A More Effective Counterterrorism Strategy for Indonesian Women by Acknowledging Their Motivations and Tactical Contributions

An Indonesian terrorist suspect during her court appearance. Credit: JawaPos.com/Radar Tasikmalaya

Women and Children in Terrorism: A Four-Part Analysis (Part 1: Case Study of Indonesia)


For decades, the Indonesian authorities had identified the involvement of Indonesian women in terrorism. In the era of Jama’ah Islamiyah (JI), terrorists’ wives have been viewed as loyal supporters for the organization starting from their migration to Afghanistan to their expansion into Southeast Asia.

Figures 1 and 2 reproduced from IPAC Report No. 68

Rational Choices of Women who Joined Religious Terrorism

Terrorists acknowledge the dominant role of women in the organization because women have the capability to transmit and develop psycho-social norms among family members. Children tended to imitate their mothers’ behaviours, especially in initiating a conversation about jihadism, Islam and politics, and even watching extremist videos together. That belief then impacts the ideological perspectives of the children.

Harmon and Holmes-Eber highlighted a sceptic viewpoint within the society that justified the general feminine impressions of women compared to men. This proclamation influences the motivation of terrorist groups to recruit women as mediators in operational and tactical actions. The public views women as victims rather than as perpetrators. Thus, they ignore the gender expectation and self-image of women enabling them to escape attention from authorities. This is the reason why terrorists then exploit them in certain select roles such as messengers, recruiters, and suicide bombers.

Previous research about gender and terrorism revealed the four types of motivations of women who joined a terrorist movement. First, they joined a terrorist group as a way of supporting their husbands who played an important role in these groups. Marriage alliances, including in Indonesia, were the most strategic way to impart the fundamental ideology to family members. The bonding also forced women to demonstrate their proactive efforts in developing extremist values among the family members. Umm Zahra and Umm Umar, two ISIS brides whom ISIS fighters married with, revealed a related motivation. Even if their husbands were killed in battle, they felt proud of their husband’s accomplishments, and never spoke a word of grief or sadness. Such wives were also glorified by the community. The wife of a shaheed (martyr) will be honoured among the community and will be taken care of by ISIS through assistance such as monthly financial support for the widows and their children.

The second motivation is the bonding among women fighters through friendships. Similar to their male counterparts, female terrorists were also encouraged by the social connections they had developed among their peers, including the group-level effects. For instance, women consider relationship matters as important motivators to engage in terrorism. These relationships entail the acquaintances between male and female jihadists which form the groups’ social networks. Furthermore, for women, friendship is critical as it enables them to share a common interest and to forge interpersonal bonds, among others. They could develop this connection through social interactions on campus, or as relatives of activists, and even their co-involvement in crimes. Other factors that also influence the relationship between individuals include socio-demographic variables of education, employment, history of domestic violence, mental illness or substance abuse.

Furthermore, the author examined that self-actualization against saturated feeling and grievance was also a significant motivation for women to join violent extremist groups. This sensation emerged as they attempt to find a way out of socio-economic inequality; psycho-social issues related to unfortunate life experiences like the loss of a loved one, patriarchal authority, domestic violence, or the dishonour of being raped. Social media also confounded this unease and even provoked women to personally select the most extreme option, including joining youth radical groups, which promise an answer for their turmoils. In Indonesia, Siska Nur Azizah and Dita Siska Milenina were two women who were instigated to be ISIS supporters fighting against thogut. They also admitted that their learning about Islam were gathered from social media, encrypted messaging platforms and internet prior to their pledging allegiance to support ISIS.

Lastly, a strong desire for female emancipation also becomes a critical motivation for women who strongly envisioned themselves as terrorist fighters or terror groups supporters. Katharina Kneip discovered that the attraction came from their seeking independence from parental control and Western oppression. As also seen in Indonesia, they also expected honour, respect, and power from the ISIS community and likely pursued equality with men as agents of fundamentalist Islam by revealing their pledge to ISIS. Some women idolized certain figures in their extremist community and made efforts to imitate them because they were attracted by images created on various social media platforms.

Tactical Contributions of Women to Terrorist Groups

The author investigated three prominent roles of female terrorists: instrumental support, operational support and organizational support. Instrumental support consisted of roles that offer tangible items and/or services including funds, fighters, materials, and shelter. Operational support included the skills to prepare and execute an attack including the bomb-making. Also, organizational support referred to the provision of socio-cognitive and interpersonal aspects for network expansion, recruitment, propaganda and also spreading the exchange of ideas and access to information.

