Don't simply detain disillusioned radicals: Experts

Many Malaysians and Indonesians heading to Syria to join terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) travel with the full intention of living in the so-called caliphate for good, two experts told a forum yesterday.

However, some find that life in ISIS falls short of the idealised, puritanical lifestyle they expect, they said, citing research they did with those who have returned.

The analysts told the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute's regional outlook forum that such a contrast presents an opportunity for governments and others to do more than just detain the people who returned home, some of whom were deported after being caught en route to Syria.

Greater effort could be taken to rehabilitate and reintegrate them to counter the appeal of violent extremism which worries many in the region, the observers added.

Assistant Professor Maszlee Malik from the International Islamic University Malaysia said while the popular narrative is that a person migrates to join ISIS after being persuaded by radical material online, there is a range of other motivations as well, especially if he or she feels marginalised by society.

NOTHING TO LOSE

They don't have a job (back home), they have nothing to lose, they have no hope in life. So their new life starts over in Syria.

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR MASZLEE MALIK, from the International Islamic University Malaysia, on how feeling marginalised is a factor in joining ISIS.

"They don't have a job (back home), they have nothing to lose, they have no hope in life.

"So their new life starts over in Syria," he said, drawing on his interviews with 30 ISIS detainees in Malaysia.

Ms Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Indonesia, said many who migrate to Syria take their families with them.

This is unlike an earlier generation of militants who travelled to Afghanistan in the 1990s to "get the tools to come back and fight", like members of the clandestine Jemaah Islamiah terror network responsible for the 2002 Bali bomb attacks that killed more than 200 people. "Most of the people going to ISIS don't have the intention of returning," she added.

Ms Jones noted that half of the 500 Indonesians reported to have travelled to Syria are women and children.

Around 200 Indonesians have been sent back, 60 per cent of them women and children, making them the "single biggest group that needs attention right now".

As they are known to the authorities, governments should be able to do a better job monitoring and helping them settle back into society, she said.

Agreeing, Dr Maszlee noted that some Malaysians who had travelled to Syria but subsequently tried to return home were deterred or prevented from doing so.

Instead, they made contact with other extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, who gave them safe haven.

Dr Maszlee called for a better approach to de-radicalise such individuals and help prevent the extremist ideology from being passed on to the next generation.

"We always look at this issue from a criminal justice and security point of view, without looking at it as a social problem," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Don't simply detain disillusioned radicals: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe