A Malaysian woman who was stranded in Syria after her Islamic State fighter-husband died in battle was repatriated with her children through efforts by local authorities and the Turkish government to secure safe passage, Malaysia’s police chief said Thursday.
The 31-year-old woman and her children – ages 2 and 5 – arrived in Malaysia on Oct. 6 after a delicate and dangerous process that took about a month to plan, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun said as he introduced her at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
“We managed to bring home three people – this lady here next to me, who’s from Terengganu and has spent quite a long time in Syria – and her children, a boy and a girl.
“We attribute this success to the cooperation between the police special branch, Malaysian embassy in Turkey, our foreign ministry and the Turkish authorities,” Fuzi told reporters.
Fuzi said the process of returning the woman – identified by police only as “Aisyah” – began after her parents asked the authorities to help bring her home.
He said he did not think Aisyah and her children would pose security risks on Malaysian soil.
“Based on our investigations, the woman went to Syria because of her husband’s wish,” he said.
Aisyah was not involved with Islamic State (IS), but she will be required to enroll in a government-run rehabilitation program while authorities assist the family in obtaining citizenship papers, the police chief said.
IS widow: ‘Life is not like here’
Aisyah said she flew to Istanbul with her husband and their first child two and a half years ago, when she was pregnant with their second child, only to learn that they were bound for Syria.
“I was seven months into my pregnancy when we took a flight in March 2016. We stayed in a hotel in Istanbul for five days before my husband took me and our child to a rented house, also in the city. During our stay in the rented house, I sensed my husband wanted to go to Syria,” she told reporters.
“After a year in Turkey, we were then smuggled into Syria. The journey was rough as we had to go through jungles and were left behind on a hill to find our own way to our destination.”
The family settled in a small village in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria, where she stayed for more than a year while her husband became an IS fighter.
Aisyah said they survived on assistance from IS.
She said it was not difficult to learn the local language, but explosions scared her children in their first month there, adding they were the only Malaysians, along with several Indonesians who stayed in the area.
Aisyah’s life changed for the worse after she learned on Feb. 9 that her husband was killed in battle. Prior to his death, he told Aisyah to take care of the children and asked her to remain in Syria.
But Aisyah kept thinking about her parents and was in constant contact with her mother who advised her to return home.
“I missed home a bit, but I didn’t pay much attention when my husband was still alive. After he was killed, then only I thought of going home,” she said.
“I hope women and children who desire to travel to Syria think twice because life there is hard, bombs explode everywhere and life is not like here.”
Trying to bring others home
Since 2013, as many as 102 Malaysians have travelled to Syria to join IS, police said. Of those, 37 were killed, 11 returned home and 54 remain, the police chief said. Among the dead was the most wanted Malaysian militant, Muhamad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi.
“We hope those Malaysians still in Syria will meet us or request us to take them home. We will try to get them to return as their purpose there was misguided,” Fuzi said, adding that another four Malaysians had expressed hope about being able to return to their country.
“We are trying to extricate them from the conflict zone, which is a critical problem that must be considered. This is our and the government’s commitment to bringing them back to their family and society,” Fuzi said, declining to offer details on the effort.
“The process is highly risky apart from connectivity problems because we are using a third party to take them out,” he added.
Authorities have succeeded in repatriating some Malaysians from Iraq and Syria where IS militants have been defeated, while other attempts failed, Fuzi said.
A high government source said Aisyah’s husband was influenced by Wanndy through Facebook.
“We do not know how and what he was told, but Wanndy was known for being very convincing in his way of approaching people,” said the source who asked to remain anonymous.
“We need to protect her identity. She was not at fault. The children were not at fault. If we expose their identities, there will be repercussions,” he told BenarNews.
Wanndy was killed in a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, in April 2017.
Less than a year earlier, he masterminded a grenade attack at a nightclub on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, the first attack claimed by IS in Malaysia, authorities said.
After Wanndy’s death a Malaysian militant took over his role with IS, said Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the police’s counter-terrorism special branch.
“There’s another one active, Akel Zainal, who traveled to Syria in 2014. He is still playing a role to recruit Malaysians to travel to Syria,” Ayob told reporters after the press conference.
“Based on our monitoring of some 4,000 [profiles] on Facebook, there are 100 Malaysians still inclined to join either in the southern Philippines or Syria.”