By Tia Asmara
Indonesia says it is working to verify the nationalities of dozens of people believed to be members of Indonesian families that joined Islamic State but are sheltering at a camp in Syria after the extremist group’s last bastion fell.
The process could take months because Indonesian officials first have to establish how many of these people, including women and children, are citizens before they can figure out what to do with them next, an official with the foreign ministry said.
“We have to verify whether they really are Indonesian citizens or not,” Arrmanatha Nasir, a ministry spokesman, told a news conference in Jakarta on Thursday.
He and other officials were responding to questions in the wake of news reports and online videos that surfaced this week, in which members of a group of about 50 people said to be Indonesians pleaded for the government’s help in being repatriated.
According to the reports, the group was huddling at the Al-Hol camp for displaced people in northeastern Syria following the capture of the last Islamic State (IS) stronghold in the country by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces on March 23.
Arrmanatha said many Indonesians who travelled to Syria to join IS no longer had official documents such as passports and identification cards.
The verification could take more than three months and would involve the National Police and the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), which would have to confirm and cross-check information with various parties including relatives of the displaced people, he said.
“They will investigate whether they were involved with (IS) or not, whether they are Indonesian citizens or not. After that, we will decide what to do,” Arrmanatha said.
Since January about 66,000 people had left Baghouz, the last IS bastion in Syria, including 5,000 combatants and 24,000 IS family members, according to a report by the Indonesian-language news website Tirto.id, which covered the story from the Al-Hol camp.
A video posted by Tirto.id showed a woman named Maryam Abdullah, who claimed to be from Bandung, West Java. She said she had come to Syria from Indonesia with her husband, Saifuddin, and their four children.
“My husband is missing, there is no news,” she said. “Please help so we can go back to our home country, Indonesia.”
Last month, Syrian Kurdish journalist Hisham Arafat posted a video on Twitter showing eight children believed to be Indonesians after they were evacuated from Baghouz.
The children’s father was still fighting with IS, while their mother was killed in an airstrike by American-led coalition forces, Arafat wrote in his Feb. 26 report.
No reliable information
Arrmanatha said the government had difficulty getting information about Indonesians in Syria but said most of them had left the Middle Eastern country in 2016.
“The problem is that when they left Indonesia, they did not say they were going to Syria to join ISIS or stay there. So what we can do if there are Indonesian citizens abroad, we advise them to report themselves,” he said, using another acronym for IS.
According to 2017 data from BNPT, at least 1,321 Indonesians had joined IS or tried to enlist with the terror group.
This figure included nearly 600 Indonesian citizens who went to Syria and Iraq. Of that number, 84 were killed, 482 were deported while trying to enter Syria, and 62 had returned from Syria. Another 63 were stopped at Indonesian airports while trying to travel to the Middle East.
In November 2018, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told BenarNews that around 700 Indonesian citizens had joined IS in Syria and Iraq.
In recent weeks, as Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in the Middle East dwindled down to a tiny patch of Syrian territory, countries have debated what to do with their citizens who went to Syria and Iraq to fight for IS or live under areas controlled by it, but who now wanted to go home.
The United States and Britain are among those that have largely refused to reclaim their nationals who strayed into Islamic State’s orbit in Syria and Iraq.
Adhe Bhakti, a terrorism expert at the Center for the Study of Radicalization and De-radicalization (PAKAR), an Indonesian NGO, said his country’s government was facing a dilemma.
“It won’t look good for the government if these people are left stateless or in limbo,” he told BenarNews.
Some Indonesians who joined IS had destroyed their travel documents and sold all their assets in their home country, but when things got tough in Syria and Iraq, they changed their minds and wanted to come back to Indonesia, he said.
“From a security standpoint, these people went to Syria not to be tourists. They had an intention to fight and the level of violence was high,” he said, emphasizing that Indonesian authorities should guard against the possibility that returnees could commit terrorist acts back on home soil.
Sidney Jones, who directs the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, agreed, saying that anyone who had gone to the Middle East to join IS should be viewed as a potential security risk.
“For humanitarian reasons, they are better off being sent home because their position is very difficult. They want to go home and the government should help its citizens,” she told BenarNews.
But the government should set conditions before agreeing to repatriate these people, such as compelling them to express remorse for what they did and to pledge not to return to radicalism, she said.
“There must be a special program for ex-combatants. A one-month program at the Ministry of Social Affairs is not enough because they have to be identified by agencies that can assist, or become their mentors,” Jones said.