BNPT Chief: This Is Not Just about Returning People Home

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The defeat at end of March of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, had an impact on Indonesia. Some 500 former ISIS sympathizers originally from Indonesia are in disarray in various refugee camps around Syria. Some of them contacted their families saying they wished to return home.

    Chief of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) Comsr. Gen. Suhardi Alius stated that the government is acting on this request. But this is no easy matter. The Law on Citizenship governs that persons who have ever taken up arms on behalf of another nation automatically rescind their citizenship. The same applies to people who willfully destroy their passports.

    But said Suhardi, ISIS sympathizers originally from Indonesia are a specific case. They differ from say, the 5,000 sympathizers originally from Russia who were all combatants in the first place.

    “The Indonesians who left for Syria brought their families along with them,” he said. These women and children did not join in battle and some of them retained their passports.

    Suhardi, 57, said the ISIS sympathizers adhere to radical notions we need to be cautious about. The BNPT and the ministry of foreign affairs are applying a series of screening mechanisms, including to the womenfolk, before allowing them to return home. “The influence on the women could be more entrenched,” he said. Suhardi, who is the former chief of the criminal unit at the National Police, pointed out the example of the suicide bombing in Sibolga, North Sumatera, in March, enacted by Solimah after her husband, Abu Hamzah, had surrendered to the police. Both husband and wife were ISIS sympathizers.

    In a special interview with Tempo reporters Arif Zulkifli, Reza Maulana, Hussein Abri, and Angelina Anjar, Suhardi related at length about his approach to the Syria returnees. One was Mutsanna, 14, one of the 18 Indonesians who came home in 2017. After Suhardi paid him close attention and enrolled him into an Islamic boarding school (pesantren), Mutsanna is now socializing with her peers. In the beginning, he didn’t even talk but was adept at dismantling and reassembling an AK-47.

    How will the government handle ISIS sympathizers who wish to return home?

    The BNPT will contact the relevant ministries correlated to reducing their discernments (about ISIS), such as the social affairs ministry, the religious affairs ministry, and the education and culture ministry. We did an initiative last month by holding a trans-ministry meeting at the coordinating ministry for politics, law, and security affairs. When the 18 Indonesians returned home from Syria in 2017, they were placed in a social affairs halfway house for one month. Only afterward were they allowed to return to society. But who’s to guarantee what they’ve become? One of the 75 Indonesians who even failed to get into Syria and was deported back from Turkey in 2017 was involved in the Surabaya bombing incidents in 2018.

    What preventive measures are being taken so that similar cases do not recur?

    I have asked the minister of home affairs to give instruction to regional governments to have them pick up the deportees from the BNPT. This is purely so the local governments know where they live. Under the new Law on Terrorism Criminal Acts Eradication, we have the authority to conduct screening on any Indonesian citizen returning from there (Syria). To my mind, if any Indonesian citizen abides by notions of radicalism, it is imperative we take measures.

    What sort of screening will be enacted?

    First, we need to identify them, find out who they really are, what networks they belong to. Then we’ll dissect their ideas of nationhood and religiosity.

    This identification will be conducted in Syria?

    Yes, rather than have them already back here, then we’d really have our hands full. So, the teams to be deployed there need to be meticulous in mapping everybody out. They could very well be just duping us. I do not wish to break their hopes. But indeed, this is not easy. Most of them have even burned their passports.

    So, in fact, they have lost their citizenship?

    They’re stateless. According to our law, Indonesian citizens fighting in someone else’s country can be considered stateless. But, of utmost importance, we need to treat them with caution because they now comply with a different conceptual framework. It won’t be easy to readapt their mindsets to a normal way of thinking.

    How will they prove citizenship without a passport?

    We will check their birth certificates or other identification proving they are Indonesians. We are also checking on their families here. As I said, it won’t be easy, and will take time. There was an instance in 2017, when Turkey deported the 75 Indonesians trying to get into Syria. In the deportation, there was a foreign citizen. A Nigerian, if I’m not mistaken. When we interviewed the person, they said they wished to come to Indonesia because they had a network here. In the end we deported the person right back to their home country.

    Which means intense communications with Turkey was needed…

    After the incident, I went to Turkey. I requested for a police liaison officer in there. I also made a request that Turkey deports all Indonesian citizens using direct air flights because people can run off in a transit spot. Any deportation information should also be punctual for us to be well prepared to receive them back here. If not, the deportees could quickly disperse to the provinces, making it impossible to track them down. So right now, our cooperation with Turkey is working well, including during the deportation of 18 Indonesian citizens from Syria in 2017. A few months back, we already had contact. They said they wished to come home. We could not enter Syria. So, they crossed the border until they reached Erbil, Iraq.

    Did they tell you about their lives when they decided to join ISIS?

    In the testimonies of the women, if say, that morning they were asked for their hand in marriage, that very afternoon the deed was done. Then, the children, they were always bickering. They told us about how all the beautiful promises were in fact a pack of lies. Some of them also said, I could only pity the children. It turns out, sometimes it was the wives who maintained the tough notions. In several bombing cases, women were very much involved. So, these are some of our lessons-learned to handle those Indonesians about to be returned from Syria.

    There are two of the 18 ex-ISIS Indonesians currently still in detention, namely Dwi Djoko Wiwoho and Heru Kurnia. Is this because they used to be combatants for ISIS?

    They are in that classification because they had already entered that country.

    Did they tell you about whatever areas they went into to conduct warfare?

    They had not reached the stage of waging war because as soon as they arrived, they started regretting (the decision). How hard life was over there. Once there, every adult male is compelled to be a combatant. These two succeeded in avoiding this. This is one of the reasons why the returning Indonesians from Syria need to be accurately identified, since for sure there they were ordered to become combatants.

    We found out that the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) threw all former ISIS adult males into prison, and the women and children into refugee camps.

    The SDF took that step because they wanted to be careful. It’s prudent for the SDF to presume all male adults were combatants. Maybe initially, they were forced into combat, seeing as they combed each residential area for all the adult males to turn them into combatants. So, after time passed, for sure they had all become combatants.

    How many ex-ISIS Indonesians are still in Syria?

    Intelligence data show around 500 people. But according to information, only around 200 people are in refugee camps. According to information, some exited through Iran, headed towards Pakistan, then entered Afghanistan. So, with the perspective they are maintaining, they obviously have no wish to return home.

    Has identification of the ex-ISIS in Syria been conducted?

    We have not deployed a team to Syria. But we have Indonesian representative offices in the vicinity, in Damascus, Turkey, and other countries in the region. They have begun the handling of this issue.

    How large is the possibility of someone not passing verification?

    Any likelihood is possible. There’s the legal dimension to assess. But there is also the humanity dimension we need to consider. For instance, the European countries, they only take in the children, refusing the mothers. There are a pro and con to this. How can a child live without their parents? But this was elected because Europe did not want to take the risk. This is not only about returning people home. What is it we wish to do to them? Is it true they are our citizens? And then, what do we do with those who married people there and had children? Even their way of thinking has changed. If they return to become members of this society, can they adapt? Let it not happen that they begin to infuse other people.

    Read the full interview in Tempo English Magazine