The Fate Of Foreign ISIS Affiliates: Part 2

Part 1 of this series on the fate of foreign Islamic State (IS) affiliates called on governments to step up and take responsibility for their nationals in Syria, who in the aftermath of the regime’s collapse, are seeking return to their countries of national origin. This second instalment focuses on how governments should mobilize de-radicalization mechanisms across state institutions and civil society should ex-fighters be brought back within national borders. A closer look at de-radicalization efforts in South-East Asia reveals the regional successes and continued challenges for national authorities, whilst also pointing to some best practices for de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs.


Given their involvement, or at the very least, association with violent extremist organizations, governments could justifiably employ traditional security strategies alone to deal with returnees. However, recent discourse amongst the international community has suggested that a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures may prove more effective for reintegration purposes in the long-run. Terje Rød-Larsen, President of the International Peace Institute (IPI), said at the IPI’s policy forum that effective counter-terrorism efforts had to have ‘both a hard and a soft dimension,’ with the soft dimension focusing on “prevention through education and information…peace-building and sustainable development.” Dominique Favre, Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN, shared opinions of the same vein, stressing the importance of “dialogue…because dialogue offers inclusion, belonging, self-esteem, and contributes to putting place policies and actions which have a lasting impact because they become a collective good.” Farah Pandith, the first Special Representative to Muslim Communities at the US Department of State, and author of ‘How We Win,’ emphasizes a similar “all-in” approach to counter-terrorism in her book, naming “influence, persuasion and attraction amongst young people” as effective techniques to complement traditional ‘hard’ security methods. All the above insights also point to the need for de-radicalization to be a community-wide endeavour, not just focused on de-radicalizing ex-combatants who have returned, but also addressing society at large through the promotion of diversity – whether religious, ethnic, or cultural.


When de-radicalization is viewed as a society-wide task, extending beyond the services of the police force, courts of justice, and prisons, it becomes crucial to consider how governments, religious communities, NGOs, community organizations, and the medical profession can collaborate to facilitate the process. The Madrid Guiding Principles on stemming the flow of foreign terrorist fighters advises States to adopt a “comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach that involves all branches of government, as well as community and civil society stakeholders” for an effective and long-term response. The Principles specifically recognize the key role that civil society organisations (CSOs) within the health, social welfare and education sectors can play in the rehabilitation and reintegration processes. Writing for Foreign Policy, Elena Souris and Spandana Singh hold government accountable for establishing and facilitating these inter-sector collaborations, though suggest that simultaneous feelings of fear and a desire to be in control may undermine their role as ‘valuable intermediaries’ between local religious leaders, authorities, former extremists, and their families.


In acting as intermediaries, governments must also ensure responses to the threats posed by returnees comply with human rights. In a publication produced by the Working Group on Promoting and Protecting Human Rights and the Rule of Law while Countering Terrorism of the Office of the Humanitarian Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR), it is reiterated that all have the right to liberty and freedom of movement, in accordance with international human rights, refugee, and humanitarian law. It also emphasizes that upon the prosecution of suspected combatants, those individuals have the right to a fair trial and due process. It is important that the strategy and responses to individuals are appropriate in light of their past experiences or actions. This applies to women and children, who constitute a significant proportion of returnees. The same OHCHR report recommends that de-radicalization programs have a “special focus when developing tailored strategies for women and children.” Syrian journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza, speaking at the IPI’s forum, emphasized the particular need to focus on returning children who have not received education, but instead indoctrination of extremist ideology. “In order to fight against extremism and against violence, we need to fight against ideology,” he urged.


The aforementioned components of counter-terrorism strategies and features of de-radicalization programs have been applied across many national contexts. A closer look at the South East Asian context shows that de-radicalization efforts must occur on both domestic and transnational levels to effectively counter the threat of returning affiliates.


