ISIS-affiliated groups are persistent threats to Indonesia's national security. Image: Facebook

The Indonesian government has finally taken the decision not to repatriate hundreds of Indonesian Islamic State (ISIS) fighters and supporters stranded in Kurdish-controlled prisons and detention camps close to the Syria-Iraq border, calling them a “virus” that could infect the rest of the population.

Indonesia is normally protective of its people abroad but the February 11 announcement came as no surprise after President Joko Widodo, Political Coordinating Minister Mahfud MD, security chiefs and religious leaders all gave repatriation plans the thumbs down.

The decision applies to not only the estimated 200 detainees in northern Syria, but to as many as 500 other militants and sympathizers the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has identified in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia.

For Widodo, it is another problem he can do without as he focuses his attention on reviving the country’s moribund economy. “It is still under discussion, plus and minus,” he said earlier this month. “But if you ask me, I will say ‘no.’”

“That’s always been the case,” says one terrorism expert who is tracking the situation. “The Indonesians all had their passports taken away by ISIS and authorities say because they don’t have travel documents, they can’t prove their nationality. The police don’t want them back and neither does the army.”

What makes the issue sensitive is that at least 80% of the detainees, in Syria at least, are women and children whose husbands and partners, like other foreign fighters, were cynically used as cannon fodder by the ISIS leadership as the caliphate crumbled.

Indonesians arrive at the Ain Issa camp, 50 kilometers north of Raqqa after fleeing the ISIS group’s Syrian bastion, June 13, 2017. – Photo by Ayham al-Mohammad / AFP

Most are living in squalid conditions in al-Hol, a sprawling camp of 74,000 about 200 kilometers east of the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in Syria. Food, water and health care are in short supply and hard-core women in the camp are still trying to enforce ISIS rules, according to numerous reports.

Some of the Indonesians are the widows of non-Indonesian foreigners whom they married in Syria, often after their first Indonesian husband was killed. Others are married to Indonesian militants who are detained separately in Syrian Defense Force (SDF) prisons.

If the families were not radicalized before leaving for the Middle East, they almost certainly are now. And that makes them a significant threat if they are released back into Indonesia’s population. If social media sentiment is any guide, many Indonesians don’t want them back either.

Even the influential mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, which has a membership of more than 40 million, is opposed to their repatriation. But Widodo’s government has made no effort to follow the lead of some European nations by illegally trying to strip detainees of their citizenship.

“If these foreign terrorist fighters come back they could become a new terrorist virus that threatens our 267 million people,” Mahfud told reporters on February 11 after meeting with the president at his Bogor palace. “There are no plans to bring them home.”

He did say, however, that the government would spend more time collecting its own data and would consider repatriating children under 10 years of age on a case by case basis, whether their parents are in detention or not.

Security sources say they believe about 60 Indonesian fighters have slipped back into Indonesia apparently undetected since the fall of the ISIS caliphate early last year, but little is known about their whereabouts or whether they have joined active terror groups like Jamaah Anshurat Daulah (JAD).

A government worker removes ISIS flags painted on walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia. Photo: AFP Forum/Agoes Rudianto

There is confusion over the official number of ISIS sympathizers. The CIA’s list of 689, whose existence has only just become known, is believed to include many duplicates; because Arab and English speakers wrote their names down phonetically when they were detained, they bear no relation to their Indonesian spellings.

Government sources told Asia Times the CIA accounting does include photographs and fingerprints, but the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), which has a slightly lower figure, still has to compare it with their own database and other government records.

Most of the ISIS faithful went to the Middle East with their eyes wide open, seduced by the romantic notion of living in a caliphate. Some families sold off everything they owned to make the journey, convinced they would never return to their Indonesian homeland.

Reintegrating them back into society would be a complex and long-term process which authorities are ill-equipped to deal with and without any real guarantee of success. It is safer, they say, to leave them where they are – at least for now.

De-radicalization programs have worryingly foundered on a shortage of funding, the lack of a proper prison classification system and a failure to understand that the process will take years and must offer the promise of employment and a better future.

Widodo began his second term with a renewed drive to crack down on growing Islamic radicalism, appointing retired army general Fachrul Razi as religious affairs minister and former police chief Tito Karnavian as home affairs minister.

They and other members of the new Cabinet have started to implement policies aimed at curbing radicalism within the bureaucracy and revising the curriculums of Islamic and state schools which teach children to be intolerant of other religions.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) accompanied by top security officials in 2016. Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Rusman

The Religious Affairs Ministry is also working on an overhaul of a joint 2006 ministerial regulation laying down stringent requirements for the building of new places of worship, which has become a bone of contention among diverse communities.

“We must stop intolerance, stop xenophobia, stop radicalism and stop terrorism,” Widodo told a joint session of the Australian Parliament during his first official visit to Canberra this week.

Against this background, the surviving Indonesian militants and their dependents who flocked to join ISIS when it declared its short-lived caliphate in 2014 can expect to remain cut off from their homeland for a long while.

Minister Razi, a former deputy military commander, was forced to retract a February 1 statement that the BNPT would repatriate the stranded ISIS supporters, some of whom once made a show of burning their Indonesian passports.

Last August, the Jakarta-based Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), an independent research outfit, urged the government to move forward on a policy for bringing back its more vulnerable citizens, especially children made orphans by three years of bitter Middle Eastern warfare.

“There’s no need to wait for an all-encompassing policy to bring back those most at risk,” said IPAC director Sidney Jones, a leading terrorism expert. “The government doesn’t have to decide what to do about 200 people, it can start with five or ten.”

Indonesian children rest following their arrival at the Ain Issa camp, 50 kilometres north of Raqa, after fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group’s Syrian bastion on June 13, 2017. – Photo: AFP/Ayham al-Mohammad

The IPAC briefing quotes a Kurdish journalist who reported that among those who fled from the last pocket of ISIS-held territory at Baghouz in March 2019 were eight Indonesian children, whose mother had died and whose father was still fighting. The oldest was then 15.

Jones says the dilemma facing Indonesian authorities is exemplified by the case of Utsman Mustofa Mahdamy, a Solo-born combat radio operator who surrendered to Kurdish-led forces after the fall of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in October 2017.

In February last year, Mahdamy wrote to his relatives in Indonesia, saying his decision to join ISIS was the biggest mistake of his life and that he was willing to work with the Indonesian government if he and his family were allowed to return home.

Underlining the difficulties faced by Indonesian authorities, Jones asked how they whether he is telling the truth and how they can make a proper assessment of his sincerity without gaining access to the six main SDF prisons now holding an estimated 10,000 ISIS detainees.

As of mid-2019, Mahdamy was among five Indonesians imprisoned, along with what are considered to be the most dangerous 400 ISIS fighters, in a converted warehouse near the town of Al-Malkiyah in northern Syria.

In the meantime, his wife remains in al-Roj, one of a cluster of smaller camps close to the Iraq border where she and her children are open to harsh treatment from more diehard detainees who are well aware of her husband’s “defection.”

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