Some 65 Malaysians and "several hundred" Indonesians are still in northern Syria. Before Turkey’s invasion, the Kurds had only 400 men to watch over 12,000 jailed IS fighters. In addition to the latter, there are also some 70,000 family members. Two days ago, 800 of them fled a refugee camp.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Turkey’s offensive forces in north-eastern Syria is raising fears in Malaysia and Indonesia over the uncertain fate of hundreds of their citizens who joined the Islamic State (IS) group and are now held in Kurdish prisons.
Malaysia is said to have 65 of its citizens in northern Syria, whilst Indonesia is believed to have "several hundreds" of them. The intelligence services of the two South-East Asian countries fear that many of their nationals might return home, to boost local Islamist movements.
The anti-IS Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are currently fighting alongside the Syrian troops to counter the Turkish advance.
Before Turkey’s invasion, only 400 men from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) guarded 12,000 Islamist prisoners, a number bound to drop as the fighting intensifies. In addition to jailed IS prisoners, the YPG is also responsible for about 70,000 IS wives and children.
Two days ago, Kurdish authorities reported that some 800 relatives of foreign IS fighters fled a refugee camp.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, security officials suspect that jihadis might return home without being caught.
For Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Malaysian police force’s special branch counterterrorism division, “There is a possibility they will escape and go to a third country or return to Malaysia. If they return to Malaysia, it is highly likely they will recruit new members and launch attacks.”
Some 40 women and fighters want to go home, he added. “Of the 65 Malaysians [in northern Syria], 11 are IS fighters currently in prison.” Another 11 Malaysians have returned so far with eight of them – all men – charged and convicted for terror-related activities.
Whilst countries like the United States and the United Kingdom refuse to take back their citizens who left to fight a jihad in Syria, Malaysia has decided to conditionally repatriate them. Upon their return, they must undergo interrogation and take part in a deradicalisation programme.
“The latest fighting is going to make it so much more difficult for us to repatriate our citizens,” Ayob lamented.
Under anonymity, a senior Indonesian counterterrorism official told the South China Morning Post that hundreds of his compatriots travelled to the Middle East, women and children included.
“If they return via illegal routes, it would be difficult for us to detect them,” the source said, and their arrival home would revitalise local terror networks and “raise their morale”.
Indonesia repatriated 18 citizens two years ago and they underwent a short deradicalisation programme, though three were put on trial for terror activities. At present, Jakarta is still considering the best ways to deal with IS returnees.
Recently, the well-known IS-connected Islamist Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) is back in the news for its involvement in the failed attack against Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, General Wiranto. A JAD cell in Bekasi is said to be behind the attack.
Another example of the operational capabilities of the terrorist group is the recent indoctrination of a policewoman, who become a would-be suicide bomber to kill her colleagues.
Originally from North Maluku, Nesti Ode Sami, also known as Rini, was arrested in May 2019 in Surabaya (East Java). She was sent back to North Maluku for a rehabilitation programme, but was again detained by the authorities in Yogyakarta late last month, and eventually fired, National Police spokesman General Dedi Prasetyo announced.
(Mathias Hariyadi contributed to this article).