By Rina Chadijah
A tearful TV plea by the young daughter of an Indonesian Islamic State (IS) fighter languishing in Syria has stoked a debate in Indonesia about whether the government should take back citizens and their children who traveled to the Middle East to fight for the terrorist group.
For months, officials with Indonesia’s government have wrestled with the question of what to do with hundreds of citizens – many of them women and children – who have been confined to camps since Islamic State’s (IS) last bastion in Iraq and Syria fell in March 2019.
But a BBC interview with Nada Fedulla, who said her father had taken her with him when he left Indonesia in 2015 to join the extremist group, has gone viral on social media since airing last week. It has added new fire to a national debate on whether citizens and their families who joined IS in Syria or Iraq should be allowed to return home.
Agustinus, a Jakarta resident, said nobody had forced the Indonesians to go to the Middle East.
“Surely, they knew the risks,” he told BenarNews. “I don’t believe they should be repatriated.”
Augustinus worried that people who had gone to Syria or Iraq would still hold onto radical ideas and not be able to tolerate citizens who disagreed with their ideology.
“I think people who have been exposed to such an ideology are difficult to change,” he said. “Who can guarantee they will not get involved again with terrorism after returning here?”
But others think Nada and others should get a second chance.
Nasdiana, a Jakarta resident, said the interview touched her and she believed that Nada and people like her should be allowed to return.
“I can see that she is genuinely remorseful. They will have a better future if repatriated,” she said.
She said the government must prioritize women and children who live in Syrian camps, but those who fought for IS should be prosecuted.
“If they feel sorry, they can still be guided again to the right path,” Nasdiana told BenarNews.
In the interview from Syria, Nada recalled how she had dreamed of becoming a doctor in Indonesia but wound up in the camp in Syria, years after her father took her there when he left Indonesia to join IS.
Now, the visibly remorseful Nada said, she wanted to return to her home country.
“I’m really tired here. We’re thankful if there are people who forgive me,” she told a BBCNews correspondent as tears streamed down her face.
On Wednesday, the day the interview aired, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said that if it were up to him, he would not allow IS followers to return to Indonesia, but he said the government would make a decision on their fate after a meeting involving relevant institutions.
“We’re still deliberating and soon we will decide,” he said. “We’re weighing pros and cons. Everything must be considered carefully.”
“If you ask me — but we haven’t held an executive meeting over this — I’d say no [to their repatriation],” the Coconuts news website quoted him as saying.
Security minister Mahfud MD said a decision was likely to be made in May or June.
Father: ‘The craziest thing in my life’
Nada told the BBC that she was taken to Syria in 2015 by her father, Arif Fedulla, who was tempted by promises of a better life under IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Her father is now a prisoner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia who declared they had captured IS last bastion, the Syrian town of Baghouz, last March.
The Indonesian government has said more than 600 citizens who joined IS in the Middle East were stuck in camps in the region.
Nada said her father had apologized to her.
“Before I didn’t know my father would bring us here. When I was in school, I really wanted to be a doctor and I really liked to study,” Nada said in the interview.
She said she had seen IS fighters display the bodies of their victims.
“Sometimes we saw … they slaughter people and they [do] it on the street [to make] people see the heads and the bodies,” she said.
Nada’s father said he regretted his decision to bring his child to Syria.
“The craziest thing in my life is bringing my family to Syria. Everyone makes mistakes in his life. And this is the biggest mistake in my life,” he told the BBC.
PKS: Many ‘innocent little children’
IS once controlled a swath of land that spilled across the boundaries of Iraq and Syria until they were defeated by U.S.-led allied forces and the SDF, whose victory also ushered in a series of concerns, including extradition, rehabilitation or criminal trials for captured foreign fighters, as well as their wives and children.
Pro-IS Indonesians entered Syria between 2015 and 2017, mostly through Turkey, according to security officials in Jakarta.
In August 2017, Indonesia repatriated 18 citizens from Syria and subjected them to a month-long deradicalization program.
Based on intelligence information, Indonesians in Syria are staying in three camps – Al-Hol, Al-Ruj and Ain Issa – where they are guarded by different groups, Suhardi Alius, chief of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), said Friday.
“There are three authorities – the SDF, the Syrian government and the Kurdistan government,” he told reporters in Jakarta, adding that most Indonesians at the camps were women and children.
Suhardi said he had requested intelligence agencies in friendly countries help with the verification of the Indonesians.
Citing “humanitarian grounds,” leaders of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) called for the former IS members and their families to be repatriated.
“I feel sorry for them stranded there. Their children, their parents are there,” Mardani Ali Sera, PKS central advisory board chairman, told reporters. “Many of them are innocent little children.”
But, under the country’s citizenship law, those who left for Syria and joined IS lost their citizenship, according to one analyst.
“When they joined ISIS, they considered it as their country, therefore they willingly gave up their Indonesian citizenship,” Hikmahanto Juwana, a lecturer of international law at the University of Indonesia, told BenarNews, using another acronym for IS.
He said some of the Indonesians had intentionally destroyed their passports.
“In theory they are stateless, but they are not in Indonesia,” he said, “So the government does not need to be bothered about their citizenship.”