Counter-terrorism and De-radicalization in South-East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia)

According to the Foreign Fighters’ report by the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), approximately 800 to 1000 South-East Asians had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join IS, and were most commonly connected to its Malay brigade in Syria, Katibah Nusantara, which was led by an Indonesian national, Bahrumsyah, personally appointed as its leader by former IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Since the regime’s decline in 2017, South-East Asian nations have been especially vigilant, anticipating the threat of extremist activity as ex-fighters return to their countries of origin. In November 2019, US Department of State’s top counter-terrorism official, Nathan Sales, still warned of IS militants “exporting terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures from the Middle East” to the region. Malaysia’s then Home Affairs Minister, now Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had also expressed fears at the 13th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime in the same month, of the establishment of paramilitary camps in the Philippines and Indonesia. Whilst respective nations have distinct issues to address within their borders, counter-terrorism efforts are very much transnational in scale, reflecting the transnational networks and activity of militants.


Singapore perhaps faces the least threat with only limited numbers having left the island-nation to join IS. However, Singapore has still been widely praised for its comprehensive de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs for ex-affiliates. Daniel Alati in his article comparing Canadian, British and South-East Asian de-radicalization programs, commended Singapore for its emphasis on rehabilitation and ‘soft law’ measures, including the provision of care for families of detainees and methods to prevent the radicalization of children. Aslam, Othman and Rosili’s study on South-East Asian rehabilitation programs also noted efforts in Singapore to involve the Muslim community, highlighting the joint publication of the government and Muslim scholars titled ‘Moderation in Islam in the Context of the Muslim Community in Singapore.’ Singapore thus seems to have adopted recommendations by the international community to combine soft and hard methods, and to integrate the wider community in its de-radicalization efforts. Alati provides one critique, in that Singapore’s soft laws are “backed up by harsher strategies that might not be acceptable in Western societies.” This may bring into question the degree to which the de-radicalization strategies in their entirety are human rights compliant.


In Malaysia, authorities are especially concerned about the state of Sabah, which is known to be used as a hideout or passageway to the southern Philippines, a known jihadist territory for militants. Journalist Michael Hart in the Asia Sentinel says that fears of Malaysia being the next IS hub are “overstated,” but that authorities should continue to stay alert, and focus on effectively reintegrating fighters that return to ensure they do not contact regional militants. Hart notes the implementation of new, stricter, and more comprehensive counter-terrorism laws in Malaysia since 2015, the year IS gained momentum. These constitute tougher prison sentences, increased police powers of investigation and longer detention periods. Though these are often criticized by human rights groups, Malaysian authorities have sought to utilize ‘soft’ measures in their programs, claiming a 97% success rate of its de-radicalization course, which is a collaboration between the education and home affairs ministries, prison managers and religious institutions. Still, surveillance continues to be high, as extremist activities continue to pose a threat. Since 2013, 25 plots have been foiled, and 512 suspects arrested as Amy Chew reports in the South China Morning Post.


Local counter-terrorism activists have increasingly been calling for the integration of soft methods and the involvement of wider society in de-radicalization programs and rehabilitation processes. For instance, a study on de-radicalization programs in Indonesia by Perwita, Subedi and Agastia identifies the “lack of coordination between governments and CSOs” as a key shortcoming in the strategy to countering violent extremism. Elsewhere, Triyanto, Wiwoho and Pujiyono have advocated for the inclusion of an entrepreneurship program within de-radicalization and rehabilitation schemes, on the premise that “terrorists generally come from poor families” and that such a program offers a promising alternative route. These findings, however, do not appear to align with current government attitudes, given the recent decision on 11 Feb 2020 to refuse entry to 689 Indonesian ex-affiliates seeking return from Syria. The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD, cited the need to ensure the safety of Indonesia’s 267 million people, as the reason for refusing their return.


Each nation clearly has its own challenges and distinctive responses to such challenges when it comes to determining the fate of returning IS affiliates. Recommendations from the international community regarding the integration of hard and soft measures, involvement of state, religious and civil institutions, and consideration of human rights have contributed to a more nuanced understanding of counter-terrorism strategies, which intend to amplify their efficacy. Whilst respective jurisdictions apply these recommendations to different extents, within an interconnected region like South-East Asia, collaboration and cooperation between nations can be an additional means to strengthen de-radicalization efforts. Governments are encouraged to engage in this way, through networks like ASEAN, as they strive towards peace and security for their respective nations, and the region as a whole.

Naomi K L Wang


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