Chal­lenge of deal­ing with IS re­turnees


South­east Asia faces a mul­ti­fac­eted chal­lenge: How to in­ter­cept those re­turn­ing from the bat­tle­fields of Syria and Iraq, dif­fer­en­ti­ate the hard­core ex­trem­ists from the mis­guided ones, and deal with them ac­cord­ingly.

Hun­dreds from the re­gion have joined the Is­lamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, many of them inspired by the dream of cre­at­ing an Is­lamic caliphate in South­east Asia, by force if nec­es­sary.

“We worry about re­turnees who come home to re­cruit peo­ple for ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties, and mo­ti­vate them to launch at­tacks,” Ayub Khan, the Malaysian Spe­cial Branch’s prin­ci­pal as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for counter-ter­ror­ism, told The Straits Times.

Malaysian and In­done­sian po­lice said IS re­turnees could po­ten­tially launch large-scale terror at­tacks like the 2002 Bali bomb­ings, which were car­ried out by re­turn­ing fight­ers from Afghanistan, and carry out kid­nap­pings and as­sas­si­na­tions.

While the ma­jor­ity of South­east Asia’s IS mem­bers have re­mained in Iraq and Syria for now, more of them are ex­pected to re­turn when the war winds down.

“This could be a se­ri­ous prob- lem five to 10 years down the road,” Ayub said.

Adding to the threat, In­done­sia, Malaysia, Thai­land and the Philip­pines have lo­cal Is­lamic mil­i­tant groups, some of whom are sym­pa­thetic to IS and able to pro­vide re­sources and cover to IS re­turnees.

On the le­gal front, not all gov­ern­ments are fully equipped to deal with the prob­lem.

In­done­sia is strug­gling to deal with se­cu­rity threats posed by IS re­turnees be­cause of the lim­its of its ter­ror­ism laws.

The ex­ist­ing Anti-Ter­ror­ism Law 15/2005, en­acted in the af­ter­math of the Bali bomb­ings, only cov­ers ter­ror­ist acts com­mit­ted do­mes­ti­cally.

It is dif­fi­cult to pros­e­cute IS sus­pects who com­mit­ted crimes or joined a ter­ror­ist group in for­eign coun­tries.

In in­stances where there is not enough ev­i­dence to pros­e­cute IS re­turnees, they are kept un­der sur­veil­lance.

That raises an ad­di­tional prob­lem: Most South­east Asian coun­tries lack the staff or re­sources to mon­i­tor hun­dreds or even thou­sands of peo­ple deemed a se­cu­rity risk.

In­done­sia hopes to tighten its terror laws with a draft bill sub­mit­ted to par­lia­ment at the end of last year. But it has yet to be de­bated.

“In the eyes of the politi­cians, (IS) does not seem to be a prob­lem. Oth­er­wise, they would have given pri­or­ity for this bill to be de­bated. Only the po­lice seem to think it’s a se­ri­ous prob­lem,” said pro­fes­sor Adri­anus E. Meliala, a coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­pert and mem­ber of In­done­sia’s Na­tional Po­lice Com­mis­sion.

Last Fri­day, In­done­sian po­lice said they ar­rested three mil­i­tants with links to IS, who were plan­ning bomb at­tacks dur­ing to­day’s in­de­pen­dence day cel­e­bra­tions. It is not clear if they are re­turnees.

To date, 280 In­done­sians are known to have gone to Syria, out of which 20 have re­turned home, ac­cord­ing to In­done­sian of­fi­cials.

Of the 20 re­turnees, 13 have been ar­rested. The re­main­ing seven were put un­der sur­veil­lance.

In Malaysia, 111 IS-linked sus­pects have been ar­rested since Fe­bru­ary 2013.

Out of the 111, seven are re­turnees from Syria, and all of them have been charged in court.

“Our laws cover acts and mem­ber­ship of terror or­ga­ni­za­tions over­seas, and oth­ers. I am quite com­fort­able with it,” Ayub said. Po­lice and an­a­lysts said not all South­east Asian re­turnees are fight­ers. Many were tasked with me­nial jobs in Syria and Iraq. How­ever, it was im­por­tant all of them go through the due process of law.

Mil­i­tant and Non-mil­i­tant


“We need to ar­rest them to en­able us to in­ter­ro­gate them, so that we can as­sess the psy­cho­log­i­cal state of their ide­ol­ogy, how mil­i­tant they are,” said Ayub.

For the non-mil­i­tant re­turnees, po­lice ask Mus­lim re­li­gious teach­ers to help de­rad­i­cal­ize and re­ha­bil­i­tate them, he added.

In­done­sia has a sim­i­lar deradicalisation pro­gram, run by the Na­tional Anti-ter­ror­ism Agency.

Sin­ga­pore has formed the Reli- gious Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Group, which com­prises Sin­ga­porean Mus­lim scholars who coun­sel terror de­tainees and rad­i­cal­ized in­di­vid­u­als.

Some coun­tries have taken a harder line. Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott said dis­il­lu­sioned ex­trem­ist fight­ers re­turn­ing home will face ar­rest, pros­e­cu­tion and jail, with no ex­emp­tions.

Speak­ing in June, he said 19 of the 25 Aus­tralians who have re­turned home were later in­volved in some form of terror ac­tiv­ity, with eight con­victed of ter­ror­ism of­fenses.

Counter-ter­ror­ism ex­pert Noor Huda Is­mail, who founded the first pri­vate de­rad­i­cal­iza­tion pro­gram in In­done­sia, said re­turnees are the best tool to counter IS’ nar­ra­tive.

“They are a sym­bol of ISIS’ bro­ken prom­ises. Their sto­ries are very com­pelling,” said Huda, us­ing an al­ter­na­tive acro­nym for IS.

He added that there is also a need for In­done­sia’s two largest mod­er­ate Mus­lim or­ga­ni­za­tions, Nahd­latul Ulama and Muham­m­didyah, to cre­ate a cam­paign to de­fine a Mus­lim’s iden­tity, as part of ef­forts to de­rad­i­cal­ize IS mem­bers.

“Be­ing a good Mus­lim does not mean be­com­ing a mem­ber of ISIS,” Huda said.

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