Vidia Arianti, Associate Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore
In February 2020, the Indonesian government’s refusal to repatriate 689 Indonesians – with the exception of selected orphans under the age of 10 – who had joined the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria has rehashed the hot-button issue of IS returnees to Southeast Asia. The government cited security reasons for their decision, stressing the need to contain the spread of the “radicalism virus” among Indonesians.
One little-known aspect of this phenomenon is the degree to which IS members received support and funding from home. At around the same time as the government’s announcement, several informal pro-IS charities in Indonesia organized fundraising drives to help Indonesian women and children held in the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) run refugee camps of Al-Hol and Al-Roj in Syria. Like the camp’s other residents, these Indonesians suffer from a lack food, as well as basic sanitation and healthcare facilities. However, what is more worrisome is that pro IS groups are already mobilizing resources to help bring fellow Indonesian pro-IS affiliates back home. The potential unfettered return of Indonesian citizens from Syria — facilitated by the local pro-jihadist community — raises the prospect of a new terror threat to Indonesia.
From 2014 to 2018, the flow of funds was mostly from Indonesian IS fighters in Syria — several of whom had access to IS central reserves — to Indonesia. The recipients were groups like Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia/MIT), Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) or cells closely affiliated to the Indonesian IS fighters in Syria. The money was mostly used for the affiliates’ operations in Indonesia and the Philippines (logistics, weapons procurement, mobilization of militants, preparation for attacks) and to partially or fully sponsor the travel of IS fighters’ relatives or other group members to Syria.
However, there have been indications that the trend may reverse. As more IS Indonesian affiliates find themselves trapped in camps or amidst failing groups in Syria, they lack the same resources as before. Rather than being able to send funds back home, they are now dependent on funding from home to survive. IS supporters in Indonesia are donating to Indonesian women in Syria (mostly the IS fighters’ wives) to help them support their children, since their husbands were either killed or imprisoned. This cash flow will likely increase following the government’s public announcement refusing repatriation.
The Tricky Task of Smuggling
However, to actually get IS supporters out of Syria is very tricky. The first step to bringing these citizens back – especially women and children – is by smuggling them out of Al-Hol and Al-Roj, which would cost anywhere between $2000–$8,000 per person. In 2019, at least six Belgian women and dozens of other foreigners attempted or succeeded in escaping from Al-Hol with the help of smugglers. The same year, a group of Al-Qaeda (AQ) supporters based in the northwestern province of Idlib claimed it had rescued four women from the same camp. It was reported that there were money transfer facilities in the main part of the camp where Syrian and Iraqi women lived. So, Indonesians living in the foreigner section of the camp, could possibly receive foreign funds from anyone living in the main part of the camp or that money could be given to a smuggler to help them escape.
For those who manage to escape the camp, they would most likely be sent to Idlib — a province under the control of the Al-Qaeda offshoot group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). A safe haven for jihadists, this province is connected to the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey which makes it easier to smuggle people out of Syria. Entering Turkey is a critical step in the journey back home for many foreign IS supporters.
Currently, there are more than 20 Indonesian women and children in Idlib. It is believed that they managed to escape the SDF-run Ain Issa camp in northern Syria following the Turkish invasion in October 2019. Indonesian charity groups – both mainstream Islamist and several informal pro- HTS ones – have been delivering aid to Syrian refugees in Idlib. This provides a potential link between pro-HTS Indonesians and their trapped fellow citizens.
There are a number of potential problems that this funding presents. First, through independent financing by sympathizers, Indonesia might find its fighters and their families returning home unchecked. This creates a potential threat if unmonitored.
There are other potential consequences. One interesting development is the growing alignment of pro-Al-Qaeda and pro-IS groups in both Indonesia and Syria. While the two were at odds for a long time and were engaged in bitter infighting over the legitimacy of the IS “caliphate”, there is now evidence of sporadic cooperation — most of which is kept under wraps. For instance, pro-HTS supporters in Indonesia may not be aware that a portion of their donations was disbursed to Indonesian IS women and children in Idlib. In February, a newly established pro-IS charity, Relawan Media teamed up with pro-HTS Indonesian charity World Human Care (WHC) in Syria, disbursing cash to several Indonesian women in SDF camps.
This link might be largely pragmatic based on the fact that Indonesian pro-HTS elements (fighters and humanitarian workers) in Idlib are in a better position to deliver donations to the Indonesians held in SDF’s camps through smuggling networks.
This could also be the beginning of a more strategic fusion in which Indonesia sees both groups – pro-AQ and pro-IS – pooling their funds to help the Indonesian women and children in Syria. This might extend further to fighters as well one day. This is particularly worrying as it would set a precedent for the two groups —who used to be at odds with each other— to collaborate in the future. Given the considerably larger volume of pro-AQ networks in Indonesia, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, th pro-IS groups (often the most violent) have fortuitously been given access to resources which can magnify their terror presence and threat in the country.
Like other countries dealing with similar policy issues regarding their own foreign terrorist fighters and their families in Syria, the Indonesian government would have weighed its options before arriving at its decision to not repatriate. In the end, however, the decision also means the government has potentially missed an opportunity to rehabilitate those who are disillusioned with IS and utilize them as credible insider voices that could denounce IS in its Counter Violent Extremism program. By publicly cutting them off in this way, the government may be creating a potential threat which might otherwise be better managed.
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