Militants linked to Islamic State extremists have launched an ideological campaign to persuade dozens of Malaysians living in Syrian camps to stay and fight to re-establish a caliphate in the Middle East, Malaysia’s counter-terrorist police chief said Thursday.
Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay said efforts to repatriate Malaysians from Syria, including women and children, were being complicated by the Islamic State information campaign as IS tries to regain power it lost, after Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces drove its forces out of Baguz in March 2019. Baguz was the last IS stronghold in Syria and Iraq.
“IS is trying its best to brainwash, control and persuade Malaysians and others that IS will return to power, making some of them reluctant to return home,” Ayob told BenarNews.
“They have gone through a very strong process of indoctrination to believe that their actions are correct [and] based on the hadith,” he said, adding that police had received intelligence regarding Malaysians in Syria from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
Malaysian police were working with unnamed third parties in the region to reach out to those citizens in Syria and begin the repatriation process, and the Malaysian government would decide whether to allow them to return home, Ayob said.
Police identified 56 Malaysians – 19 men, 12 women, 17 boys and eight girls – who are living in Syrian camps or at large, according to the chief of the Malaysian police’s anti-terror wing.
“IS is attempting to strengthen their ideology at camps where women and children are detained in Syria. We have obtained information that IS is influencing them not to return to their country of origin,” Ayob said, according to the New Straits Times newspaper.
Previously, 11 women and children told officials they were willing to return, but that number has fallen to nine, he said. Police have identified 10 women, 12 boys and five girls who are living at the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria.
“Nine Malaysian men are in the al-Hasakah prison while one is in the Idlib prison. So far, we have not been able to contact them,” Ayob told BenarNews, when asked if the Malaysian men wanted to be repatriated.
If the men choose to return, they will be detained and investigated for potential criminal charges, Ayob said, adding that the women and children would undergo a special assessment by psychologists.
“We will find out why they are in Syria, whether they were forced or joined IS. If there is sufficient evidence, the women will be charged as well,” he said.
2 men deported, charged
In December, two men who were accused of traveling to Syria to commit terrorist acts were charged under Malaysia’s Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act. Both men could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
The pair were the first Malaysians to be deported from Syria after Turkish troops crossed the border into Syrian territory in October 2019 to go after Kurdish fighters.
Lawyer Hamdan Hamzah who represents one of the suspects, Mohamad Azmer, told a judge that his client wanted the case to be heard by the High Court.
“The accused had been to Syria. That is the crux of the charge,” Hamdan told Judge Saifuakmal Mohd Said at a hearing last month. “The accused intents to plead guilty at the High Court.”
Meanwhile, Ayob said about 120 Malaysians were known to have traveled to Syria since 2014 to engage in terrorist activities, adding that there had been no recent attempts.
More than 55,000 suspected militants and their families have been taken to detention centers since IS lost control of its territory, according to the U.N. About 11,000 family members of fighters from almost 50 countries are being held at the al-Hol camp in substandard conditions.
About 50 detainees are Malaysians, officials said in December.
In addition, Malaysian authorities have arrested 495 people linked to alleged terror activities since 2013, according to government figures compiled by BenarNews. Dozens have been freed but no clear number is available.
Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.