Foreign Relations & International Law

Southeast Asia’s Overlooked Foreign Fighter Problem

Emma Broches
Friday, June 5, 2020, 11:59 AM

Worries about foreign Islamic fighters tend to center on European citizens. But fighters from Southeast Asia also pose a significant problem.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo addresses a crowd at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. in 2015 (Brookings Institution/Paul Morigi/ BY-NC-ND 2.0/

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The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues to confront a dilemma: what to do with the fighters accused of fleeing to Syria to join the Islamic State. To the extent that this issue gets any airtime in English-language press, the focus tends to be on the 800 or so European fighters and their families. But English-language outlets tend to pay far less attention to another cohort of those detained: fighters who come from Southeast Asia. In fact, mismanagement of this group may entail particularly dire consequences. Southeast Asia is a region with porous borders, where Islamic State-inspired attacks continue apace.

The situation in the prisons in Syria that house foreign fighters and the camps that house their families has grown particularly unstable over the past few months. In early May, a group of former Islamic State fighters staged a riot in a prison in Hassakeh, a city in northeastern Syria. The detainees took control of the prison for about 24 hours until the SDF, the Kurdish-dominated group in charge of the prison, began negotiating with the detainees. This was the second prisoner uprising in the area in the past two months. If nothing else, these incidents serve as a reminder that SDF authorities have struggled to mitigate the security concerns that analysts expressed more than a year ago when coalition forces defeated the Islamic State. As the Defense Department inspector general report from January explained: “The longer IS [Islamic State] prisoners are held in SDF prisons, the greater the potential for them to organize breakouts.”

The SDF operates more than two dozen detention facilities across northeastern Syria, holding about 10,000 Islamic State fighters. Among those detained, there are estimated to be about 2,000 foreign fighters from about 50 different countries. The SDF also operates camps that hold upward of 73,000 Islamic State-affiliated women and children, including about 13,000 foreigners. According to a Soufan Center report from 2017, at least 1,000 fighters from Southeast Asia (and maybe closer to 1,500)—primarily Malaysia and Indonesia—traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State. And today, analysts estimate that there are around 700 Indonesians (including an estimated 34 suspected male fighters), 65 Malaysians (including an estimated 11 suspected male fighters), and maybe a handful of Filipinos currently held in SDF prisons or camps in northern Syria. But these numbers are far from certain as accurate head counts are hard to come by.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asia has turned into an increasingly significant region for the Islamic State over the past four years. The Islamic State first claimed responsibility for attacks in the region in 2016—first in Jakarta and then on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Since then, the group has started to regularly feature Southeast Asians in its media and has developed recruitment materials in Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia. Extremist groups that were already active in the region—such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines—have begun to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. These affiliate groups have staged a number of significant attacks or attempted attacks, sometimes involving fighters who had previously been in Syria. The region has also begun to attract foreign fighters of its own: Some Chechyans and those from the Middle East who encountered hurdles to traveling to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have instead rerouted and joined extremist cells in Southeast Asia. And since 2018, there has been an uptick in suicide bombings in the region (11 in Indonesia and 6 in the Philippines as of September 2019), a trend that experts believe is likely to continue.

The Islamic State has sought to exploit the instability caused by the coronavirus pandemic and has launched a wave of attacks across Syria and Iraq. And the group has also gone on the offensive in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, for instance, Islamic State fighters killed 11 Filipino soldiers who were on a mission to locate the leader of an Abu Sayyaf Group faction. This comes almost three years after the Philippine military launched a five-month-long battle to retake the city of Marawi from the Islamic State-affiliated groups that had laid siege to the city. The battle drew Islamic State fighters from across the region and put the Philippines more firmly on the map for the Islamic State. And in Indonesia, counterterrorism police recently seized a high volume of ammunition from suspects with links to the Islamic State. This activity is particularly noteworthy when viewed in comparison to that in Europe—the continent has seen very little Islamic State-inspired violent activity over the past few months.

As such, the potential return of fighters to Southeast Asia from Syria and Iraq, or an increase in fighters traveling from other areas to join the Islamic State in the region, brings new urgency to the question of how the region’s governments are tackling the problem of fighters stuck in SDF prisons.

Repatriation Policies

Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia have adopted different approaches to the question of repatriation. Indonesia and the Philippines have endorsed policies that bear similarities to the Western European countries—extreme reluctance to repatriate fighters. But Malaysia’s policy more closely resembles those of some of the Central Asian countries, like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, that have actively repatriated their citizens. The approach taken by these Central Asian countries and Malaysia is also the approach that the U.S. government has praised.

