Indonesia’s dilemma over repatriation of its IS fighters

Published on March 21, 2020

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Akash Sahu

The Manila Times – March 21, 2020

INDONESIA faces the dilemma of repatriating its citizens who went to fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or IS). According to the United States Central Intelligence Agency and Indonesian government estimates, there were 689 Indonesians who joined the IS movement and are now believed to have scattered in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Mohammad Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for politics, law and security, said after a cabinet meeting on February 11, “The government and the state has to ensure that the 267 million people in Indonesia are safe from the threat of terrorism…If these foreign terrorist fighters come back they can become a new virus that makes those 267 million people feel unsafe.” Mahfud has also called these fighters a ‘’terrorist virus.”

The government is likely to take a final decision – what to do with them – either in May or June this year. With this dilemma, there are two broad opposing views across Indonesia on the question of what the government should or should not do.

For proponents and supporters of repatriation, if the government refuses to take them back, the group will be faced with immediate loss of statehood and identity, which would then severely affect their livelihood.

Among others, they will be forced to stay in a region with less than favorable security circumstances. Once caught in the vicious cycle of economic hardship, they will become vulnerable to further radicalization and recruitment by the jihadi groups, potentially influencing them through vengeful propaganda.

Moreover, since Islamic radicals had earlier been integrated into the society, rejecting this group of population would go against the set precedent. About 600 Indonesians who returned from fighting alongside terrorist groups earlier have been enrolled in deradicalization camps, managed and operated by the National Counter Terrorism Agency, a nonministerial government department that works to prevent terrorism, with the objective of reintegrating them into mainstream society.

The issue also intertwines and overlaps with humanitarian concerns, as included in this group of IS fighters are women and children.

Indonesia has ratified the convention of the rights of the child, according to which the state is obliged to protect its children involved in conflicts or victimized by terrorism. Article 11 of the convention ratified by Indonesia in 1990 states that states must take measures to combat ‘illicit transfers and non-return of children abroad.’

An Indonesian citizen loses his citizenship if he swears allegiance to a foreign state. But IS was never a legitimate state, so the automatic relinquishment of citizenship is unclear. Moreover, since many of them are minors, it was neither their decision to fight in a foreign war nor to relinquish their citizenship through foreign allegiance.

Jakarta has suggested that only children under the age of 10, of which some or many could be orphans, will be considered for repatriation but it should be decided on a case-by-case basis. Not everyone who went to Syria wanted to establish an Islamic caliphate. The abandoned citizens will possibly develop hostility towards Indonesia and will always pose a threat.

The security risk is not limited to Indonesia. Several countries in the region are struggling with terrorism, including Thailand, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh are coping with refugee crises, also centered on religious differences. In such a volatile region, if these people are abandoned and left stateless, they will become catalysts of radicalization in their respective countries of residence.

Acceptance, on the other hand, could potentially invite strong public dissent. For example, the Indonesian Market Traders Association has expressed fears that repatriation will hamper the country’s security and severely affect the efforts to attract foreign investment.

Given the differing views, it is important that proper identification is conducted on these individuals, perhaps based on the degree of their vulnerability and the threat they pose. And those who are repatriated should be required to go through deradicalization programs.

It is also important that their peripheral contacts be monitored until the returnees are fully integrated into mainstream society. It may also be necessary to set up special tribunals to ensure timely justice to war criminals.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is associate professor, assistant dean and executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. Akash Sahu is a research assistant and graduate student at CSEAS.

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