JAKARTA: Indonesia’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT) said on Tuesday (Jul 9) that it is ready to lead a team to repatriate families of former Islamic State (IS) members from Syria, once an official decision on the matter has been made.
"This isn't just about repatriating people but it is also related to their ideology which has already been hardened; we have to think about how we can reduce that and how to treat that," said counter-terrorism chief Suhardi Alius at a forum on the future of ex-IS returnees.
According to Mr Suhardi, there are about 100 Indonesians, including women and children, in camps along the border between Syria and Iraq, where they were taken after IS was defeated in March this year.
An assessment on repatriation is currently ongoing, but BNPT has said it will need to classify the potential returnees based on the extent of exposure to radical ideology, in order for authorities to take the right measures.
A team from the agency has already visited the region as part of these efforts.
“We went there, and we took their testimony about what they went through. We were told that the women were wanted for marriage, while men were demanded to become fighters,” Mr Suhardi said, adding that the men will be facing legal proceedings in Syria.
“For us, it’s better that way because even if they return, they will have to face the law.”
Mr Suhardi told the forum that under Indonesian law, citizens who fight for a foreign country could be stripped of their citizenship. Despite this, the issue must be handled with consideration he said.
In many cases, Indonesian women had gone on to lose their husbands and remarried local men with whom they had children with.
"Are we going to sacrifice those children? Are they guilty?" asked Mr Suhardi. "Even if there’s a decision to bring them back, we have to assess the risks. We have to find ways to mitigate them."
He proposed building a system in order to provide returnees with a second chance.
Special staff at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Sri Yunanto agreed with Mr Suhardi on the need to build such a system.
From the policy perspective, the paradigm was now shifting towards prevention, Mr Yunanto added. “Previously, action leaned more towards operation. But now the policy and strategy that we take towards Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) must be in line with the counter-terrorism efforts in the country,” he said.
“If we are going to use law enforcement, we immediately have the rights for revocation of their passports, but is that the approach that we are going to take? Or the second option, can they still be mitigated?”
Bringing home the returnees then leads to further questions on pros and cons as those whose ideology has been deep-rooted for years cannot be deradicalised within a month, Mr Yunanto told the crowd.
Then, there is also the issue of radicalised women.
"There was a man who told us, ‘Actually I just went along sir, I felt sorry for my children, I just accompanied my wife,’ and it turns out the women are proving to be more radical," Mr Suhardi said.
Indonesia last year had its first female suicide bomber, when a family of six including two young girls, carried out attacks at three churches in Indonesia’s second-largest city Surabaya.
READ: 'Victims and perpetrators': Rehabilitating Indonesia's child bombers
National Police Chief Tito Karnavian said the mother, identified as Puji Kuswati, and her two daughters wore niqab face veils and had bombs strapped to their waists as they entered the grounds of the Kristen Indonesia Diponegoro Church and blew themselves up in the East Java province’s capital.
In 2017, 28-year-old would-be suicide bomber Dian Yulia Novi was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for a plot to blow herself up at Jakarta’s presidential palace during the changing of the guard.
It was the first time a woman was convicted in Indonesia for planning such an attack.
While the fate of FTFs and returnees stir controversy and leave plenty of room for debate, founder of the Institute for International Peace Building, Noor Huda Ismail, has called for a more humane approach.
The NGO, established in 2008, aims to promote peace including through dialogue. It also rehabilitates former militants.
He believes the Indonesian government can work together with former militants to counter the narrative of extremism, radicalism and terrorism.
“Most of them wanted to join the caliphate to escape corrupt governments. They could be educated to spread the message countering the caliphate narrative,” Mr Noor Huda said.
According to him, people will be more willing to hear personal experiences directly from former terrorists who repent for their actions, rather than listen to those with no personal experience.
“No one is born a terrorist, people can change,” he said.
By studying how they were exposed to radical ideology, Mr Noor Huda hoped the government could create policies based on scientific data.
Mr Suhardi meanwhile stated that the BNPT works together with more than 150 former terrorists, utilising them as sources.
He was also optimistic about setting up a softer approach in handling former militants.
"We soften them from the inside. Don't destroy them, because the fragments will become new cells," he said.
The returnees could be placed in isolation first, in a conducive environment where their ideologies could not branch out, and deradicalised until authorities were sure that they could be freed and re-integrated, he added.