Malaysia is willing to take back 53 citizens who joined the Islamic State but are stranded in the Middle East after the collapse of IS’s self-declared caliphate in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the nation’s police chief said Tuesday.
Malaysian authorities will allow the suspected militants, whose passports have been revoked, to return to the country, but under one condition, Police Inspector-General Mohamad Fuzi Harun told BenarNews.
“If they are willing to surrender, let us know and we will inform the relevant authorities,” Fuzi said. “If we can help, we will help. Our work has always been about helping people.”
On Oct. 23, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told the parliament that 53 Malaysians were hiding in no-man’s land in Iraq and Syria, after U.S.-backed forces routed IS fighters and seized Raqqa, known as the extremist group’s de facto capital. He said 34 Malaysians had also been killed during fighting in the two war-torn countries.
Fuzi said the 53 Malaysians – composed of 24 men, 12 women and 17 children – were still in Syria and may have fled cities where fierce battles took place. Other officials had said earlier that the Malaysians might have sought refuge in camps on the borders with Jordan and Turkey.
“Yes, they are still there and I’ve mentioned this [figure] before. They don’t have a base now and nowhere to go as they have been defeated. They can't come back as their passports have been revoked,” he said.
The police chief described the 53 like “sons who have lost their dad.”
“Now, they are looking for survival,” he said. “So either they run to other countries to set up a new base or come back illegally.”
But Fuzi expressed doubts that the Malaysians were remorseful about going to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside IS. They might not be willing to seek help from a Malaysian embassy to surrender, he said.
“I don’t think they would go to the Malaysian embassies, as they know they would be arrested later,” Fuzi said.
During the past four years, Malaysian authorities have arrested 349 people suspected of having links to terror groups, including IS. Sixty-six of those suspects have been freed, according to government figures compiled by BenarNews.
Malaysian security officials had earlier said that they had arrested two Indonesians, a Malaysian and two Bangladeshis who tried to sneak into the southern Philippines to join a pro-IS faction of the Abu Sayyaf, a group of gunmen that battled Philippine government forces in Marawi in a five-month firefight that killed more than 1,000 people.
Malaysia, home to about 19.5 million Muslims who make up more than 60 percent of its population, has foiled nine IS-related bomb plots since 2013, security officials said. However, an IS-linked grenade attack last year at a nightclub in Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, injured eight people.
IS preparing for a new phase
At its height in 2014, the Islamic State, also known by other acronyms such as ISIS or ISIL, controlled Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and considered large tracts of land on both sides of the border among its important bastions.
IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claimed to be the successor to the caliphs, the Islamic emperors who ruled the region in past centuries, declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Mosul and persuaded thousands of Muslims around the world, including Malaysians and Indonesians, to travel to the region and fight.
But after IS was pushed out of Mosul in July and following its recent defeat in Raqqa, the group might be preparing for a new phase by trying to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia, according to analysts.
Security experts have warned that militants might move from the Middle East to the southern Philippines, although Malaysian intelligence officials said it would be difficult for their citizens to travel from Syria because they no longer possessed valid travel documents.
In August, 18 Indonesians who admitted to having joined IS in Syria were placed in police custody after returning to their homeland, officials said.
The group reportedly included a former high-ranking civil servant from Batam, an Indonesian island about 18 km (12 miles) from Singapore, who abandoned his post in August 2015 to go to Syria, as well as four other men, nine women and four children.