Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Indonesia Bans Ex-ISIS Fighters From Returning Home


Indonesia says it will not allow citizens who went to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq to return home, calling them a threat to national security. This is a controversial decision in the world's most populous Muslim nation. Here's more from Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200, the attacks on the Marriott Hotel and Australian embassy in the capital, Jakarta - Indonesia is no stranger to Islamist terror, but it's done a good job since those attacks in winding up local terror cells. Still...

SIDNEY JONES: It's always been a concern that anybody coming back from Syria would instantly have prestige and credibility and the combat skills to transform largely incompetent groups in Indonesia into something more dangerous.

SULLIVAN: That's Sidney Jones, who directs the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, reached via Skype. She's not at all happy with the government's new blanket ban on returnees, which she says was the product of both faulty data and fearmongering.

JONES: It was based on an assumption that there were 600-plus people in the Kurdish-controlled camps in Syria, and that was never the case.

SULLIVAN: The real number of Indonesians in the Kurdish-controlled camps, many analysts agree, is less than half that, most of them women and children, not seasoned fighters.

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: To me, we need to change the narrative.

SULLIVAN: Noor Huda Ismail of the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta says the government needs to find out for itself who's in those camps and not rely on data officials admit came from the U.S.

ISMAIL: Some of them are radicalized and, of course, traumatized, but in reality, we need to know. We cannot say something without knowing on the ground what's really there. We can't lump them together in the same boat as the freaky fighters, you know?

SULLIVAN: And not allowing at least some of the women and children to return, many analysts say, would be a mistake.

ZACHARY ABUZA: We should be giving the disaffected members of the Islamic State a soapbox.

SULLIVAN: Zachary Abuza follows Southeast Asia terror groups at the National War College in Washington, D.C.

ABUZA: So many of them were used as just jihadi chattel, you know, married off to the next militant after their husbands were killed. These are people that we should be giving opportunities to denounce the organization.

SULLIVAN: Not to mention some of the fighters in Kurdish prisons who say they want to return who could be extremely useful in terms of intelligence. Sidney Jones is thinking about one in particular.

JONES: This is the man who organized the transfer of money from ISIS central to Malawi in the Philippines in the lead-up to the conflict or the siege in 2017.

SULLIVAN: She says he also brought dozens of Indonesians to Syria and funneled others to fight with ISIS in Afghanistan, too.

JONES: This man has information to burn. Why don't you at least try bringing him back and seeing if he will indeed cooperate?

SULLIVAN: That's not likely, given the current political climate toward would-be returnees in Indonesia and abroad. Still, Jones says, Indonesia should do something for the children at least, whose lives in the camps, according to the Red Cross, are miserable. And there's a precedent, says Zachary Abuza.

ABUZA: They've put together two schools for the children of terrorist suspects. They're very proud of them. They're giving media a lot of access to these schools to highlight the success so they can bring the children back successfully.

SULLIVAN: Indonesia's security minister now says he's considering just that for children under 10 on a case-by-case basis. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok, Thailand.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.