Indonesia's decision not to repatriate ex-ISIS members welcomed by former militants

Men allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group in a Syrian prison in 2019.

After a week of debate, Indonesia has decided not to repatriate 689 of its citizens who had joined the Islamic State (ISIS) movement in Syria and Iraq.

Reformed Indonesian militants now working to prevent recidivism in the country have welcomed the decision, having previously warned that repatriation carried the risk of terror attacks in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Coordinating minister for legal, political and security affairs Mahfud MD on Tuesday said President Joko Widodo and the cabinet made the decision because the interests of the country's citizens outweighed those of the returning "foreign terrorist fighters", according to The Jakarta Post.

"The government and the state has to ensure that the 267 million people in Indonesia are safe from the threat of terrorism," Mahfud said after a cabinet meeting at the Bogor Presidential Palace in West Java. "If these foreign terrorist fighters come back they can become a new virus that makes those 267 million people feel unsafe."

Widodo last week said he "personally rejected" the possibility of repatriation, but said the final decision would be made after meeting with the cabinet.

Since the ISIS caliphate crumbled last year, militants from countries around the world have been confined in camps in Syria with their families, with the United States' killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last October dealing the group a further blow.

"I do not agree [with the repatriation] as ex-ISIS members carry the virus of an ideology that is very dangerous if it is allowed to enter into Indonesia," said Nasir Abas, former leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) group, adding that their mission was to establish an Islamic State in Indonesia.

Sofyan Tsauri, a former member of al-Qaeda of Southeast Asia, said he disagreed with their return as he knew "very well how dangerous their thinking is".

"The return of the former terrorists could become a trigger for other groups to carry out [the sort of terror activities] the former ISIS members did in Syria and Iraq," he said. "ISIS was defeated in the Middle East and [the repatriation] could give rise to revenge attacks by its sympathisers in Indonesia."

Legal, political and security affairs coordinating minister Mahfud said the citizenship status of the ISIS supporters was not discussed during the cabinet meeting, adding that the government would collect data on their numbers and identities.

However, he said repatriation for children under the age of 10 would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) said most of the 689 former ISIS members looking to return to Indonesia were women and children.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by the US last October. PHOTO: AFP

However, terrorism expert Noor Huda Ismail from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU) said this did not mean the women and children "are not radical or committed to ISIS' cause", pointing out that children of the group's members were often forced to undergo military training.

Former JI leader Nasir Abas believes the former ISIS members are using women and children to "gain sympathy" from the government so they will be allowed to return to Indonesia.

"That is why you always see [ISIS] women and children being interviewed by the media. That is their strategy to survive and to get out of their detention at the camps. Those children not only witnessed sadistic, barbaric acts, but there were children who shot dead and beheaded prisoners [themselves]," he said.

"As a result of that, children of former ISIS members cannot be treated as normal kids. Those children are dangerous."

Nasir also cautioned that former ISIS members would practise taqiyya, or deception, by pretending they were no longer radical.

He said there was a need to assess their level of fundamentalism, and that he would only agree to them returning home once they had undergone a one-month de-radicalisation programme and were deemed to have made good progress.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze following a blast outside the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church in 2018. Indonesia has suffered a string of terror attacks over the past 21 years. PHOTO: AFP

However, Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington said the government's decision was a short-term fix that "does nothing to resolve the issue".

"The decision creates a class of itinerant jihadis, some of whom will try to slip back into the country. While there is no good answer, it seems to me that the most responsible solution is to bring the Indonesian nationals back into the country in a controlled manner, charging those who engaged in terrorism or have a clear link to ISIS, and putting the others through a process of de-radicalisation," he said.

"It is not perfect, or fool proof, but it is a far better solution than what the government has decided to do. The group that remains in Iraq and Syria will form the locus of a new generation of terrorists able to orchestrate and inspire attacks back home."

Terrorism expert Noor Huda also expressed disappointment with the government's decision, even though he understands it is struggling logistically.

"These people are the product of Indonesian society whether we like it or not. We can't just dump this [on] the global community to handle," he said. "I know that my opinion is super unpopular as 97 per cent of Indonesian society says no [to repatriation].

There are also warnings that ISIS' post-caliphate strategy includes setting up paramilitary camps in the southern Philippines or eastern Indonesia.

Last year, Indonesian authorities arrested eight pro-ISIS militants in Papua province who were scouting for a location for a military training camp and hideout.

Their other strategies included "weaponising fake news" to discredit secular governments as part of their efforts to establish an Islamic State, said Noor Huda from NTU.

Indonesia has suffered a string of terror attacks over the past 21 years, with all major attacks since 2016 carried out by Jamaah Ansharut Daulah - the country's largest ISIS affiliate - as well as pro-ISIS radicals working solo.

Mohd Adhe Bhakti, executive director of Indonesia's Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies, said there had been at least two cases of pro-ISIS returnees from Syria and Turkey carrying out terror attacks - one in Indonesia at a police station in Medan in 2017 and another in the Philippines at the Jolo Cathedral in 2019.

In the latter case, the Indonesian couple accused of masterminding the attack, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, were deported from Turkey in 2017 and had undergone a one-month de-radicalisation programme.

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Robi Sugara, lecturer and counterterrorism analyst at Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University, said Indonesians who left for Syria to join ISIS "hate" their country as it is governed by secular and not sharia laws, despite being a Muslim-majority nation.

Some wanted to be fighters but others just wanted to be ordinary citizens in a caliphate, Sugara said, suggesting that those who did not engage in combat could be repatriated but should be "quarantined in Aceh", the only province in Indonesia governed by sharia law.

"Let Aceh be a lesson to them that Islamic sharia laws are not absolute and that the model practised by ISIS is banned," Sugara said.

However, Yudi Zulfahri, an Acehnese counterterrorism analyst who was a former militant, said ex-ISIS members would reject Aceh as they viewed the province's sharia law as being practised under an "infidel government".

This article was first published in theĀ South China Morning Post.