Malaysia is one of the few countries that has distinguished itself globally by making a commitment to repatriate its foreign fighters. The government will allow its nationals to return under the condition that they comply with enforcement and participate in a month-long rehabilitation program. As of March 2019, Malaysia had actively repatriated 11 of its citizens from Syria. The eight men in the group were charged and convicted in Malaysian courts upon their return (although it is unclear what they were charged for). The remaining woman and children underwent a mandatory rehabilitation program. The government is “optimistic” that more of its nationals will be able to return. However, policy experts have expressed concerns about the efficacy of the government’s deradicalization efforts for individuals who have participated in active combat and who remain deeply committed to the extremist views of the Islamic State.

Originally it seemed like Indonesia was taking a similar approach. In 2017, the Turkish government deported around 75 Indonesian nationals who had links to the Islamic State, the majority of whom were women and children. Over the subsequent months, the Turkish government deported many more Indonesians (as of January 2018, about 226 people had been deported from Turkey over about eight or nine batches of deportations). While a few of these returnees were arrested upon arrival, the majority of them were sent to reintegration facilities for 30-day programs before they reentered their communities. This relatively lax policy didn’t sit well with many. There are concerns among observers that since this first wave of returnees were able to avoid arrest, they managed to resettle in their hometowns, and continue working with or building extremist networks. In fact, one foreign fighter couple deported from Turkey went through this Indonesian rehabilitation program before eventually making their way to an island in the southern Philippines and conducting a suicide bombing attack that killed 22 people in a local cathedral in early 2019.

After months of debate, in February 2020, the Indonesian government reversed its repatriation policy and announced that 689 Indonesians linked to the Islamic State, including women and children, would not be allowed to return. Although the country’s National Counterterrorism Agency along with other law enforcement agencies had been developing a plan for repatriation and deradicalization, public opinion was overwhelmingly against this option. Dissent to repatriation included even the largest Islamic organization in the country (Nahdlatus Ulama). A large cohort of the public, along with some lawmakers, argued that the Indonesian foreign fighters had renounced their citizenship by pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. Ultimately, with public support, the government justified its new policy banning repatriation, citing fears that the fighters would “become a new virus” and threaten the safety of the public. A subset of lawyers, human rights activists, and some political leaders raised concerns about whether this would constitute unlawful citizenship stripping.

Finally, the Philippines also refuses to repatriate any of its citizens who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State. However, the country does not have the same legal structures or law enforcement capabilities in place as Malaysia or Indonesia to arrest and prosecute returnees. And the Philippines has released minimal information about what it has done to address the issue of returnees. Amid this inaction, foreign fighters⁠ from other countries—particularly Indonesia and Malaysia⁠—who have left Syria or never made it to Syria, have increasingly traveled to the Philippines instead of returning to their home countries.

Legal Mechanisms to Counter Terrorism

Importantly, Southeast Asian countries have different legal regimes governing terror offenses than their European counterparts. The region has seen a flurry of legislative activity in this space, as countries update their criminal codes to enable better response to the growing threat of terror.

Most recently, in February, the Philippine Senate approved 19-2 a new anti-terrorism law intended to add teeth to a 2007 law—the Human Security Act (HSA)—that grounds the country’s counterterror legal regime. Only one individual and one organization had been convicted under the old law, partly because it required a suspect to be convicted under predicate crimes such as rebellion, bomb-making, or piracy before a terrorism charge could be brought. Even the fighters captured after the 2017 Battle of Marawi were not charged with terrorism. The new law—the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020—includes a broader definition of terrorism and provisions that criminalize terrorism financing and extend powers of search and arrest, including the number of days suspected terrorist can be detained without an arrest warrant (from three days in the old law up to 14 days in the new one). The bill also proposes 12 years of imprisonment for any person convicted of joining a designated terrorist organization.

