KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 -- When bombs started falling around her in the ISIS-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. 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 ISIS 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 counter terrorism for Special Branch, the intelligence arm of the Malaysian police.
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 ISIS'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 ISIS 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 ISIS." Meanwhile, 51 Malaysians remain in Syria, including 17 children, according to Ayob.