Jokowi: “Government is decisive in refusing to repatriate 689 ISIS fighters

The Government is convinced that former ISIS followers would likely become “new terrorists” in Indonesia. (Photo: Prive. Doc)

IO, Jakarta – An ongoing discourse concerning the proposed repatriation of Indonesian citizens swearing allegiance to ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”) has recently surfaced. Following serious military setbacks in Iraq (2017) and Syria (2019), a large number of combatants are currently housed in special refugee camps, situated across the region. One of these is the al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria, an area under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. This refugee camp contains a number of Indonesian citizens awaiting their fate. 

The Government of Indonesia has long officially declared that it would not consider repatriating hundreds of ex-ISIS fighters formerly holding Indonesian passports. President Joko Widodo has emphasized his reluctance to these radicals to Indonesia, claiming that his overriding concern is to guarantee domestic security. “I think yesterday it was stated that the Government has responsibility for the security of the 267 million citizens of Indonesia. That is what we prioritize. With this in mind, the government has no plans to specifically repatriate ex-ISIS members who happen to be Indonesian citizens,” Jokowi stated at the Istana Negara, Central Jakarta, Wednesday (02/12/2020). 

The President did however instruct authorities to identify the 689 people reportedly in camps. Their data will be entered into Immigration computers, ensuring they are banned from entering the Republic of Indonesia. “Their names and where they came from – compile complete data so that when a person with a corresponding identity attempts to pass through immigration he or she can immediately be denied admission. I firmly state this to all,” he declared. 

Jokowi did not comment further about the actual status of their citizenship. However, in his statement the President did refer to the combatants as “ex-Indonesian citizens”. This decision was the result of a conference between Jokowi, his Ministers and heads of related institutions, at the Bogor Presidential Palace, Tuesday (02/11/2020). The current count is 689 ex-ISIS individuals, in locations spread across Syria and Turkey. 

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security (Menko Polhukam) Mahfud MD explained that the decision was made because the Government was convinced that former ISIS followers would likely become “new terrorists” in Indonesia. Mahfud said that data from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identified 689 Indonesian citizens, most of whom were suspected of being ex-ISIS and were spread around Turkey, Syria, and several other countries. 

In line with Mahfud MD’s statement, Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko said that verification of citizenship is currently being carried out by the government, to determine the status of these ex-combatants. “The government will verify data; at the time there was an attack from Turkey on one of the Kurdish regions, so the ISIS followers escaped. Now there is a need for a detailed verification of the number of Indonesians, approximately 689, more or less. That’s why we need to verify them and confirm their citizenship,” said Moeldoko at the Jakarta Presidential Palace Complex on Wednesday (02/12/2020). 

In addition, the verification process aims to ascertain how many underage children of former Indonesian citizens are in the camps, as the Government has not ruled out the possibility of bringing these minors home. “This has to be verified. It could be that there will be a return of very young children, orphans maybe; it will be decided on a case-by-case basis,” he said. 

All in accordance with the Constitution 
On a separate occasion, Vice Head of the Parliament (DPR) Azis Syamsuddin said that the cancellation of repatriation of Indonesian citizens suspected of cross-border terrorism was in fact in accordance with the Indonesian Constitution. According to him, this matter is entirely at the discretion of the Government. “It’s in accordance with the existing Constitution,” Azis declared at the DPR (House of Representative) office building, Senayan, Jakarta, on Wednesday (02/12/2020). “That is the authority of the Government; its mechanism is also backed up by law,” he said. 

Azis said there were three provisions in state law that could facilitate the return of Indonesian citizens suspected of cross-border terrorism. However, he did not clearly detail the law in question. “There are three possible outcomes, according to the law. These individuals can be refused entry, accepted with qualifications, or accepted with strict requirements. It is all there. Read the law,” he explained. 

Meanwhile, Deputy Speaker of the House Sufmi Dasco Ahmad urged the government not to focus too much on repatriating the ex-ISIS citizens. According to him, authorities should focus more on halting the spread of Coronavirus and increasing BPJS contributions for the Class III category. “Coronavirus is now spreading everywhere and there are the demands from the people to lower BPJS contributions – this is the most important thing in my opinion,” Dasco said at the Parliament Complex, Senayan, Jakarta, Monday (02/10/2020) ). 

Separately, Chairman of the National Commission for Human Rights, Ahmad Taufan Damanik, agreed that the legal basis for returning Indonesian citizens who had joined ISIS was clear; it did not matter if the government finally decided to deny the repatriation of 600 Indonesian citizens suspected of being border-crossing terrorists. “Yes, there is no problem, that’s the choice,” Taufan said in a discussion in the Gondangdia area, Central Jakarta, Sunday (02/09/2020). 

Taufan said that if the rejection of the repatriation of suspected cross-border terrorists was what the Government decided, it was certain that this would lead to criticism. However, the same thing happens in countries that have faced similar polemics. The most important thing is that the government should have a strong legal argument to back up their decisions. “The government must be careful, but it shouldn’t take too long or it might degenerate into a political polemic; in truth, this is not a political issue – it is a legal one. This is not a matter of humanity; it is a legal issue,” he said. 

Febri Ramdani, a former ISIS combatant, managed to slip back into Indonesia, and has been here openly since 2018. Febri is known to have traveled to Syria for a period of nearly one year and lived in the Islamic State of Iraq, Syria or ISIS. He accepts the government’s decision, believing that the government already knows what is the best solution for those who are in the same boat with him. “Hopefully this can be a lesson for us,” said Febri in the ‘300 Days at the State of Syam’ book review event at the University of Indonesia, Salemba, Jakarta, Tuesday (02/11/2020). 

In consideration of the fact that a number of Indonesian citizens who were former members of ISIS were women and children, Febri insists that this problem must not be generalized or oversimplified. Both men, women and children must be assessed according to standard government procedures. “What are the levels, what kind of assessment, and whatever the result might be, we can only submit to the government’s decision,” said Febri. 

Terrorism researcher Ridlwan Habib considers the government’s decision not to repatriate Indonesians supporting ISIS as the correct one. “The decision was right because Indonesia is not ready to repatriate – it is very dangerous,” Ridlwan warned in Jakarta on Wednesday (02/12/2020). 

He mentioned potential acts of revenge by ISIS supporters; the Government of Indonesia must be alert to the possibility of violent action by ISIS sympathizers across the country. In fact, the ISIS cell network in Indonesia is still large and has the potential to cause trouble for the authorities. Police and intelligence agencies must be vigilant about potential acts of revenge. “this could actually trigger class action suits against the Government on the grounds the state ignores the basic human rights of its citizens abroad,” observed the UI Intelligence Studies alumnus. (Dan)