The women who seek meaning in terrorism

By Fitriani and Alif Satria

After the riot and partial occupation of the Mobile Brigade headquarters (Mako Brimob) detention center by a group of Islamic State (IS)-affiliated terrorist detainees last week, IS Telegram groups have been filled with constant calls to awaken sleeping terrorist cells to conduct further attacks against “thogut”, a code for Indonesian police.

The calls were answered eagerly. For five consecutive days after the prison siege, we witnessed terrorist attacks. A new trend is evident across the attacks: increased participation of women in terror attacks.

On the weekend after the Mako Brimob riot, two female assailants breached the prison complex, ready to launch an attack using knives. A day later, Indonesia witnessed its first female suicide bomber; in the Surabaya triple church bombings involving a family of six, the mother detonated herself along with her two daughters at Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church (GKI). This action was followed by a motorcycle bombing at the Surabaya Police headquarters involving a family of five, including the mother and a daughter.

Women have been part of Indonesia’s terrorist groups for more than a decade and their role has augmented over the years. During the peak of Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) in the early 2000s, the wives of JI terrorists were kept in the dark regarding their husbands’ terrorist activities, including traveling and fighting in Afghanistan.

Between 2004 and 2016, five out of the 17 women arrested for aiding terrorist groups, or almost a third of them, including the well-known Putri Munawaroh, only indirectly supported terrorist groups by not cooperating with the police to supply information. The rest of the women who assisted JI mainly had the role of providing income to sustain the families of terrorists, priming their children to become future jihadists or fighters for a sharia state, as well as facilitating financial and logistical transfers between members.

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The transition of Indonesian women to become terrorist combatants began in 2009 when the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) recruited and trained three women in i’dad, or war simulation, due to their lack of manpower. Even then, there were no accounts of these women actually participating in any planned attacks. It was only in late 2016 with the emergence of IS-affiliated Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) “brides”, Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari, that Indonesian women first participated in attempted terrorist attacks. However, the two were arrested before successfully detonating the bombs they carried.

To understand why women would be motivated to participate in terrorist attacks, in 2017, CSIS conducted a research on the matter. Based on interviews with multiple ex-terrorists and members of radical groups, the research found no major differences between the radicalization process of women and men, except the difference in gender roles.

Women can only become involved after permission through fatwa is given. After the Mako Brimob riot, such calls circulated through IS-affiliated Telegram groups.

Aside from the permission, the 2017 CSIS research found two motivating variables in the radicalization of women. First is the saturation point, which refers to a situation in which an individual is unable to find meaning in their lives, leading them to feel a sense of worthlessness and to question the purpose of life.

This situation occurs due to various conditions, most of which are personal in nature, such as boredom with work and personal life troubles. Our research found that structural discrimination and economic disenfranchisement, although having some effects, are not sufficient to bring an individual to a saturation point. Such cases are found in ex-terrorists and ex-radicalized respondents that come from relatively financially stable backgrounds, as in the case of the family that committed the Surabaya church attacks.

For women, to reach the saturation point that makes them susceptible to indoctrination, a lack of appreciation and options in domestic activities are the most common preceding conditions.

However, the research also found exceptions to these situations, such as where women lost their existential meaning because of non-meaningful work. This was the experience of a female insurance agency manager in Central Java, who felt that her wealth was unable to give her a sense of life purpose until she attempted a hijrah (transition) to Syria.

Second are social bonds or affective personal relationships between individuals. There are two factors here that are important to understand why individuals gravitate toward radical groups.

First, are the social bonds that connect individuals to radical groups. The majority of CSIS’ respondents noted that, as they were initially religiously inept, they decided to join a particular religious group through a reference from a trusted friend, co-worker, or family member.

Second, are the social bonds that anchor individuals to stay and conduct actions for certain ideologies because they feel a sense of belonging to the individuals in the group. The research found that the sense of militant camaraderie in radical groups is higher than in moderate or non-ideological groups.

Social bonds for women are different from men. Men are often pulled into radical groups through their network bonds, such as work peers or trusted friends, although kinship, such as brotherhood, also plays a major role. The latter can be seen from the three Bali bomber brothers of Mukhlas, Amrozi and Ali Imron.

Meanwhile, women are commonly pulled into radical groups through the bond of marriage ties. In some cases there are also women who enter social bonds through online radical groups where they find a sense of belonging, such as female migrant workers that join IS-affiliated Telegram groups.

To successfully disengage individuals, particularly women, from terrorist groups we need to address the two motivating variables of saturation point and social bonds. In modern society, the challenge lies in the busy daily lives in which people feel isolated from society, leaving them with no place to belong and questioning the point of living.

People craving a meaningful life and social affection are easy prey for terrorist groups that are skilled in building rapport and indoctrination, encouraging people to retaliate violently against other parties they say have made their lives miserable. This has to stop.


Fitriani and Alif Satria are respectively researcher and assistant researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.


Published in Jakarta Post, 17 May 2018


Photo from Jakarta Post: A woman peeks through a window at the Bambu Apus social shelter in East Jakarta on Feb. 6, 2017. The shelter houses Indonesians deported from Turkey for allegedly attempting to enter Syria and join the Islamic State group. The government put them in custody at the shelter for a deradicalization program before returning them to their hometowns. (Antara/Yulius Staria Wijaya)

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