JAKARTA — An online magazine catering to supporters of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia is not the first place you might expect to find a spread featuring an illustration of a pink flower. But there it was amid articles about beheadings and bombings in an issue last year of Al-Fatihin, or The Conquerors.
At first glance, the image could be mistaken for a misplaced advertisement. But the title above it left no doubt about the article’s intended audience: Jihad Wanita, or “Women’s Jihad.” The following six paragraphs outlined the different forms of jihad a woman can carry out, such as caring for wounded soldiers or supporting jihadis in battle. In another issue of Al-Fatihin, a black-and-white photograph of a woman standing alone, firing a rifle from behind a barricade, accompanied an article that trumpeted the courageousness of Muslim women in the Islamic State and urged them to take up armed struggle against unbelievers.
Al-Fatihin, which is circulated in jihadi group chats on Telegram and WhatsApp, now has editions in both Indonesian and Malay. Adhe Bhakti, a terrorism expert with the Center for Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Jakarta, pointed to the magazine when we met in May to demonstrate the tactics that jihadi networks are using to entice women to join their cause in Indonesia. “Police are becoming more aware about women’s involvement in violent extremism, shifting from supporter to initiator and now perpetrator,” he explained.
Women involved in radical Islamist groups have typically taken on support roles, working in the shadows of their male counterparts. This has included, for example, sheltering fugitive terrorists, helping to finance terror groups and recruit for them, as well as marrying jihadis and grooming their children to become future militants.
Today, however, a growing number of Indonesian women are becoming radicalized and taking on a larger role in armed conflict itself, especially as suicide bombers, according to Andhika Chrisnayudhanto, the director of regional and multilateral cooperation at the National Counter Terrorism Agency of Indonesia, a government agency known as the BNPT. “Unlike other terrorist organizations like al-Qaida, ISIS appeals to both women and men,” he said in an interview.
For Indonesian authorities and police investigating terrorism, the combat threat that women now pose is a new phenomenon that requires a change in their law enforcement strategies and in how they monitor extremists. Women are “perfect candidates to become suicide bombers,” according to Hamli, a police general and the director of prevention at the BNPT, who, like some Indonesians goes by only one name. “Women are expected to get sympathy from others, and people usually tend to suspect women less,” Hamli said at a counterterrorism seminar in the southern Indonesian city of Yogyakarta last year.
This allows them to slip more easily through the cracks of government surveillance without being detected. In particular, women can often move between the digital world—where most jihadis are recruited, indoctrinated and trained—and the real world, where acts of terror are carried out.
According to a recent report from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, or IPAC, the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in the Middle East did not discourage jihadi networks in Indonesia. Rather, it emboldened them to expand. As they do so, jihadi women are taking on more direct combat roles. As Sidney Jones, the director of IPAC, told me, “Women are now a permanent part of the jihadi structure.”
‘Everyone Must Do Jihad’
On Sunday, May 13, 2018, coordinated suicide bombings of three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, killed 18 people. Just as shocking as the church bombings themselves were who carried them out: a family of six, including two young daughters. The day after the attacks, a family of five, including a child, piled onto two motorcycles and blew themselves up at a police headquarters in Surabaya. The consecutive attacks in the city marked the first time in Indonesia that suicide bombings were executed in part by women, as well as the first time they involved children.
This grisly new trend did not stop there. Ten months later, police in the port city of Sibolga arrested a militant known as Abu Hamzah, who was suspected of heading a cell of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, Indonesia’s largest ISIS-linked terrorist group. When police went to Abu Hamzah’s house the next day to investigate the scene and identify possible accomplices, Abu Hamzah’s wife, Solimah, barricaded herself and her 2-year-old child inside and refused to surrender.
“Unlike other terrorist organizations like al-Qaida, ISIS appeals to both women and men.”
After a 10-hour standoff, in which Abu Hamzah, who was speaking through a mosque loudspeaker, pleaded with his wife to turn herself in, Solimah detonated a bomb, killing herself and her child. When the police subsequently entered the wreckage of the house, they discovered a bomb lab that held more than 300 kilograms of explosives and around 15 bombs, including pipe bombs and a suicide vest. Authorities said the family was planning to stage further attacks on police stations in Indonesia. According to a police spokesperson, Solimah had been more zealous in her allegiance to the Islamic State than her husband.
The attacks in Surabaya and Sibolga would not have been the first suicide bombings in Indonesia carried out by women if 28-year-old Dian Yulia Novi had succeeded in blowing herself up in December 2016. Her plans were thwarted when police intercepted a letter from Novi to her parents in which she wrote that she planned to commit a terrorist attack. Novi and her husband were then apprehended and arrested in a rented house near Jakarta.
When searching the home, officers from an elite antiterrorism squad called Special Detachment 88, or Densus 88, found a pressure-cooker bomb similar to the ones used by the Boston Marathon bombers. Novi, her husband and a group of others had planned to attack the presidential palace the next day, she later confessed.
