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Handling returning terrorist fighters is a big problem, monitoring their funds is another

Closer monitoring of former Islamic State (IS) member who have returned to Indonesia is needed. AAP/PR Handout Image

The Indonesian government has decided to refuse to allow the return of Indonesians who joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.

After IS declared itself as a caliphate in 2014 – until its defeat by a multinational military coalition in 2017more than 30,000 fighters from 85 countries, including Indonesia, who felt compelled to live under an Islamic caliphate travelled to IS-held territory.

Now that IS has been driven out of much of Syria and Iraq, some 689 Indonesians, including Indonesian foreign terrorist fighters, are stranded in several countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey.

Whether or not stopping former IS members from returning is the right choice to counter violent extremism in Indonesia is being debated.

But how did these Indonesian IS members got there in the first place? And what should governments do when ex-IS members manage (one way or the other) to return?

I research terrorism financing. I argue that a more robust strategy to monitor the financial flow of IS sympathisers is needed to diminish their ability to raise funds for their extremist cause.


Read more: How do terrorists fund their activities? Some do it legally


Support to go to Syria

I identified three types of financial support Indonesian IS sympathisers use to finance their travel abroad: self-funding, family support and group funding.

An example of a self-funded sympathiser is Dwi Djoko Wiwoho. The former public servant decided to join IS in 2015. He used his own money to fly himself and his family to Syria.

Dwi sold his house for Rp 500 million (about US$36,000). He then handed over Rp 327 million to Iman Santosa, alias Abu Umar, a preacher who pledged his allegiance to IS and managed connections with the group in Syria. He used the money for accommodation, travel documents and transportation during his journey to Syria in July 2015.

In Syria, Dwi joined the military training until he was deported to Indonesia in August 2017 and detained by authorities. A year later, the West Jakarta District Court sentenced him to three years in prison for financing terrorism.

Another example is Syahrul Munif, who used proceeds from his book-selling business to finance his travel to Syria in March 2014.

He returned to Indonesia after spending six months in Syria. The police arrested him at a rental house in Malang, East Java, in early 2017. In March 2018, Syahrul was sentenced to three years in prison for producing propaganda videos and plotting attacks in Indonesia.

From 2017 to 2018, Mohammad Okasa transferred up to Rp 60 million to his brothers Ade Rahmat and Mohamad Irsya who had already joined IS in Syria. By using Ade Rahmat’s identity, Okasa managed to withdraw his brother’s social security insurance (Jamsostek) fund and send the money through local intermediaries to Ade in Syria.

Some others made their trip to Syria with the help of domestic and foreign terrorist groups’ networks.

In 2015, Gigih Rahmat Dewa and his group, Khatibah Gonggong Rebus, helped sent foreign terrorist fighters to Syria by providing a transit house, assisting in immigration, establishing a travel agent and acting as the intermediary between jihadists in Turkey and Syria.

Gigih was a subordinate of Indonesian militant Bahrun Naim, who has plotted several terrorist attacks in Indonesia. Gigih achieved notoriety for planning to mount a rocket attack against Singapore’s Marina Bay.

In 2017, Deny Hariansyah Putra was arrested for supporting foreign fighters by organising their travels.

Another convicted fighter, Muhammad Iqbal Ramadhan, joined Jemaah Islamiyah – a Southeast Asian extremist rebel group aiming to establish an Islamic state in the region. He received money in 2017 to fund his travel from Jakarta via Vietnam and Turkey. It was believed the money came from Jemaah Islamiyah members.


Read more: How Indonesia’s new international Islamic university will host global research for 'moderate Islam'


Monitoring their finances

Indonesian Rullie Rian Zeke and his wife Ulfah Handayani Saleh, members of the Indonesian IS-linked terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), returned from Syria in 2017 only to launch the bombing attack on a cathedral in Jolo, the Philippines, in January 2019.

The couple had tried to migrate to the caliphate in Syria, but were deported from Turkey in January 2017. They joined a one-month deradicalisation program conducted by the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) before returning to their home in South Sulawesi and worked as food vendors.

But in December the next year, they departed to the Philippines and met an Abu Sayyaf leader and IS-affiliated networks. The Abu Sayyaf group is a terrorist group based in southern Philippines which seeks to establish an Islamic state in that country.

No known supervisory program was conducted to monitor the couple’s financing. They were able to travel to the southern Philippines through Malaysia in 2019.

The case of Ahmed Musto, a Bulgarian man who returned from Syria in 2016, portrays another risk in the return of IS militants.

According to law-enforcement officials, he established a tobacco-processing business and wired substantial profits to IS in Syria through the hawala system – an undocumented money brokering often used in transnational crime schemes.

There are risks in repatriating ex-IS fighters and their families. They may become further radicalised after receiving combat training and indoctrination and forming strong social connections with other foreign fighters.

Trained in English language, indoctrination and information technology, they could reach a wider audience using propaganda through social media and the internet.

My analysis projects that ex-IS fighters could also raise money by using their social network power. They might raise funds either to support IS or to help local radical groups recruit more members and sympathisers, even funding attacks by other terrorist networks.

The government should prepare robust policies to tackle the threat and reduce the risks.

Besides improving the tools and measures employed in deradicalisation and disengagement programs for ex-fighters and families, it needs to develop a strategy to diminish terrorist financing.

In addition to stronger enforcement of Anti-Terrorist Financing Law, developing a watch-list database of former Indonesian IS fighters, families and terrorists would be a significant step in disrupting the flow of funding for terrorism purposes.

Considering the potential misuses of donations for terrorism purposes, the government should also conduct campaigns to enhance public awareness on giving donations to particular groups, especially involving people in conflict zones. It is very likely the money is not going to legitimate recipients or victims, but to radical groups instead.

Protecting borders and the financial integrity system are the most important sectors to be concerned about.

Thus, database sharing and strategic coordination among respective agencies –including investigators, financial regulators, the financial intelligence unit, private sectors and ministries that manage civil information database – are critical to counter the threats posed by returning foreign fighters.


Aisha Amelia Yasmin contributed to the publication of this article.

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