Jakarta still has not taken a firm decision on whether to repatriate about 30 Indonesian fighters and more than 150 of their family members who have languished in Syrian camps after Islamic State’s last bastion fell, the new Indonesian security minister said Friday.
Citizens suspected of being foreign terrorist fighters and their families number around 600, said Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
“[They are] in different countries and we must talk about how to repatriate, or whether doing so would pose a danger,” Mahfud told reporters at his office in Jakarta after a meeting with Shigenobu Fukumoto, Japan’s director general for counter-terrorism.
“From Syria alone, we have 187,” of whom 31 are men, he said.
“Those who were clearly involved in terrorism could be tried in Syria. If that’s the case, the government cannot interfere,” Mahfud said, commenting publicly on the issue for the first time since becoming Indonesia’s top security official in October.
He did not specify where the hundreds of others of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) were located. Some of the fighters had left Syria and settled in other countries, he said without elaborating.
In March 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared they had captured the last bastion of Islamic State (IS), which once controlled a swath of land that spilled across the boundaries of Iraq and Syria. The SDF victory ushered in a series of concerns, including extradition, rehabilitation or criminal trials for captured FTFs as well as their wives and children.
The Indonesian government later said it would try to bring them home to face criminal charges or undergo rehabilitation, while addressing security concerns because most of the women and children were not fighting for IS.
The latest figure given by Mahfud is smaller than one given in a report in November by Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism police unit Densus 88. Citing data from border authorities in the Middle East, it claimed there were 1,500 IS fighters and their families from Indonesia, including 700 living in three Syrian camps.
In August 2019, the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) urged Indonesia to begin repatriating its most vulnerable citizens who had joined IS and not let them remain in the camps where, the think tank reported, they faced intimidation from supporters of the extremist group.
“There’s no need to wait for an all-encompassing policy to begin to bring back those most at risk,” IPAC director Sidney Jones said at the time.
“The problem is that the longer the government delays taking action, the greater the likelihood of intimidation in the camps and the higher the political risks of repatriation,” she added.
Commenting then on IPAC’s report, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said: “It’s just the opinion of a non-governmental group, and we may have different views on this issue.”
“The process is not complete because there needs to be identification,” he told BenarNews. “Many don’t have documents, so there needs to be verification – to determine whether they are Indonesian citizens or not.”
On Friday, after his meeting with Fukumoto, Mahfud said Indonesia wanted to work with Japan to fight terrorism.
“As a follow-up to the meeting, there will be a kind of joint forum to regularly discuss terrorism and regional security issues,” he said.
“Japan is also worried about terrorism, because it has become more sophisticated. It has involved women and children, the transfers of money via smartphones, so it’s become more digitalized,” Mahfud said.