They said they had learned how to make the bomb from a blog run by Bahrun Naim, a former computer technician turned notorious extremist who joined the Islamic State and left Indonesia for Syria. The suspected mastermind behind terrorist attacks in Jakarta in 2016, Naim published manuals on his blog with names like “How to Make a Bomb in 10 Minutes,” as well as tips on spying and money laundering that provided remote tutoring sessions to aspiring terrorists. He was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Syria in 2018.
Naim believed that women and men alike were obligated to commit jihad. In fact, he had coached Novi and her husband via Telegram when they were planning the presidential palace attacks, Novi said during her trial in September 2017. She was sentenced that month to seven years in prison on charges of conspiracy and attempted terrorism—marking the first time a woman in Indonesia has been convicted on terrorism charges.
Novi had initially become radicalized while working as a domestic worker in Taiwan. Inspired by the profiles of jihadis she read on Facebook, she started sending some of them messages. The conversations that followed led her to Nur Solihin, a local leader of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah. The two married over Telegram, despite never having met.
In a June 2018 interview from prison with the online magazine New Naratif, Novi said her desire to carry out a suicide bombing in the name of jihad stemmed from a feeling of emptiness and being incomplete as a Muslim. For Novi, becoming a suicide bomber represented doing something meaningful with her life.
“Jihad is mandatory for all Muslims, just like praying,” Novi had said in an earlier interview with Time magazine. “Everyone must do jihad.”
Shortly after Novi’s arrest, Ika Puspitasari, an Indonesian domestic worker living in Hong Kong, was arrested for planning a suicide bomb attack in Bali on New Year’s Eve in 2016. Puspitasari, who was also radicalized online, had reportedly grown tired of financing her husband’s terror plots and wanted to get involved herself.
The rituals of radicalization and courtship went hand-in-hand.
A Densus 88 officer, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for security purposes, said that Novi and Puspitasari had not been radical when they lived in Indonesia. In fact, they were not even very knowledgeable about Islam, which made them more vulnerable to radicalization. Once the two women were abroad, the quest for purpose and a sense of identity made them prime recruits for sweet-talking jihadis who promised eternal martyrdom. “They were introduced to the ideals of violent extremism by men they met online and who became their boyfriends,” the officer said.
Rizka Murul, who interviewed Novi and Puspitasari while they were in prison for a documentary film, told me in an interview in May that for both women, the rituals of radicalization and courtship went hand-in-hand. As migrant workers living abroad, both women felt isolated and homesick, Murul said, which fed their desire to anchor onto something familiar like Islam. In the secular societies of their host countries, radicalizing their beliefs became a way to assert their identities, and the internet provided them with the network and the knowledge to do so.
While the idea of eternal martyrdom gave them a sense of purpose, the connections they made with radicalized men made them feel loved. The interplay of romance and religion bound them together to carry out terrorist attacks, Murul added. These relationships become formalized as “jihad-nikkah,” or “marriage for jihad purposes,” a connection that helped inform the title of Murul’s film: “Pengantin,” which means “bride” in Malay but it also used among jihadis as a code for “suicide bomber” in message boards and other communication.
Can the Radicalized Be Rehabilitated?
The reasons behind the radicalization of women in Indonesia remains a topic of debate among experts. “It is a mistake to think that a woman’s participation in jihad is dependent on her relationship with a man,” said Jones, the director of IPAC. “The decision to engage in a terrorist act was already there without reference to a man.”
The emergence of more radicalized women who are willing to help plan and stage terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, poses a unique threat for law enforcement on two fronts. First, as the officer from Densus 88 told me, “It’s very hard to monitor women. Many are self-radicalized and not part of terrorist groups in our watch list. Some are radicalized abroad. It’s very difficult to identify exactly who to monitor and where to start.”
Second, like many other countries around the world, Indonesia faces the dilemma of what to do with their citizens who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and left to join the group in the Middle East. As women begin to play a more prominent role in the jihadi chain of command, the general view that they are passive accomplices no longer holds. That “makes it harder for the Indonesian government to make a decision to take back their nationals who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State,” as Jones put it.
Although estimates vary and exact numbers are difficult to determine, Indonesian security forces say that between 2013 and 2018, between 600 to 1,000 Indonesians attempted to enter Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State. Some were turned back at the Turkish border and never made it to the self-proclaimed caliphate.
Between 2014 and 2017, Turkey deported an estimated 573 Indonesians. A small number were also deported from places like Hong Kong and Singapore for suspected involvement in terrorist activity. Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries that have refused to repatriate their nationals who entered ISIS territory, Indonesia has taken a more humanitarian approach in dealing with Indonesians deported from Turkey.
According to the screening system the Indonesian government employed when the initial wave of deportations started in 2014, deportees of both sexes who faced criminal charges by Indonesian authorities were taken into custody and tried for their crimes, the Densus 88 officer told me.
But deportees without a current or prior criminal charge on their records—usually women, children and older adults—were instead sent to government shelters to undergo a state-run rehabilitation program. By mid-2018, all Indonesian deportees had been repatriated from Turkey, and the rehabilitation program ended soon after.
