A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard in a prison where men suspected to be afiliated with the Islamic…
FILE - A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces stands guard in a prison where men suspected to be affiliated with the Islamic State are jailed in northeast Syria in the city of Hasakeh, Oct. 26, 2019.

JAKARTA AND WASHINGTON - In a decision officials say excludes children under 10 years of age, the Indonesian government announced Tuesday it was unwilling to bring home dozens of its citizens detained abroad on the suspicion of membership in the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

The ruling brings uncertainty to the fate of some 689 Indonesian men, women and children stranded in countries like Syria, Turkey and Afghanistan after leaving their homeland to join Islamic State. Officials say they have not discussed if the decision will affect the detainees' citizenship status.

Mahfud MD, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said the decision not to repatriate the former IS members was made during a meeting with President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi.  

FILE - Indonesian Chief Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD gestures as he talks during an interview at his office in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2019.

At a press conference after the meeting with Jokowi, Mahfud said his government was concerned that the IS suspected members, if returned, will try to spread their radical ideology.

“From the meeting, we decided that the government and the state must provide the feeling of security from terrorist threats and new terrorist viruses to the 267 million Indonesians,” he said. “With the repatriation of these FTF (foreign terrorist fighters), it will become a new virus that will bring uneasiness to the 267 million Indonesians.”

Mahfud said he was uncertain how many minors were among the 689 Indonesians with IS ties.

The CIA has provided information helping Jakarta officials identify 228 of the Indonesian citizens, with the rest to be investigated. For any minor identified to be younger than 10, the government will consider their return on a “case-by-case” basis.

Beka Ulung Hapsara, a commissioner of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights, told VOA that the Indonesian government needed to consider international human rights laws in dealing with the former IS fighters and their families, particularly the children, who will be considered under the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“Indonesia is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. It is fitting for Indonesia to encourage U.N. Human Rights standards in treating ex-ISIS Indonesians,” said Beka, using another acronym for Islamic State.


Indonesia has witnessed a rise in radicalization over the years, along with the occasional terrorist attacks. When Islamic State proclaimed a caliphate in large areas of Iraq and Syria in 2014, dozens of Indonesian nationals traveled to the Middle East to join the IS caliphate.  

According to Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency, some 1,321 Indonesians have attempted to join IS since its creation. An investigation in 2017 by the nonprofit Soufan Center found that an estimated 600 Indonesians went to Syria to join IS. Among them were 387 men, 113 women and 100 children. Many were ultimately killed or were later arrested, as IS lost territory through its final defeat in Syria’s Baghouz town in March 2019.

IS foreign fighters

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, who are holding thousands of IS foreign fighters and their families, including those from Indonesia, say the detainees have become a major burden on its  limited resources. SDF has continuously asked that the detainees be repatriated in their respective countries.

Indonesian policymakers and experts have been split over repatriation. Some have invoked the government’s duty to its citizens, while others argue the ex-IS members could become a potential future threat.

FILE - Men wait to be screened by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters after being evacuated out of the last territory held by Islamic State militants, near Baghuz, eastern Syria, Feb. 22, 2019.

Vice presidential spokesman Masduki Baidlowi, one of the officials in favor of returning the suspected citizens, said Indonesia was obliged to provide maximum protection to the detainees based on the country’s Citizenship Act.  

Hikmahanto Juwana, an expert on international law at the University of Indonesia in Depol, charged that the suspected IS members were no longer entitled for citizenship protection because they “voluntarily” revoked their Indonesian citizenship.

“If they are no longer Indonesian citizens, on what grounds should the government consider giving maximum protection as mentioned by Masduki Baidlowi?” he asked.

Stanislaus Riyanta, an expert on Indonesian intelligence and national security, told VOA that to many, it was unclear if the suspected foreign fighters could be reformed, given “the strong evidence on radical ideology in their heads.”

He said the Indonesians in Syria over the years have witnessed various forms of violence and brainwashing, which puts under scrutiny any government effort to deradicalize them.

“If they are repatriated, this will create new problems to the government. Changing view and ideology is unlike treating a sick person (by) giving them medicine. We never know what’s in a person’s head,” he said.  
VOA’s Ghita Intan, Eva Mazrieva, and Virginia Gunawan contributed to this story.