Updated at 11:55 a.m. ET on 2019-07-10
A team from Indonesia’s counter-terrorism agency visited Syria and Iraq two weeks ago as part of efforts to gather facts as Jakarta considers whether to allow battle-hardened citizens who fought alongside Islamic State to come home with their families, officials said Tuesday.
About 100 Indonesians, including children and women, are languishing in several camps along the border between the two Middle Eastern countries, where they were taken after the last IS bastion fell early this year, said Suhardi Alius, director of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT).
“We went there, and we took their testimony about what they went through. We were told that the women only got marriage proposals, while the men were dogged by demands to be fighters,” Suhardi told a Jakarta forum on the future of ex-IS returnees.
“The other day, we entered Iraq and we obtained information on how many are still there. We are glad that the men will face legal proceedings there,” he said, without saying when the visit took place. “For us, it’s better that way, because even if they return, they will have to face the law (at home).”
Brig. Gen. Hamli separately told BenarNews that the small team visited Syria and Iraq two weeks ago and returned early this month.
“The team was there to verify the identity of Indonesians, check their passport, assess their level of radicalism and, if they should return, what de-radicalization programs are suitable for them,” he said. “It was a preliminary assessment.”
Hamli said Indonesian officials were holding talks with Syrian and Iraqi authorities about possible repatriation, which was expected to take place after Jakarta had finalized its assessment.
He said returnees would undergo a rehabilitation program at a Social Affairs Ministry facility in Bambu Apus sub-district in East Jakarta for a month.
“If one month is not enough, it can be extended, depending on the level of their radicalism,” he said. “But otherwise they will be returned home.”
In June, the foreign ministry said that two Indonesian women would not be repatriated after Iraqi authorities convicted and sentenced them to 15 years in prison under that nation’s anti-terror laws for joining IS. The women, identified as Aidha and Amalia, were sentenced last month and in April, respectively, but the ministry said it was not clear how the women ended up in Iraq.
Iraq authorities have detained or imprisoned about 19,000 people accused of being members of IS or carrying out acts of terrorism, and as many as 3,000 have been sentenced to death, including dozens of French citizens, according to the Associated Press. None of the French citizens have been executed.
Under Indonesian law, Suhardi said, citizens who fight for a foreign country could be stripped of their citizenship, but the question of whether those who joined IS in the Middle East should be allowed to return to Indonesia remains controversial.
“It has not been decided, because it’s a sensitive issue. Are we going to sacrifice those children? Are they guilty?” he said. “There are many women and children in the camps.”
“Even if there’s a decision to bring them back, we have to assess the risks. We have to find ways to mitigate them,” he said. “We have to build a system. We give them a second chance.”
Those Indonesians in the camps along northern Syria’s border with Iraq include 24 children and 29 women, according to the foreign ministry.
Debate at home
With the demise of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate, America’s European allies are also grappling with the fate of their citizens in the war-torn Mid-East nations. Many have been reluctant to take back their citizens who have been taken captive or are languishing in Syrian camps after siding with or fighting for IS, despite the urging of U.S. President Donald Trump.
While discussing the fate of Indonesian citizens in Syria, officials in Jakarta have not publicly invoked the case of Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old British woman of Bangladeshi parentage, who ran away from her home in London and made her way to Syria with two other teenage girls in 2015 allegedly to join the IS.
British authorities revoked Begum’s citizenship in February, in an action that could render her stateless.
While Britain allows dual nationality, Indonesia recognizes it only for children up to 18 years, with a 3-year grace period. By the time children turn 21, they are required to notify Indonesian immigration authorities if they intend to keep their citizenship or release it in favor of the other nationality.
The government will soon decide what to do with the children and women in the Syrian camps, Joedha Nugraha, the foreign ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesians overseas, told BenarNews
“The Indonesian government will prioritize the humanitarian aspect while at the same time ensuring security and law enforcement are guaranteed,” he said.
In 2017, BNPT reported that at least 1,321 Indonesians had joined IS or tried to enlist. Of that number, 84 were killed, 482 were deported while trying to enter Syria, and 62 had returned from Syria. Another 63 were stopped at Indonesian airports while trying to travel to the Middle East.
Citing intelligence data from his government, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told a security forum in Singapore last year that about 400 out of 31,500 foreign fighters who had joined IS in Syria were from Indonesia.
Sri Yunanto, a staff expert at the ministry of security and political affairs, said the government would face challenges if it decided to allow IS fighters to return.
“If we want to be firm, just revoke their passports. We can’t root out a deep-seated ideology in just one month,” Sri told the forum.
Noor Huda Ismail, an expert on Islamic militancy in Indonesia and founder of a foundation dedicated to rehabilitating former militants, called for a more humane approach.
“No one is born a terrorist,” he said. “People can change.”
Indonesia could be an example to the world for handling former foreign fighters, officials said.
“Most of them wanted to join the caliphate to escape corrupt governments. They could be educated to spread the message countering the caliphate narrative,” Noor Huda said.
Legislator Meutya Hafid, who was taken hostage by militants when she was working as a journalist in Iraq in 2005, said her experience proved that even terrorists had their human side.
“If they had no humanity left, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Meutya said. “Some members of the public don’t want them to return, but the government should not make a decision based on emotions.”
Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.