Jakarta/Solo. Experts have urged the government to step up its efforts in fighting Islamic radicalism at home, in light of the recent disappearance of 16 Indonesian citizens in Turkey who are believed to have crossed over to Syria to join the extremist group Islamic State.
The missing 16 have been identified as members of three extended families from Surabaya, East Java, and Solo, Central Java. Consisting of seven men, four women, four children and an infant, the group was registered as part of a 25-member tour group organized by local travel company Smailing Tour.
However, upon arrival at Turkey’s Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Feb. 24, they immediately separated from the rest of the group, saying they planned to visit relatives and would rejoin the tour group two days later in Pamukkale, southern Turkey.
The family never appeared at the meeting point and the tour group had no choice but to return to Indonesia without them last Wednesday.
National Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Rikwanto announced on Monday that investigators believed the missing group had joined IS “based on the analysis made by Turkish authorities.”
Officers are conducting background checks on each of the 16 citizens.
“We have also reached out to other law enforcement agencies, including Interpol, to help us investigate the matter,” Rikwanto said.
A special investigation unit was dispatched to Turkey on Monday to track the whereabouts of the missing Indonesians, according to Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, director of protection for Indonesian citizens at the Foreign Ministry.
The team will work closely with the Turkish authorities, he added.
“They arrived in Turkey today [Monday], so we hope to receive an update soon,” Iqbal told reporters in Jakarta. Police have contacted family members of the missing citizens, “but they claimed not to know anything about [their relatives’] travel plans.”
“They were surprised to hear the news,” Iqbal said.
One relative in Solo vehemently rejected allegations the group had left Indonesia to join IS, insisting the trip to Turkey was simply a holiday.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t do that [join IS]. Our family has never spoken of the Islamic State. We have no connection to them whatsoever,” Muhammad Arif told reporters on Monday.
He criticized Smailing Tour agents for allowing his family to wander around a foreign country without any guides, then leaving them behind.
He also denied reports that he had received text messages from his missing relatives saying they refused to return home.
“We are very disappointed. The travel agency should take responsibility for what happened. We will question them in Jakarta,” said Arif, who is related to six of the missing 16. They include his younger brothers, Fauzi Umar and Hafid Umar; Hafid’s wife Soraiyah Cholid; and Hafid’s children Hamzah, Utsman and Atiqah.
Arif urged the Indonesian Embassy in Ankara to find his family members and bring them safely back to Solo.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla expressed similar doubts that the families had fled to Syria to join IS.
“They are families with small children. Why would they want to enter conflict-ridden areas controlled by IS and endanger the safety of their children?” Kalla said on Monday. “I don’t believe that they left to join Islamic State. If [the men] had intended to wage jihad, they wouldn’t have brought their wives or their children. [The theory] is illogical,” he added.
Nevertheless, the vice president vowed the government would do everything in its power to locate its citizens.
Defense and security observer Bantaro Bandoro of the Indonesian Defense University criticized the Indonesian authorities — specifically the National Police and the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) — for their lack of progress in curbing growing support for the radical Islamic movement in the archipelago.
More than 500 Indonesian jihadists are estimated to have fled to Syria and Iraq to join IS, according to BNPT data.
“The government does have programs in place dedicated to eradicating terrorism [in Indonesia] and to deradicalization. But they have also neglected to closely monitor groups that may be related to IS,” Bantarto told the Jakarta Globe.
“Officials should be fully informed about active terrorist networks in the country. They should be stopping any individuals who show the slightest sign of wanting to join a militant group.”
Bantarto added that Indonesians who had successfully reached Syria could pose a serious threat to national security upon returning home by spreading radical ideology in the country.
He urged the BNPT and police to review and improve their methods of combatting terrorism in Indonesia.
“Police are supposed to play a central role in educating the Indonesian people to distance themselves from terrorist groups that preach a misguided [Muslim] ideology in order to curb terrorist-related activities,” Bantarto said.
“The BNPT also should create and implement similar programs. They must step up their efforts and reach out to every pocket of Indonesia. They need to work with local religious leaders and encourage them to promote a moderate, more tolerant interpretation of Islam.”
“There is absolutely no excuse for the government to allow radicalism to grow more pervasive than it already has. Should they fail to address this crucial issue, the [jihadist] movement [in Indonesia] will grow out of control.”
However, terrorism expert Al Chaidar expressed doubts the police were willing to do more to combat terrorism, saying they had little concern over the issue.
He urged the government to reach out to local Islamist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, the Indonesian Islamic State (NII) and Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), whose members are among those most prone to be lured by IS ideology.
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