Instrumental Support

First, take the case of Jumiatun alias Umi Delima, the wife of Santoso who was a prominent former leader of Mujahidin Indonesia Timur – MIT Poso network, which shows how women become an important figure in assisting their husband’s work. Not only was Jumiatun involved in operations but also financing including accommodating money transfers between the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf Group and Indonesian-based entities. Another example is the case of Rosmawati alias Umi Yazid and Agustiningsih, who was convicted of terrorist financing crime because of her involvement in the fund-raising activities for operations and logistics.

Operational Support

The cases of two former domestic workers working overseas, Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari exemplify this form of support. Both Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari alias Tasnima Salsabila were convicted for their failed attempts to conduct suicide bombings in Jakarta and Bali, respectively. Interestingly, not only were both acting on behalf of pro-ISIS elements, their husbands played important roles in instigating their participation in such attacks. Dian was likely acting in support of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which her husband Solikin was a member of, while Ika was imprisoned for her support of Katibah al-Iman. Besides providing operational support, Ika also offered instrumental support by assisting a terrorist cell led by Abu Jundi, in purchasing weapons, ammunition and explosive materials. It was discovered that she sent her salary worth US$ 615 to Abu Jundi’s account through her husband’s, Zainal Akar, account.

Organizational Support

In 2017, Indonesian women were found to actively supported ISIS through Yayasan Infaq Dakwah Center (IDC), established in 2009, and through a public fund-raising movement called Gerakan Sehari Seribu (GASHIBU). The modus operandi of fund-raising was via social media campaigns such as on Facebook, private forums on Telegram and WhatsApp. Both programs were aimed at ensuring the well-being of the wives and widows of terrorist prisoners by supplying financial compensation for their family’s health insurance, educational scholarships, etc. The focus on women and children enabled these groups to build emotional connections with them which perhaps ease the transmission of extremist values to the next generation.

In addition to the roles of women involved in a terrorist group, developing organizational support is essential in expanding the network, particularly in relation with children. The Surabaya bombing incident was another mark of family-involved violent extremism which is becoming a trend in the Southeast Asia region. There is an imminent risk of transmitting radical ideology from parents to their children. They believed that this parenting style aligned with their commitment and loyalty to the adopted ideology. Also, they were enchanted by after-life rewards that could see them reuniting in paradise. Unfortunately, children might consider this to be usual family practices because they trust their parents as guardians, and they tend to imitate their parents’ behaviour in shaping their family’s ideological preference. For example, Saifurrasul, 13 years old male who died in Syria in 2016, was the son of Brekele or Saiful Anam, who is currently imprisoned for his contribution in a series of terrorist acts in and around Poso.

What’s Next?

Women provide a unique avenue for terrorist organizations to invigorate their efforts through their significant roles in terrorism and terrorism-financing purposes.

It is, thus, essential that the Indonesian government consider four strategy adjustments to better address this issue. (1) The government, especially the national security forces, should address any biased perspectives of viewing women as victims rather than perpetrators. This should include finetuning investigations of female terrorists by considering their potential convictions for terrorism-financing. (2) Instead of developing policies only in the areas of law and financial regulation, the sociological aspects and non-discrimination of women and children who have been exploited by terrorists must be considered. Though challenging, such exploitations could be uncovered through structured intervention programmes. (3) Encrypted messaging and social media platforms increase access for terrorist recruitment of women and children. Therefore, it is imperative for the government and the private sector to collaborate to improve countermeasures related to vulnerable groups, including those working as female migrant workers. These collaborations should entail securing online communications and social media channels including new payment technologies, e-commerce platforms, and online parcel deliveries to further stem the risk of emerging terrorism and terrorist financing. (4) There should also be greater monitoring efforts of migrant Indonesian workers working overseas including their transnational and domestic movability, and their financial profiles.

Part 2: Striving for Peace in the Philippines amidst Increased Combat-readiness and Continued Recruitment of Women and Children

Part 3: The Invisible Women and Children of Malaysia: The Vulnerability of Stateless Persons to Terrorism and Violent Extremism

Part 4: The Shape of Contemporary Conflict in Southeast Asia: How Violent Extremism has Changed Our Women and Children

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

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


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