INDONESIA has confirmed that 159 of its citizens left the country to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.
Police Inspector-General Tito Karnavian, giving the first official confirmation of the number, said 11 of them had been killed and at least another 11 had returned to Indonesia.
The rest included a group of 16 Indonesians detained in Turkey early this year, and another 16 who went missing after arriving in Turkey as part of a tour group last month. They are believed to have since crossed into Syria.
Officials so far estimated that 500 Indonesians could have entered Syria, usually via Turkey, to link up with ISIS fighters.
General Tito, the former chief of the anti-terror elite squad Detachment 88, was speaking to foreign journalists at a discussion on the ISIS threat.
Among the dozen or so Indonesians who returned, three were caught and are awaiting trial.
The world's most populous Muslim-majority country, Indonesia practises a tolerant brand of Islam and has cracked down on major terrorist networks like the Al- Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah. But it is still grappling with radical fringe groups, some of which have pledged allegiance to ISIS.
On Monday, four ethnic Uighurs from China's Xinjiang region went on trial for allegedly attempting to link up with local militants in Poso, Central Sulawesi.
Anti-terror police recently arrested five men, four of whom allegedly helped arrange for the batch of 16 detained Indonesians, comprising 11 children, four women and one man, to go to Syria.
The fifth was nabbed for rallying people to join ISIS on his radical website and uploading a video of children trained by ISIS.
At the same discussion, terrorism analyst Sidney Jones said the 16 detained in Turkey are linked to local terrorist groups.
Two of the women are heavily pregnant. One, named Tiara, is the wife of a man called Hidayat or "Dayat", who was shot dead by police in July 2013 during a raid.
Ms Jones said Dayat was a computer hacker who joined an extremist group in Medan and helped siphon money to fund terrorists.
"All this underscores that those who are going to Syria are mostly linked directly or indirectly to existing networks. It is actually hard for someone with no connections to get recommendations (to link up)," said Ms Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
Journalist and author Solahudin, who wrote the book The Roots Of Terrorism In Indonesia, noted that the trend of using a tour group to go to Syria via Turkey is driven by the appeal of a "five-star jihad".
"They are given a stipend... get free food, free housing... schooling, everything is free, better than in Indonesia," added the author, who goes by one name.
While terrorism analysts believe that the present capability of terrorists in Indonesia is still weak and the government has begun blocking access to some radical sites, they warn that preventive measures, such as monitoring those who return from terrorist battlegrounds in the Middle East, are crucial to thwart ISIS' spread.
Recalling how radicalised Indonesians returned to set up terror networks like Jemaah Islamiah, which was behind several bombings in Bali and Jakarta in the past decade, Gen Tito said: "We failed to detect them when they came back. It is an important lesson for us not to do the same thing again."
This article was first published on Mar 26, 2015.
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