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Should Indonesia accept Islamic State returnees?

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Author: Chaula Rininta Anindya, RSIS

Indonesian former members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) stuck in Syria are now under the media spotlight. Many of them live in poor conditions, are struggling to make ends meet, expressing remorse for joining IS and pleading for the Indonesian government to repatriate them. The issue of how to handle them is now stirring debate on social media.

Indonesian police show scores of notebooks inscribed with Islamic State propaganda seized during a raid on the home of suspected militant in Jakarta, Indonesia, 30 June 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto/Reno Esnir).

The vast majority of Indonesians oppose their return due to possible terror attacks and the spread of radical teaching. Should the Indonesian government leave them stranded in their Syrian camps? If not, what are the challenges associated with repatriating them?

In 2017, the Indonesian government repatriated 18 Indonesians who had joined IS in Syria. The group decided to leave Syria due to disillusionment with the terrorist group. Upon their return, they underwent a short deradicalisation program at the National Counterterrorism Agency’s (BNPT) deradicalisation centre in Bogor. BNPT also engaged them to testify on a Youtube video under the pretext of creating counternarratives for any aspiring jihadists. Still, the authorities sent three of them to trial for funding terrorist groups and hiding information related to terror activities.

The public’s fear over potential threats posed by IS returnees is understandable due to media reports about their involvement in foiled terror plots. But it is important to note that the media often uses the terms ‘returnees’ and ‘deportees’ interchangeably despite the two groups having different backgrounds.

Deportees have yet to enter Syria and were deported from foreign countries — primarily Turkey. Based on Law No. 15/2003, the security apparatus cannot arrest deportees if they did not have prior involvement in terror activities. As such, deportees are sent to Ministry of Social Affairs shelters to undergo a one-month rehabilitation program.

Civil society organisations, who assisted the reintegration program after deportees left the shelters, expressed  that dealing with deportees is more challenging than dealing with returnees. Deportees have yet to experience life in Syria, whereas returnees have been disillusioned with IS’s false promises. A number of deportees still aspire to perform amaliyah (jihad operations). For example, Endang (alias Abu Rafi) planned to mount a terror attack against a post-election protest on 22 May.

Much of the public demands that the government revoke the citizenship of Indonesian IS members in Syria, but this measure would violate Law No. 12/2006 on citizenship that prevents statelessness. The law does stipulate several conditions under which an Indonesian national may lose their citizenship, such as taking an oath to foreign countries or joining foreign countries’ military forces. But Indonesia does not acknowledge the sovereignty of IS and it cannot be identified as a ‘foreign country’. According to the constitution, IS returnees are still Indonesian citizens and entitled to protection by the state.

The threat of returnees alone should not be overstated. A study found that only 0.002 percent of IS returnees around the world became domestic terrorists. Those who do will typically launch an attack within a year. In the case of Indonesia, there has been only one terror attack involving a Syrian returnee — Syawaludin Pakpahan. He joined the Free Syrian Army in early 2013 and independently returned to Indonesia a few months later. It took him roughly four years to launch a domestic attack in June 2017. Intensive surveillance during the first critical four months is important, yet long-term surveillance is also needed.  In addition, the new Law No. 5/2018 empowers security forces to apprehend individuals who have joined terrorist groups overseas.

Unfortunately, imprisonment is a not a panacea and the government should address a range of problems. For instance, there is a lack of female officers in the police force — just 8 per cent of total officers. The majority of returnees are women and children, requiring a gender-based approach. Female officers could be assigned to reach out to the female returnees, which will eventually help build trust.

There has been discussion on implementing similar procedures for returnees as were used with deportees. The rehabilitation program for deportees used a personal and humanistic approach from Ministry of Social Affairs social workers that gradually changed the deportees’ perspective about the government, providing some valuable lessons.

But the question remains — should the government deny their return to reduce national security threats? Ignoring returnees may not necessarily eliminate security risks. Doing so may fuel their resentment towards the government and provide narratives to radicalise fellow Indonesians via social media. It would be far more dangerous if they are able to return independently through illegal routes.

Assisted repatriation would allow the government to monitor their activities and acquire information about their networks. The government can also engage them in building counternarratives to prevent violent extremism.

The government should also conduct a thorough assessment of their involvement in terror activities in Syria. It would be folly to assume that all of them have actively fought alongside IS. Understanding their involvement is important in determining a suitable approach for the rehabilitation and reintegration programs.

Chaula Rininta Anindya is a Research Analyst with the Indonesia Programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.



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