admitted to having joined IS in Syria were placed in police custody after returning to their homeland, officials said.
Col. Gerry Besana, spokesman of the Philippine military’s Southern Command, told BenarNews in a recent interview that security systems had been set in place that would make it difficult for Filipino fighters to return home.
He said at least two Filipinos – Mohammed Reza Kiram and his wife, Ellen Barriga, a Muslim convert – were believed to have joined IS in Syria in 2015.
“We are worried more of the local fighters trained in a foreign land,” he said.
In May 2017, another militant faction headed by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged IS leader in Southeast Asia, took over southern Marawi city and engaged government forces in a five-month battle that killed 1,200 people, most of them militants. Hapilon, who was backed by foreign fights, was among those who were killed.
Suspected pro-IS militants also killed 23 people in a bomb attack at a southern Philippine church last January, authorities said.
‘Bangladeshi origin’ not same as Bangladesh citizen
Khan, the Bangladeshi home minister, emphasized that many of the IS fighters who had been identified in the international media as Bangladeshis turned out to be non-citizens, even though they were of “Bangladeshi origin.”
“They will not be allowed in Bangladesh,” he said.
For instance, he said, Shamima Begum, who grabbed headlines after she fled her east London family for Syria in 2015 when she was 15 and married an IS fighter, was confirmed to be a British citizen of Bangladeshi origin.
“She never even visited Bangladesh. She is not our citizen,” Khan said.
Bangladeshi officials dealing with counter-terrorism often decline to talk on record about IS. But an official with the national police’s counter-terrorist and transnational crimes unit told BenarNews that around 40 Bangladeshi youths had gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS.
The government never admitted the militant group’s presence in Bangladesh even after militants had claimed responsibility for a massacre at a Dhaka café in July 2016 – the deadliest terror attack in the nation’s history.
Twenty hostages, two policemen and two café workers were killed in the overnight siege along with the five militants.
In an interview with the Bengali newspaper Prothom Alo, Monirul Islam, the police counterterrorist chief, said Bangladeshis who went to Syria-Iraq to fight for IS did not keep Bangladeshi passports or any travel documents.
“Some of those who travelled to Syria have been trying to return home. Their photographs and other relevant data have been sent to the airports,” Islam said. “We have instructed to ensure that they must not avoid arrest.”
Bangladeshi physician Rokonuddin Khandker and his wife, Nayeema Akter, and their daughters Ramita Rokon and Rezwana Rokon and son-in-law Saad Kayes have been trying to come back, counter-terrorism officials told BenarNews.
They said dentist Arafat Rahman Tushar and siblings Ibrahim Hasan Khan and Junaid Hasan Khan, who allegedly went to Syria in 2015 and fought for IS, have also been trying to return.
Law-enforcement officials believe that IS fighters would pose security threats in Bangladesh by joining forces with local militant groups.
Bangladeshis returning from the Syrian battlefields must be questioned extensively, Brig. Gen. Sakhawat Hossain, a security analyst, told BenarNews.
“They must be separated from the ordinary prisoners inside the jails,” he said. “We need to know what inspired them to fight for the IS.”