Indonesian counterterrorism officials are prepared to allow hundreds of captured Islamic State (ISIS) fighters and their families to return to their homeland, with one significant condition: They must renounce the radical ideology that drove them to Syria and Iraq in the first place.
The screening will take place in Syria, but National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) director Suhardi Alius acknowledged in a recent interview with Tempo magazine that it won’t be easy, saying the influence of the women in particular cannot be underestimated.
The United Nations Security Council warned earlier this year about the danger of assuming that returning men were a higher security threat than women.
“Women play important roles in ISIS recruitment and propaganda…even if they don’t fight, they can still spread radical ideas and encourage others to commit attacks.”
Several Western countries, including France, Britain and the Netherlands, have sought to avoid responsibility for their stranded nationals, insisting that logistical challenges and security risks make it almost impossible for them to offer any help.
Others, such as Turkey, Kosovo, Russia and the Central Asia states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have already repatriated hundreds of former ISIS followers, though they are not so transparent in showing what happens to them after they arrive on home soil.
Apart from about 200 Indonesian women and children at the crowded Al Hol refugee camp close to the Syria-Turkey border, the BNPT still does not have a clear estimate of how many Indonesians are among the 1,000 foreign militants being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alone.
More than 120 Indonesian terrorists have died in the conflict across Iraq and Syria since 2014, but Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones believes another 200 men, not all of them combatants, are languishing in Kurdish jails.
Among the more high-value detainees is Munawar Kholil, 32, who acted as a key recruiter before he went to Syria himself in 2012. He is being held along with other ranking leaders in Al-Malikiyah Prison in the tri-border area of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry does not have any record of Indonesians being put on trial in Iraq, where courts have already sentenced more than 500 foreign ISIS fighters to death or to heavy jail terms, often for being only members of the terror group.
Most of the Indonesian women and children in the Al Hol camp came from the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz, where ISIS made a last stand against the Kurdish-led SDF last March as the caliphate crumbled from thousands of square kilometers to a tiny enclave.
Kurdish officials say the threat from terrorist sleeper cells in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zur further to the northwest in the Euphrates River valley will remain until there is a political solution to the overall Syrian conflict.
After selling all their property, many of the Indonesian detainees also burned their passports once they arrived in Syria, which left them officially stateless until authorities can check their birth certificates and track down family members to verify their identity.
The Indonesian government has established police liaison offices in Ankara and Damascus and asked Turkish authorities to put Indonesian deportees on direct flights to Jakarta, so they can’t get off at different transit points and re-enter their homeland undetected.
Intelligence reports suggest as many as 500 Indonesians may remain in Syria, but an unknown number of militants who have no wish to return home are believed to have crossed from Turkey and Iraq into Iran on their way to Afghanistan to join the growing ISIS in Khorasan (ISIS-K).
Alius says he does not object to Indonesian militants accused of specific terrorist acts being tried in an international court. As for the returnees, security remains the number one priority given the fact that one deportee was involved in last year’s Surabaya suicide bombings, which claimed 28 lives.
“It is essential to eradicate these new seeds (of terrorism),” Alius told Tempo. “We have to pay attention to our Indonesian citizens, but we must safeguard Indonesia as a whole. If they (the returnees) can come in just like that and we are re-infiltrated, it would be a disaster.”
Many Indonesians returned home from the Middle East disillusioned and penniless after being attracted by the romantic illusion of defending a caliphate and being greeted with privation and brutality on a scale for which they were unprepared.
ISIS cells remain active across Indonesia. Only last month, the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit headed off a plot by the extremist Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) network to carry out suicide bombings during demonstrations in Jakarta against alleged voter fraud in the April presidential election.
ISIS-affiliated groups, including JAD, are not united in any structured way, but analysts say that is what makes them more difficult to eradicate. It is also clear that the Surabaya attacks and other violence has been the work of home-grown militants who never set foot in Iraq or Syria.
Critics say while attention for now rests on bringing home Indonesians from the Middle East who are not deemed to be a potential threat, the BNPT has to spend far more on its stuttering de-radicalization program than simply involving more religious figures.
“They have to be prepared to support these people for two or three years,” says one counterterrorism expert. “Once they come out of the program, they have no money and no job. What are they going to do? They see no future for themselves, so where are they going to go?”