By Ronna Nirmala and Tia Asmara
Indonesia will not repatriate hundreds of citizens who fought for the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq, but will consider bringing back some of their children on a case-by-case, the nation’s security minister said Tuesday.
Officials made the decision to protect the world’s largest Muslim-majority country from “the virus of terrorism,” said Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
“We have no plan to bring home terrorists, will not bring home FTF [foreign terrorist fighters] to Indonesia,” Mahfud told reporters. “If these foreign terrorist fighters come back they can become a new virus.”
Mahfud made the statement at the presidential palace in Bogor, south of Jakarta, after a meeting with President Joko Widodo and other top officials.
“Children younger than 10 will be considered [for repatriation], but on a case-by-case basis, whether they have parents or they are orphans,” he said.
For months, officials have wrestled with the question of what to do with hundreds of Indonesians – many of them women and children – who have been confined to camps since IS’s last bastion in Iraq and Syria fell in March 2019.
But a tearful plea to go home by Nada Fedulla, the young daughter of an Indonesian IS fighter in Syria, during an interview with BBC, reignited the debate after it went viral on social media last week.
Citing information from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Mahfud said 689 Indonesians had joined IS in Syria and other countries. Only 228 of those citizens have been identified, he said.
The figure is almost half of the 1,500 reported by the anti-terrorism police unit Densus 88 in November 2019.
“The government will also collect more valid data on the number and identity of people who are considered involved in terrorism by joining ISIS,” Mahfud said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the executive board of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, said it opposed the idea of repatriating IS fighters.
“The board rejects the return of ISIS combatants because they went there out of their own volition,” NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj told reporters in Jakarta.
Said made the statement after meeting with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who had sought advice from the NU board on what to do with Indonesians who were languishing in Syrian camps.
“They burned their passports because they said they were the passports of an idolatrous country. They consider ISIS as a state, they have thrown away their citizenship and joined ISIS. So there is nothing wrong if the government rejects them,” he said.
Retno said the government would continue to collect more information about Indonesians in Syria. “We want to verify first, because we have received a lot of data and they are confusing,” she told reporters.
According to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) in 2017, at least 1,321 Indonesians had joined IS worldwide. More than 80 of those citizens had been declared dead, officials said.
Clear legal status
M. Syauqillah, chairman of terrorism studies at the University of Indonesia, said the government needed to explain to the public the legal basis for its decision not to repatriate its citizens.
“[The law] stipulates that Indonesian citizens could lose citizenship if they join a foreign army. But do we interpret ISIS as a foreign army, even though it’s an unlawful combat force, a terrorist group?” he told BenarNews.
He said those who burned their passports did not automatically lose their citizenship.
Syauqillah said the government had two options: issue an emergency decree or amend the citizenship law.
“It must be prepared for the possibility of a legal challenge,” he said.
“Not repatriating them does not guarantee that they will not re-enter Indonesia because our borders are porous,” he said.
Yon Machmudi, an expert in Middle East and Islamic affairs at the University Indonesia, deplored the government’s move.
“De-radicalization is difficult to do, especially among former combatants, but many of them are children and deradicalization can be done,” he told a forum in Jakarta.
He said BNPT should, instead, device programs to ensure that those who returned did not pose threats to society.
“It’s better for them to return and be subjected to restrictions than to enter by other [illegal] means undetected, which could have adverse repercussions,” he said.
In August 2019, the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) urged Indonesia to begin repatriating its most vulnerable citizens who had joined IS and not let them remain in the camps where they could face intimidation from supporters of the extremist group.
“There’s no need to wait for an all-encompassing policy to begin to bring back those most at risk,” IPAC director Sidney Jones told BenarNews at the time.
“The problem is that the longer the government delays taking action, the greater the likelihood of intimidation in the camps and the higher the political risks of repatriation,” she said.