Revoking Citizenship: Not a Step Forward for Indonesian Counter Terrorism

Revoking citizenships potentially a short-term gain, long-term loss. Credit: Perum Peruri


The impetus to revise Indonesia’s Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2013 has once again gained traction. Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly stated that the suicide bombing in Solo, Indonesia on 5 July 2016 – on the eve of the end of the fasting month of Ramadan – has made “us realise again that the threat of terrorism is real”. Echoing this are Indonesian lawmakers who are pushing for the revision in attempts to prevent further attacks.

Proposed changes include revoking the citizenship and barring the return of Indonesians who engage in terrorism activities overseas. Although the revisions are intended to keep Indonesians safe from future attacks, will revoking citizenships and barring the return of perpetrators achieve this objective?

Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Loss

Revoking citizenships could be effective in deterring Indonesians from travelling overseas to gain skills which could threaten Indonesia. It could further dissuade individuals motivated by a sense of adventurism and the pursuit of financial rewards as promised by groups such as IS from travelling to conflict regions. If coupled with a grace period that precedes the implementation of this law, it may provide greater motivation to disillusioned Indonesians in Syria to return.

In other words, Indonesians in Syria are given the opportunity to return to Indonesia with their citizenship intact within a specific period of time. Therefore, if implemented, it is imperative for Indonesia to develop a holistic programme to receive them prior to their return. This programme should include providing financial assistance for them to rebuild their lives, particularly those who have sold off their assets to fund their trip to Syria.

Indonesia joins a list of countries that have either implemented or are considering revoking citizenships as a counter terrorism measure. As with these countries, Indonesians have been filmed burning their passports and renouncing their citizenships as part of IS propaganda. However, their actions should not legitimise their government to implement such measures.

Indonesia also differs from most of these countries as they would only revoke the citizenship of individuals with dual nationalities. Therefore, the issue of stateless and potentially dangerous individuals would arise, if implemented in Indonesia. Apart from the ethical concerns of such a scenario, such measures promote NIMBY-ism (Not-In-My-Back Yard) and thus affecting the national security of states these stateless individuals have taken refuge in.

No Guarantee Against Future Attacks

Another issue would be that such measures would not prevent or make these individuals lose interest in organising attacks in Indonesia. The attacks in Jakarta and Solo exemplified this as investigations are uncovering linkages to an Indonesian who is currently with IS in Syria. With the advancement in technology such as social media, militants do not need to have a physical presence to instruct or teach individuals skills such as bomb making.

Revoking the citizenships of such individuals would also create the issue of how Indonesia would respond to threats by stateless individuals.  By being stateless, these individuals may be seen as fair game to be eradicated without any legal ramifications. However, such hard approach would only make them martyrs and reinforce the narrative that Muslims are being persecuted. It must also not be forgotten that these individuals would still have familial connections in Indonesia.

Therefore, the individual’s citizenship and life may be taken away, but his ideology would live on through his family. This would not only reinforce the cycle of terrorism in Indonesia but make it return with a vengeance, thus, endangering Indonesians that the measures sought to protect.

The third issue is the enforcement of such measures. If implemented, sufficient evidence must be gathered before revoking a citizenship. It is insufficient to gather evidence solely via monitoring their social media accounts where they commonly pose photographs of themselves in Syria holding weapons. These measures would, thus, entail diverting resources to ensure that individuals have engaged in terrorism activities overseas beyond a reasonable doubt before revoking their citizenship.

Involving the Military & Alternative Measures

Interestingly, the Indonesian military have joined the debate for law revision by calling for the armed forces (TNI) to be given greater role in fighting terrorism. The Chief of TNI’s Strategic Intelligence Agency (BAIS) have called for the TNI to be involved in operations for early detection of terrorist activities and to interrogate suspected terror groups, especially those connected with international terrorist networks.

The TNI would, thus, be a potential candidate to assist with the enforcement of these measures. However, would such involvement be in Indonesia’s best interest especially with the current developments in the South China Sea?

Lastly, it is noteworthy that on 9 February 2016, Indonesia had convicted four returnees for their participation in militant training in Syria. Despite the returnees receiving lesser sentences than what prosecutors had sought, their sentencing was an important step. This is because this is believed to be the first successful conviction of Indonesians joining an overseas conflict. Therefore, revoking citizenships would be a drastic escalation if options such as longer prison sentences coupled with opportunities to participate in deradicalisation programmes are not explored. Revoking one’s citizenship may be perceived as not providing a second chance for those who later become disillusioned. This would only reinforce the notion that the only option for them is to maintain a militant life.

Indonesia has correctly focused on preventing their citizens from engaging in terrorism overseas in a bid to maintain national security. However, Indonesia should consider alternative measures rather than the reliance on drastic measures. These measures could be adopted from Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programmes that are currently implemented overseas. This would include developing a comprehensive counter ideology platform to dissuade citizens from travelling overseas to join militant groups and to not engage in violence if they do leave, and to facilitate their return albeit with repercussions that would commensurate with their infractions.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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