Indonesia and Malaysia expressed concern Monday that Southeast Asian Islamic State fighters may escape from prisons in northern Syria amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area and a Turkish military operation targeting Kurdish forces there.
The fears over the status of at least 700 IS-linked Indonesian detainees and about 50 Malaysian detainees were further compounded by reports that hundreds of prisoners associated with the militant group have escaped from a camp during Turkish airstrikes and intense fighting in the area at the weekend.
The fast-escalating conflict in Syria’s northern border region took a major shift on Monday after Kurdish forces announced that they had struck a deal with the Syrian government, as Turkey stepped up its military offensive after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the remaining U.S. forces out of the area.
“Naturally it’s a concern. Indonesians who stay there pose a high level of threat,” said Didik Novi Rahmanto, chief of the task force dealing with foreign fighters at Densus 88, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism police unit.
“They will also be a threat if they come here,” Didik told BenarNews.
Didik said at least 34 Indonesian citizens were imprisoned in Syria on allegations that they fought alongside the Islamic State (IS). He said about 700 others, many of them wives and children of IS fighters, are languishing in camps near the border with Iraq.
In neighboring Malaysia, the police’s counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told BenarNews that 11 suspected Malaysian fighters are being held at the Al Hasakah prison in northeastern Syria and 40 others in other detention centers. They were among 65 who were believed to have travelled to the Middle East to join the IS’s so-called caliphate, Ayob said.
“We are afraid that the detainees at the camp and the prison will escape and sneak into a third country or join any local militant group to wage war against the Bashar army,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ayob said his men were still trying to confirm reports that a large number of IS fighters had escaped Al-Hasakah prison in Syria as they took advantage of the Turkish attack in the area.
“At the moment, as far as we know, the Malaysians at the Al Houl camp are safe while those at the Al-Hasakah prison, we have yet to receive any update on that,” he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out American soldiers from the area has come under criticism, with lawmakers and others accusing him of betraying the Kurds who fought alongside with the U.S. military to defeat the IS in Syria. Security analysts had warned that the Turkish incursion could undermine Washington’s efforts to eliminate the IS, allowing the extremist group to rebuild its forces.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday he would ask NATO allies to punish Turkey for its invasion of northeast Syria, accusing Ankara of causing the release of dangerous Islamic State detainees, Agence France-Presse reported.
"This unacceptable incursion has also undermined the successful multinational 'Defeat ISIS' mission in Syria, and resulted in the release of many dangerous ISIS detainees," Esper said in a statement.
On Sunday, about 785 foreign women and children with IS links escaped from the Ain Eissa camp in northeastern Syria, as militant affiliates inside the camp took advantage of the Turkish offensive to overpower the guards and force the gates open, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Didik of Indonesia’s counter-terror group Densus 88 said his task force was closely monitoring the developments in Syria.
Suhardi Alius, chief of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), who also acknowledged that Jakarta was closely monitoring the news, said than an estimated 100 to 200 people, mostly women who had claimed to be Indonesians were being detained in three camps in northeastern Syria on suspicion of IS links.
“They cannot be just repatriated,” Alius told BenarNews. “There must be an assessment and this cannot be done in Indonesia. It has to be done there. A decision will involve all stakeholders and related ministries.”
“There are steps to taken and these are not easy. They have been radicalized and we have to keep them from radicalizing other citizens,” he said, adding that an undetermined number of IS foreign fighters had moved to Afghanistan.
“There are not many of them, but this shows that those who have been radicalized can move from one conflict area to another,” he said.
Last week, a knife-wielding couple, believed to be IS suspects, stabbed Indonesia's top security minister Wiranto, who is recovering from surgery at a military hospital. More than 20 suspected militants have been arrested in a counterterrorism crackdown.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, has been hit by a string of terrorist attacks in the past two decades, including in January 2016, when IS-linked militant launched a gun and bomb attack that killed eight people, including the four attackers, in Jakarta’s central business district.
Local IS-affiliated militants were also blamed for coordinated attacks in the Indonesian city of Surabaya in May 2018, when two families carried out suicide bombings on three churches and a police station. Those attacks killed 24 people, including children as young as 9 who joined their parents in the attacks.
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.
Almost 500 suspects had been arrested by Malaysian police since 2013 for their alleged militant links, according to figures provided by the Special Branch’s counter-terrorist wing. The country has also been a transit point for Indonesian militants seeking to travel to the terrorist infested southern Philippines.
Zam Yusa in Sabah, Malaysia contributed to this report.