Malaysia offers citizens conditional return as ISIL crumbles
More than 100 Malaysians joined ISIL in Syria and about 13, including women and children, now want to come back.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When bombs started falling around her in the ISIL-controlled territory in Syria, Lidia decided it was time to leave. For the first time in more than four years, the 29-year-old Malaysian longed to return home.
The Mandarin-speaking medical lab technician disappeared from the Southeast Asian nation with her infant son and husband in October 2014 to travel secretly to Syria.
Two weeks ago, she sent a text message to her father in the southern state of Johor to tell him she had fled the territory of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and asked him to help her return to Malaysia.
“I never lost hope that one day Lidia would tell me she wants to come home,” her father, a Johor-based businessman who declined to be named, told Al Jazeera on phone.
Lidia is one of the 13 Malaysians now wanting to come home as an offensive by the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) enters its final stage in the last ISIL enclave in the village of Baghouz in eastern Syria, and the authorities are working out how to repatriate them.
“We are trying to bring them home … yes, it includes Lidia. But you know, the situation is difficult as it involves many parties from different countries,” Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, head of counterterrorism for Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Malaysian police, told Al Jazeera.
Interrogation and rehabilitation
While some countries are attempting to strip former fighters and their families of citizenship and prevent them from returning, Malaysia says citizens will be allowed to come back, provided they comply with checks and enforcement and complete a one-month government-run rehabilitation programme.
“Not everyone will be detained but all returnees will be interrogated,” Ayob said.
“We will conduct thorough checks and investigation on each returnee. We bring in clerics and psychologists to evaluate their ideology and psychological make-up.
“We will compare intelligence which we received from friendly foreign services. If there is evidence that a returnee was involved in ISIL’s militant activities, he or she would be charged in court,” Ayob added.
To date, 11 Malaysians have returned to the country. Eight were charged in court and convicted, all of them men. The other three were one woman and two children aged three and five.
“The woman underwent a rehabilitation programme and has now returned to her kampung [village],” Ayob said. “She continues to be monitored.”
Even though ISIL has all but collapsed in Iraq and Syria, there are Malaysians who are still willing to fight for the group, according to police.
“We are keeping an eye on them,” Ayob said. “Those who cannot go to Syria are now setting their sights on Mindanao in southern Philippines where militant groups there have links to ISIL.”
Meanwhile, 51 Malaysians remain in Syria, including 17 children, according to Ayob.
Lidia’s journey out of ISIL territory was arduous.
She walked for five days from the town of Mayadin in the district of Deir Az Zor together with her two sons, aged two and four, to reach a Kurdish-controlled camp in Hasakah.
“She travelled with another Malaysian named Aisyah to al-Hol camp in Hasakah,” her father said.
“She has food and shelter. But the place is not comfortable for her and her sons. She wants to return home as soon as possible,” he added.
“She has registered herself with the Red Cross.”
Thousands of wives and children of ISIL fighters have fled to al-Hol camp as the “caliphate” crumbles.
Already more than 62,000 people are crowded into the camp, with more expected to arrive in the coming days, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
In the past four years, Lidia has maintained sporadic communications with her father through WhatsApp.
He had no inkling she was leaving for Syria shortly after she gave birth to her first child in 2014, and only got to see his grandson three times in Malaysia before he was taken out of the country.
“It was her husband who brought her there. She did not understand what ISIL was back then,” he said.
After her first husband died, Lidia refused to return home despite her father’s pleas. She then remarried. Her second husband was also killed.
“I believe she now wants to return home because both her husbands are dead,” said her father.
Lidia is among 102 Malaysians known to have left the country to live in the group’s so-called Islamic State.
Some 40 were killed fighting in Syria and Iraq; nine were suicide bombers.
Having discussed her case with the Red Cross in Kuala Lumpur, Lidia’s father expects it will be some time before she can return.
“I met another father at the Red Cross,” he said. “He told me his daughter is at a camp in Syria. It has been a year and she is still there.”
As for Lidia’s father, he just wants his daughter home and to see his grandsons.
“Let her experience under ISIL be a lesson to her,” he said. “Now it is proven that Malaysia is better than the caliphate. Now she can make the comparison.”