ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

What’s Behind Indonesia’s Refusal to Repatriate Suspected Islamic State Militants?

The decision is part of a nuanced issue that has broader implications for the country and the region.

Erin Cook
What’s Behind Indonesia’s Refusal to Repatriate Suspected Islamic State Militants?
Credit: Pixabay

Earlier this month, Indonesia confirmed that it would adopt a policy of not seeking repatriation for Indonesian nationals that were suspected of links with the Islamic State. The development bears watching in terms of how Indonesia is managing this challenge as well as its broader implications for the region.

Indonesia has spent the first two months of the year gripped by a debate over what to do about the 689 Indonesians based in Syria aligned with the Islamic State. The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) and other law enforcement agencies have said for months that policy was under development with the government. The BNPT had initially floated repatriation for deradicalization efforts or, if necessary, trial and incarceration.

That idea was met with widespread opposition from the broader community and some lawmakers who argue that by pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, and given reports of burning passports and other official papers, the Indonesians in question have renounced citizenship. Still, that 689 figure accounts for a large number of minors who are, by virtue of age, unable to make that decision.

Earlier this month it was confirmed the policy will be to not seek repatriation for Indonesian nationals. While there were specifics left unaddressed – there was no clarification of citizenship status, for instance – it nonetheless represents a noteworthy development.

To be sure, the undergirding rationale for this move has been clearly expressed in terms of security. But, more broadly, by comparing returned fighters and their families to a “virus” that risks infecting the rest of the country, Indonesian authorities have wiped their hands of a nuanced issue that risks destabilizing both security in the region and Indonesia’s standing as a leader on counterterrorism.

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In its August Repatriation of ISIS Supporters: Challenges and Solutions report, the Jakarta-based Habibie Center alluded to one aspect of the nuanced issue when it warned the government it would need to strengthen cooperation between institutions regardless of whether repatriation went ahead or was abandoned. Children, in particular, require specific care under the Protection of Children Law 2004. “Armed conflict and a refugee situation such as the one in Syria can be considered an ‘emergency’ situation for children that the government and governmental institutions have the duty and are responsible to provide special protection,” the report said.

Recent comments from the government suggest the administration will not be honoring this finding. “Children under 10 will be considered [for repatriation] on a case-by-case basis: for example, if they have parents there or not,” Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud MD confirmed during the announcement.

Further clarification on what this means in practice has not been forthcoming. The role of children in these debates is globally divisive, but perhaps has an added element in Indonesia. The Surabaya attacks in 2018 were the first in the country to involve children as bombers. The violent deaths of two brothers, aged 16 and 18, and their 9- and 12-year-old sisters shocked Indonesia and the world.

While there was much empathy for the children then, particularly after reports from within the family’s community that the older sons had been frightened, will that be extended to children who have been raised within the confines of the Islamic State? It seems unlikely, given leadership have characterized the entire group as a “virus,” implying that even the children would be “carriers.” Anecdotal reports of extended families fearing stigmatization from their community when assuming responsibilities further adds to this.

Another aspect of this is the role of adult women, which is more complicated. Women’s involvement in IS has developed beyond the assumed victim role, Indonesian authorities and terror experts alike have warned for years. “Women are now a permanent part of the jihadi structure,” Sidney Jones recently told World Politics Review. The assumption that Indonesian women living with the Islamic State in Syria are all victims of male acquaintances has been shattered in recent years, with researchers finding women are often radicalized online and often obscured from authorities.

The Habibie Center noted this in its 2019 report, adding that women tend to receive lighter sentences on financing charges, which it suggests could heighten recidivism. “It is, therefore, necessary to develop an approach that is not gender-biased but can see women’s role in violent extremism as more nuanced, both as an active perpetrator and passive recipient,” the Center wrote.

Beyond these nuances, it is worth bearing in mind that this issue has broader implications that extend beyond the security domain. Indeed, while President Joko Widodo began his second term with a renewed focus on security and rooting out extremist threats, in reality, he has been comparatively quiet on this issue thus far compared to the longstanding emphasis on expanding infrastructure works and winning investment.

That is not an insignificant point: to take just one example, in the background to the announcement, the Indonesian Market Traders Association (APPSI) worried any repatriation would jeopardize moves to increase investment. Deputy Chairman Sarman Simanjorang claimed repatriation would undermine investor confidence in the country. “The business industry and investors yearn for the guarantee of security and convenience,” he said.

More broadly, Imanuddin Razak, a strategic studies student at Nanyang Technological University and a Jakarta Post journalist, stresses that the short-term benefits to the policy of nonrepatriation will have the potential for long-term destruction. Imanuddin compares the effective blanket “guilty” branding of all Indonesian nationals involved to the September 30 movement and the “arbitrary decisions to execute people, like alleged or suspected communists, without due process of law.”

The policy may also have run-on effects across the region, Southeast Asia terror expert Quinton Temby predicts. “Globalization means that domestic policy solutions to a transnational problem like terrorism risk transferring the burden of counter-terrorism to other parts of the system, both locally and internationally,” he says, noting that that burden has been pushed primarily on to the underequipped Kurdish forces.

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Further, adequately understanding the risk of returned fighters and their supporters is potentially made harder by the blacklist. Temby explains that the policy means researchers and law enforcement are now further hamstrung in monitoring possible networks. Dr. Sri Yunanto, an adviser to Minister Mahfud, had also alluded to these implications when he previously suggested the security needs of neighboring countries would also be considered by the Indonesian government before making its decision.