The program, run by the country’s Social Affairs Ministry, lasted between two weeks and a month. Upon arrival in Indonesia, eligible deportees were brought to shelters where they answered a questionnaire to assess their level of indoctrination on a scale of one to 10, with 10 indicating they had been “strongly radicalized.” They were also interviewed by social workers as part of a supplementary screening process.
People accepted into the program adhered to a daily schedule that included morning exercises, attending lectures by former combatants who had been successfully deradicalized, and learning skills to help them transition into civilian life. At the end of the rehabilitation program, after signing a document pledging their loyalty to the Republic of Indonesia, deportees were sent home.
The government, however, has had little capacity to monitor these former ISIS loyalists released by the program, given that they are scattered across a country of more than 17,000 islands with a landmass larger than the United States. Some have sought anonymity to avoid stigmatization by their community, making it hard for authorities to establish mechanisms to monitor their progress, especially within networks of often remote villages.
As a result, it has been difficult to judge the overall effectiveness of the rehabilitation program beyond anecdotal reporting from social workers, and harder still to predict if those apparently deradicalized have actually transitioned back into civilian life or gone back to their old ways.
These shortcomings have already had consequences. In January, an Indonesian couple who had traveled to Syria and were deported back to Indonesia carried out a suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo, in the southern Philippines, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 100. The couple had undergone the rehabilitation program,according to Ali Chaidar, a terrorism expert and professor at Malikussaleh University in the Sumatra province of Indonesia.
Bhakti described the program as insufficient and rudimentary, a “hit-and-miss rehabilitation.” Given how gradual a process radicalization is, he explained, effective deradicalization requires continued monitoring, reinforcing moderate religious teachings and implementing safeguards to prevent lapses back into radicalism.
When the deradicalization program was still in effect, deportees had been sent to two different government shelters and rehabilitation centers. When I visited one of them in eastern Jakarta this past May, it no longer housed ISIS deportees, but continued to serve as a government-run shelter for children. By that point, all eligible deportees had already been through the deradicalization program, according to Neneng Heryani, who heads government-run rehabilitation programs at the center.
Bhakti described Indonesia’s deradicalization program as insufficient and rudimentary, a “hit-and-miss rehabilitation.”
But Indonesian authorities now face the challenge of how to handle the repatriation of the last Indonesians who remain in Syria and Turkey. A report by the Indonesian news site Tempo suggests that as of June, some 500 Indonesians, mostly women and children, were still scattered across refugee camps in Syria. The majority of the men they had traveled with were either in jail or dead. Although it isn’t clear how many will ultimately return, many of the people Tempo interviewed said they wanted to.
Amid simmering tension and anxiety among Indonesians traumatized by the recent spate of bombings, a move to repatriate ISIS members still in Syria will surely face resistance. In fact, according to a 2017 survey, 92.9 percent of its 1,500 respondents said that ISIS sympathizers should not be allowed to live in Indonesia.
When the government tried to reintegrate the surviving children from the families that carried out the 2018 Surabaya attacks, for example, their communities and relatives protested. The children—seven in total—have been living in a secret government shelter for over a year now under a special rehabilitation program.
According to Sustriana Saragih, a psychologist who spent months counseling the children in that program, the children’s extended families feared the stigma of being associated with them, and worried they would be labeled as terrorists themselves. “It was heartbreaking to see,” she told me in a phone interview in September. “These children are victims. They never chose the family they were born into.”
Yet Irine Hiraswari Gayatri, a senior researcher at the Center for Political Studies at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, stressed that the government must consider the long-term consequences of integrating supposedly deradicalized deportees. “The government has to maintain a delicate balance between its mandate to offer protection to its returning citizens and also keep the general population safe. The possibility of another terrorist attack by a deportee is a tragedy that we cannot afford,” she said. “The government has to take on measures to show its humanitarian stance does not compromise its commitment to fight terrorism.”
Amid anxiety among Indonesians traumatized by the recent spate of bombings, a move to repatriate ISIS members still in Syria will surely face resistance.
Indonesia has moved to strengthen its security laws and improve counterterrorism coordination between government agencies. After the Surabaya suicide bombings, President Joko Widodo revised the country’s counterterrorism law, which now explicitly includes “joining terrorist organizations, disseminating such teachings or taking part in military-style training at home or overseas” as a prosecutable crime.
The government is also working to expand programs to educate communities to identify and report early signs of radicalization and indoctrination. In July, it announced it would establish a task force to come up with a policy on repatriation for Indonesians who remain in camps in Turkey and Syria.
The government can still learn from the experience of female deportees who have been through the rehabilitation programs, according to Jones. “It would be good to take a sample group of women from those groups and monitor them,” she said, “and use them as a case study to inform government on the motivations, and recidivism or return to radicalization.”
But a central challenge that deradicalization programs have had to contend with is the slick marketing propaganda of the Islamic State, which, as Jones put it, is “the first global jihadi organization that distributed propaganda appealing to families,” including women.
“You can’t go back to the old model of deradicalization targeted only at males,” she warned. “You can’t put that genie back in the bottle.”
Ana P. Santos is a freelance journalist based in Manila. She was the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s 2014 Persephone Miel Fellow