Malaysian and Indonesian officials say they have not heard from the de facto Kurdish government in northern Syria about its claims that it has a large number of Islamic State fighters from those Southeast Asian countries and their families in custody.
Counter-terrorist officials from Malaysia and Indonesia said they could not confirm whether citizens of their countries, who had allegedly taken up arms for the Islamic State militant group, were being held by Kurdish rebels following the fall of IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq.
“It is hard to get the numbers as we do not have access at the moment,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, the chief of the Malaysian police’s counter-terrorist special branch, told BenarNews.
“We still don’t know definitely whether we have citizens held by Kurdish rebel forces,” he said Thursday.
In Jakarta, the National Counterterrorist Agency (BNPT) had received no information on whether Kurdish authorities were holding IS fighters from Indonesia and their families, according to a deputy for international cooperation at the bureau.
“We haven’t seen any report that confirms that,” Hamidin, the official who uses only one name, told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, an official at the Indonesian foreign ministry, said the government would not allow Indonesian nationals who had taken up arms for IS in the Middle East to be repatriated, despite a recent plea made by the de facto Kurdish administration. It had called on dozens of countries to take back citizens who had become IS fighters and their families who were also in Kurdish custody.
“What we understand is that we will never bring home those who are fighters because when they fight for ISIS they have made a conscious decision to travel there,” Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, the ministry’s director for the protection of Indonesians overseas, told BenarNews, using another acronym for IS.
“If they were fighters, we leave it to local law enforcement authorities to bring them to justice according to local Kurdish laws,” he added.
‘Some of these fighters are dangerous’
The officials in Southeast Asia were reacting to comments made by a Kurdish official in a recent interview with BenarNews.
The rebels in northern Syria were holding nearly 900 IS fighters, along with 400 to 500 women and more than 1,000 children from 44 countries, who had been rounded up after IS strongholds in the region fell, said Abdulkarim Omar, co-chairman of the Foreign Relations Commission in North Syria.
“We have always expressed our willingness to hand over the foreign IS fighters to their governments, but unfortunately most countries try to shirk their responsibilities,” Omar told BenarNews via email. “The number of Indonesian and Malaysian IS fighters, women and children is not little, especially the Indonesians.
“Our region is unstable. Any chaos may enable IS fighters to flee. Some of those fighters are dangerous and may pose serious threats in Europe and the international community,” he said.
Women and children in IS families have been steeped in radical ideology and “they need rehabilitation, which we cannot secure alone,” he warned. “Thus, every country should assume its responsibility and work to secure its citizens and prosecute them on its soil.”
In late September, Omar told journalists that the de facto administration could not hold the captured IS fighters and their families indefinitely, according to a report by Reuters.
“For us it is a very large number because these Daeshis are dangerous and they committed massacres, and their presence in our detention is an opportunity for the international community to put them on trial,” Reuters quoted Omar as saying in referring to IS members.
“We alone cannot bear this burden,” he added then.
In his later comments to Benar, Omar said “our decision not to try them in our region is firm, and we will use diplomatic means to hand them over to their governments.”
He declined to give an exact number for Southeast Asian IS fighters and their families in Kurdish custody, citing safety concerns.
“However, if our efforts do not yield results, then we would take a new position which will be announced at an appropriate time.”
One option could be to try the IS fighters and send them back to their home countries to serve their sentences, he said.
‘We do not engage with the rebels’
In Kuala Lumpur, Ayob said the Malaysian government would not negotiate with “non-state actors” in the Syrian conflict such as the Kurdish rebels.
“We have to get help from the ICRC, UNHCR or the Syrian government,” Ayob told BenarNews, referring to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“We do not engage with the rebels. But if the rebels decide to free them, we will get the ICRC to bring them out of Syria and bring them home.”
Previously, Malaysian officials had said that 102 Malaysian citizens had traveled to Syria to join IS since 2013.
In October, Malaysian police revealed that they had succeeded in bringing home a widow and her two children from Syria following the February death of her husband, a Malaysian IS fighter.
The widow, given the pseudonym “Aisyah,” was presented by Ayob and Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 25. She said she had been duped by her late husband into believing that their 2016 trip abroad was to Turkey, before she and her then-only child were smuggled into Syria to join IS.
At the time, Fuzi said Turkish authorities aided in efforts to bring them home to Malaysia. He said authorities were looking at four more groups in Syria who had asked for help to come home.
After the IS Syrian stronghold of Raqqa fell last year, 18 Indonesians who were found in the area were deported back to their home country, said Lalu, the Indonesian foreign ministry official.
“After a vetting process by Kurdish forces, eighteen people were deported but they were not fighters – mostly women and children,” Lalu told Benar.
“We haven’t received any direct information from them [Kurdish forces] again,” he said.