JAKARTA / WASHINGTON - Indonesia is discussing the possible repatriation of 660 citizens with alleged links to terrorism — foreign fighters and dozens of their family members — who have been detained abroad.
Mahfud MD, the country’s coordinating minister for politics, law and security, told VOA that his government had started talks about the future of the fighters and their families, and expects to reach a decision by midyear. He said the citizens in question are being held in a number of countries, with the majority in Syria and Afghanistan.
"This [repatriation] involves many ministries. The Social Ministry, which, for example, accommodates its social consequences. The Ministry of Political, Legal and Security [Affairs], concerning the law and citizenship. There are also the tourism and investment aspects, which can be impacted if, for example, there is still a perception of terrorism, and so on. Everything will be considered," he said.
The rise in recent years of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and the Maute militant group in the neighboring Philippines have led to hundreds of Indonesians traveling abroad to join the extremist groups.
Held by SDF
When IS lost its final enclave in Syria in March 2019, however, dozens of the fighters and their family members there were detained by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Mahfud said officials in Jakarta are concerned that the return of fighters and their family members could spark radicalization in the country and affect the tourism and investment sectors.
“There are pros and cons from the public about the repatriation of former FTFs [foreign terrorist fighters]. Some believe that repatriation is a right as Indonesian citizens. But there are also those who argue that they do not need to return for fear of becoming a new ‘virus’ in Indonesia," he said.
The world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia has witnessed a rise in radicalization over the years along with occasional terrorist attacks. A series of bombings by al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiah in 2002 on the tourist island of Bali killed 202 people.
The National Agency for Combating Terrorism, the government body tasked with preventing terrorism and extremism, has taken different approaches in the past to address the issue, including organizing “reconciliation meetings” between former jihadists and their victims.
Some experts charge that repatriating the Indonesians with suspected terror affiliation can serve as an effective counterterrorism measure.
Al Chaidar, a Jakarta-based counterterror analyst, told VOA that government refusal to allow the return of these citizens risks retaliatory attacks by militant groups. He said the government could deradicalize them by addressing their grievances and providing equal economic and health opportunities at home.
"There are many strategies and methods that can change the minds of the former foreign fighter, only the government is too lazy to change their strategy from deradicalization to other programs, such as counter-discourse or humanization or other programs," he said.