While there is strong support for the act from President Rodrigo Duterte, who prioritized the legislation, and his allies, members of the liberal opposition parties and human rights activists find it highly problematic. The two senators who voted against the bill explained that it could make the country’s counterterror law “an even worse tool for repression instead of an instrument of thwarting terrorists” and worried that it could sacrifice “democratic freedoms … in the name of security.” Human rights advocates agree with this characterization, fearing that the new legislation would allow the government to target Duterte’s political opponents and critics. Despite these concerns, the joint committees of the Philippine House of Representatives reportedly approved the Senate version of the bill in the first week of June, pushing it closer toward becoming law.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia have also strengthened their anti-terrorism laws over the past few years. In Indonesia, less than two weeks after a series of suicide bombings and armed attacks on churches and police posts in 2018, the government passed legislation that criminalizes joining a terrorist organization, disseminating relevant teachings and participating in military-style training with a terrorist group. The law also allows police to preemptively detain suspects and hold them in detention for up to 21 days without charges. Finally, the law specifies that the military may also play a role in counterterrorism efforts. Indonesia has used this law to detain hundreds of suspects since its adoption, including an Indonesian couple who went on trial in April for a failed assassination attempt on the country’s former chief security minister. If convicted under this anti-terrorism law, the couple could face life sentences or the death penalty.

Like the bill recently passed in the Philippines, the Indonesian law has been criticized by rights activists for its vague wording that critics fear could be exploited to crack down on any group seen as a threat to the ruling party. Critics of the law also worry about the consequences of involving the military in law enforcement. In fact, the law was first proposed in 2016 but languished in parliament amid concerns over some of the details, including its definition of terrorism. But after the attacks in 2018, President Joko Widodo threatened to impose the law by special decree if parliament did not take action.

Malaysia updated its anti-terrorism law before its Southeast Asian peers, and its anti-terror law gives the most leeway to law enforcement among the three. In direct response to the rise of the Islamic State, Malaysia passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 2015. Under the act, terrorism suspects can be held for 59 days without charges and without trial for up to two years, with indefinite extensions. The act also empowers a terrorism board to order and review criminal detention without involving the judiciary. The government has used this law and other relevant national security legislation to arrest more than 512 people with suspected links to the organization and to foil 25 planned attacks in the country over the past six years. The two men who perpetrated the first attack by the Islamic State in Malaysia in June 2016, for instance, were charged under this law and each was sentenced to 25 years in prison (they were also charged with eight counts of attempted murder). Like in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Malaysian law has been heavily criticized by human rights groups for allowing indefinite detention without charge and for creating what rights groups decry as a black hole for human rights in the country.

The Remaining Threat

Despite the governments’ efforts to control or stop repatriation and strengthen their legal mechanisms to prevent terrorism, the Islamic State adherents returning from Syria and Iraq, or those who never left, remain a threat.

First, there are concerns that fighters will be able to return home without detection and move freely within Southeast Asia as a result of porous borders, well-established illicit transit routes between the three countries and lax visa policies. Malaysia, for instance, does not require visas for travelers from Syria, Iraq or Turkey, and Indonesia just rubber stamps visas upon arrival for travelers from the aforementioned three countries. The international airport in the Philippines also has a long history of implementing insufficient security practices. For this reason, anti-repatriation policies may be antithetical to the governments’ counterterrorism goals. If fighters and their families are able to escape the strained detention facilities in northeastern Syria, then they may be able to walk back into their home countries undetected and continue to pursue extremist activities.

Second, if fighters are not detained upon their return, they can easily gain access to the militant networks that already span the region. The returnees can then participate in plotting and implementing attacks. Those who already returned from Syria have been involved in some of the attacks or attempted attacks in the region over the past few years. In June 2017, two men associated with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, one of whom had spent five months in Syria in 2013, stabbed a police officer to death. And in May 2018, Indonesian authorities arrested seven returnees who were involved with an Islamic State terrorist cell attempting to use Wi-Fi to detonate explosive devices in Indonesia.

Finally, even if returnees or Islamic State supporters are captured and convicted, they may still be able to advance their cause from captivity. The penitentiary systems in Malaysia and Indonesia have a history of allowing for further radicalization. In Indonesia, for instance, clerics who promote radical ideologies are allowed to commingle with the general prison population, enabling them to spread their messages and continue recruiting.

It’s a complicated situation where every policy poses certain risks and challenges. But that doesn’t mean that Islamic State militants pose a greater threat if they return home than if they are left in the Middle East. As one commentator on Malaysia’s program argues, “[I]t is not too late” for the countries to continue to improve upon their existing legal mechanisms and repatriation programs to tackle this complex problem.

Emma Broches holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She previously conducted research on Syria as a Fullbright Fellow in Jordan and worked with the Syrian Civil Defense. She holds a B.A. in History from Amherst College.

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