THOUSANDS of kilometres from home, hundreds of battle-hardened Islamic State (IS) fighters recruited from Malaysia and Indonesia have been locked up in Syrian prisons since the terrorist group’s self-declared caliphate collapsed earlier this year.
The jails are packed with about 12,000 jihadist fighters, with about 2,000 of them thought to be from other countries besides Iraq and Syria. The fate of the fighters, long uncertain, has taken a twist as Turkish forces continue their assault on neighbouring Syria.
Many of the fighters are guarded by Kurdish rebels in northeastern Syria who have been battling IS as well as government forces during Syria’s eight-year civil war.
The Kurds played a huge role in defeating IS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Arab soldiers backed by the United States, Britain and France.
But in an abrupt decision last week, US President Donald Trump said Washington would withdraw troops from the area, paving the way for Ankara – which views the Kurds as terrorists – to fill the void.
Counterterrorism experts as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin are now warning that the turmoil could see the jihadist captives go free. And this has caused authorities in Malaysia and Indonesia much concern, as Malaysia has 65 citizens in northern Syria while Indonesia has “several hundred”, according to counterterrorism officials.
On Friday, at a summit of Central Asian leaders, Putin said: “Now the Turkish army is entering the area, and the Kurds are leaving these camps. The prisoners may just flee.”
Asked earlier about the threat of IS prisoners escaping, Trump claimed that some of the most dangerous ones had been moved, “putting them in other areas where it’s secure”.
According to CNN, he dismissed the overall threat, replying: “Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe.”
Early on Saturday, a car bomb went off near a prison holding IS militants, forcing SDF troops to rush military reinforcements there to prevent IS detainees from escaping, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Ahmet Yayla, assistant professor of criminal justice at DeSales University in the US, said the volatile situation provided ample opportunity for IS fighters to run.
The Kurds have only 400 men guarding the 12,000 prisoners, and their numbers are expected to be stretched as they face the Turkish offensive, which has already displaced close to 200,000 people from northeastern Syria, the area’s Kurdish-led administration said on Saturday.
“If those 12,000 prisoners rise up, they can easily overpower those guards,” Yayla warned. “They are going to kill the guards and run away.”
Yayla said a prison break attempt had already taken place on Wednesday.
Besides the IS fighters in prison, there are also about 70,000 displaced wives and children of these men in a sprawling camp, where some detainees had previously attacked and injured guards.
On Sunday, Kurdish authorities said nearly 800 relatives of foreign members of IS escaped a displacement camp near where Kurdish forces are resisting the Turkish offensive.
“The brutal military assault led by Turkey and its mercenaries is now taking place near a camp in Ain Issa, where there are thousands (of people) from families of IS,” the Kurdish administration said. “Some were able to escape.”
Dealing with IS returnees
Back in Malaysia and Indonesia, security officials are wary that the jihadists may try to return home undetected.
“There is a possibility they will escape and go to a third country or return to Malaysia. If they return to Malaysia, it is highly likely they will recruit new members and launch attacks,” said Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of the Malaysian police force’s special branch counterterrorism division.
“Of the 65 Malaysians (in northern Syria), 11 are IS fighters currently in prison,” Ayob said.
He added that about 40 from the group – including women and fighters – wanted to return home.
The police chief said that 11 Malaysians had returned to the country to date, with eight of them – all men – charged in court and convicted for terror-related activities.
“The latest fighting is going to make it so much more difficult for us to repatriate our citizens,” Ayob added.
Malaysia’s repatriation offer is conditional. Citizens will have to undergo an interrogation and deradicalisation programme when they return. “If anyone is found to have been involved in terrorism, they will be charged in court,” Ayob said.
A senior Indonesian counterterrorism official said on condition of anonymity that his country’s citizens in Syria numbered in the hundreds and included women and children.
“If they return via illegal routes, it would be difficult for us to detect them,” the source said, and their arrival home would revitalise local terror networks and “raise their morale”.
Indonesia repatriated 18 citizens two years ago and they underwent a short radicalisation programme, though three were put on trial for terror activities. Jakarta is still deciding how best to deal with IS returnees.
Australia, which also has citizens detained in camps and prisons in Syria, recently passed a law allowing the government to ban anyone over the age of 14 and suspected of having terrorism links from returning to the country for two years.
An immediate threat
Professor Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington, who specialises in terrorism and Southeast Asia studies, said some Malaysian and Indonesian detainees were battle-hardened combatants with military and possibly bomb-making experience.
“Even the non-combatants, such as women and children, are likely to be highly indoctrinated. Not all, but some, may have been repulsed by what they saw and experienced,” he said.
“All of them need to be returned to their respective countries in Southeast Asia in a controlled fashion.”
He said the Turkish invasion would provide a major boost for the jihadist organisation.
“It is a godsend for IS as the Kurds have announced they are stopping their offensive against them. (This) will do much to bolster IS’ ranks as they seek to rebuild,” Abuza said.
Yayla also warned that any escape of IS fighters would fuel a revival in the terror network. “This is going to be IS version two,” he said.
The professor expected escapees to head for Europe and Southeast Asia but only stage attacks in the latter region because the risk of retaliation for terror plots in Europe would be greater.
“If IS were to launch attacks in Malaysia, Malaysia would not (go after the network) in Syria,” Yayla said.
In contrast, terror attacks in Paris and Belgium had been huge mistakes for the network as they had spurred Western governments to hunt down IS in Iraq and Syria, he explained.
“IS is going to need some time to recover, to re-establish themselves,” Yayla added. “The threat is at least six months away for Southeast Asia and Europe. But for Syria, the threat is immediate.”
‘Waiting to go home’
Inside the sprawling Al Hol camp in northeast Syria, where displaced families of IS fighters have been housed, Lidia, 29, is waiting to return to Malaysia with her three young sons.
In WhatsApp messages to her father on Thursday, who made them available to This Week in Asia, she wrote: “We can hear the bombings and feel vibrations, but it sounds as though they are far.
“Yesterday evening, we saw 10 Humvees ready to go to war,” she said, referring to military vehicles.
Her father, who declined to be named, said: “For now, Lidia has enough food. She is given food by the camp. She also buys some herself.
“But she hopes the world will pay attention to the plight of the refugees there.”
Lidia has been staying in a section of the camp with 28 other Malaysians for at least eight months and has conveyed to the authorities her wish to return home.
The Mandarin-speaking woman secretly left Malaysia in Oct 2014 with her infant son and husband to travel to Syria. The former medical lab technician, who is twice-widowed, now has three sons: Khattab, 5; Musa, 3, and Ahsalan, who is only 4 months old.
“This place can get very cold during winter and many babies die,” Lidia wrote in a message to her father.