The Indonesian government has decided not to repatriate Indonesian sympathisers of the Islamic State (IS) movement who are currently outside the country, saying that it would prioritise the safety of the hundreds of millions of Indonesians at home against what a minister described as a “virus”.
The decision came after Coordinating Legal, Political and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD met other relevant authorities, such as the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Law and Human Rights Ministry, earlier on Tuesday, before presenting options to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in a closed-door Cabinet meeting later that day.
“The government and the state have to ensure that the 267 million people in Indonesia are safe from the threat of terrorism.
“If these foreign terrorist fighters come back they could become a new terrorist virus that threatened those 267 million people,” Mahfud said after the meeting at Bogor Palace in West Java.
“There are no plans by the government to bring them home, the government will not repatriate the FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters] to Indonesia.”
Some 689 Indonesians have been identified as IS sympathisers in Syria and Turkey, as well as other countries, Mahfud said, citing data from the US’ Central Intelligence Agency, with 228 people still holding identification as Indonesian citizens while others did not have proper documents to prove their citizenship.
Meanwhile, other Indonesian authorities have suggested that most of the Indonesian IS sympathisers are women and children.
Mahfud said the government would nevertheless collect data about the numbers and identities of the citizens who had allegedly joined IS and that young children might be repatriated, depending on their circumstances.
“Children under 10 will be considered on a case-by-case basis – for example, if they have parents there or not,” he said.
The decision on Tuesday also came after the government, represented by Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi, scrambled to get input from Indonesia’s largest Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).
NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj said that his organisation believed that the repatriation of the former combatants did not reflect what the Quran said.
He said NU told the government through Retno that it “rejects the repatriation of the former IS combatants and sympathisers”. “There is nothing wrong with the government deciding not to repatriate them,” he said.
Therefore, Said did not understand “why we should be bothered about whether or not to repatriate the 600 people if it could disturb the tranquillity of 260 million others”.
The issue had put the government in a quandary for quite some time and stirred public debate.
The proponents of repatriation of the former IS sympathisers, such as rights activists, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) and some lawmakers, had said that the government should not leave them stateless.
Those rejecting the repatriation, including some defence and terrorism experts, have warned of the potential danger that another wave of terror could have on the country’s security outlook.
Some have also said that female returnees are perceived to be the new promoters of radicalism – and have called for proper investigation into their roles to ensure repatriation efforts can still succeed.
Retno herself has said that most women returnees were “aware of their intentions”, although she gave an assurance that the state was committed to putting humanitarian concerns first in regard to repatriation.
Responding to the government’s decision, University of Indonesia intelligence and terrorism expert Ridlwan Habib said on Tuesday that Indonesia would risk incurring the scrutiny of the international community by not bringing these Indonesians home, particularly since most of them appear to be women and children.
However, the government has also been monitoring the decisions that other countries have taken concerning their IS returnees – some have chosen to only repatriate women and children, while others have rejected them all, even going to the lengths of stripping them of their citizenship.
Human rights watchdog Imparsial executive director Al Araf said that even a former IS supporter still had the right to receive protection from the government.
“Any country should have policies to combat terrorism, but it has to be done while balancing the liberty and the security of the person,” Al Araf added, calling on the government to differentiate between its treatment of those who willingly joined the IS movement and those who had just followed their families.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK