JAKARTA - Indonesia's government on Tuesday banned citizens who joined the Islamic State group in Syria from returning home because of fears they could pose a threat to national security.
A furious debate has raged in the world's most populous Muslim nation in recent weeks over how to handle hundreds of suspected militants and their families seeking to return from combat zones in Iraq and Syria, as well as those in detention, after IS lost large swathes of territory and the United States announced the withdrawal of its forces.
The country has been torn between protecting citizens' rights, especially those of women and children, and national security.
"The government has no plans to repatriate terrorists," the coordinating minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, said after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the return of hundreds of Indonesians held by authorities in Syria.
"The state should provide security for 267 million Indonesians from new terrorist viruses,'' he said.
He said the government will collect more data on the identities of people who joined radical groups in the Middle East. Citing U.S. Central Intelligence Agency records, he said some 689 Indonesian citizens are currently in Syria, of whom only 228 had been identified.
The government is considering the possibility of allowing children return home, especially orphans.
Indonesian veterans of fighting in Afghanistan spearheaded attacks in the 2000s against local and Western targets, including nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.
A sustained crackdown by Indonesian authorities since 2002 has reduced the threat of large-scale attacks against Western or civilian targets. But IS attacks abroad have inspired Indonesian militants to continue to plan and carry out attacks, mostly against police targets across the country, officials say.
"Anybody coming back from Syria is going to have immediate credibility and legitimacy in the jihadi movement," said Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. "There might be people coming back who can take any of these amorphous, feckless groups of extremists and drill them into shape.''