A Four-Part Series on Extremism and Online Recruitment – Part 4: Mothers and the Internet
On Sunday, 28 March 2021, a bomb was detonated in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, South Sulawesi. A newlywed couple, Lukman and Yogi, added themselves to the long lists of suicide bombers in the country. Since the era of Jama’ah Islamiyah, families in Indonesia have been encouraged to participate in terrorism. Previously, marriage alliances among jihadists was one of the primary institutions to protect the sustainability of the terrorist organisation and its networks, including the production of next generation mujaheddins. In such circumstances, women simply played the role of child bearing and rearing.
However, women are increasingly playing greater roles in terrorism, demonstrating gender equality between men and women. Additionally, women continue to make significant non-military contributions such as propagandists, recruiters, facilitators, enablers, and as wives and mothers. To confound matters, technological advancement can contribute to the radicalization of children. Children are, thus, caught in between their mother’s influence and that from the internet.
The Increasing Roles of Mothers as a Source of Influence
Mothers have been suggested to employ ‘a robust and methodical indoctrination infrastructure’ to envision their children to strive for the establishment of a caliphate. Here, mothers play two critical roles.
First, mothers strongly embrace the transmission of ideology to their children. Indirectly, through their commitment to such ideology or organization, mothers and fathers can influence the behaviours of their children who would constantly imitate their parents. This demonstrates why families are a primary avenue for developing individuals’ social and psychological attributes.
Second, mothers not only represent role models for their children to imitate, but mothers also can effectively persuade their children to comply with the religious responsibility of taking part in jihad. Interviews with the children whose families were involved in the series of suicide bombing in Surabaya in 2018 found that they became attracted to violent ideology through their parents. Notably, their mothers force-fed the children to watch videos depicting the violence that occurred in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and France. As these children were intentionally home-schooled, their mothers indoctrinated them with their ideologies while encouraging them to seek martyrdom. Unfortunately, as evident from these bombings, children are deemed by terrorist organizations in Indonesia to be effective tools for conducting terrorist operations.
Three Significant Ways Terrorists Use the Internet
The increasing roles of mothers and the growing involvement of children in terrorism benefit from technological advancement such as the internet and social media. In general, the internet has been significantly used by terrorist groups in three ways.
First, the internet enables active indoctrination by parents through online platforms that enable access to extremist videos and contents. As seen in the Surabaya bombings, mothers could extensively utilise the visual method of learning through videos for teaching radical values to their home-schooled children. They teach their children to watch such videos routinely and quote the contents as references for their children’s life norm lessons.
Second, terrorist groups extensively use the internet to recruit children and to build the children’s capabilities. There has been an increasing trend of using digital platforms as a breeding ground for developing radical interpretations and augmenting extremism. Such online platforms facilitate the young generation to learn and interact extensively with peers. An example is the case of Ivan Ahmadi Hasugian (Ivan) who attacked a priest in a church in Medan with an axe in early 2016 after his plan to carry out suicide bombing failed. He later shared that he learned the tactic from the internet as he aimed to mimic the church attacker in Northern France that occurred one month before his attack.
Third, terrorist groups have also exploited the internet to support their technical streams such as fund-raising and weapon procurements. In terms of online fund-raising, terrorists gather money in two ways. First, the groups conduct online fund-raising activities on social media or encrypted chat forums by inviting their communities to donate funds and support to the families of convicted and deceased terrorists through charity groups. Second, the internet can aid terrorist groups by facilitating international financial transactions through cryptocurrencies and internet-based payment services, or even executing unlawful cyberspace activities, such as hacking and carding, in order to gain large profits for them. In the case of the Surabaya bombing attacks, the terrorist families procured weapons and chemical substances to be used for crafting improvised bombs. They also planned the attacks through online e-commerce platforms to hinder detection from authorities.
Social Media as an Enabler to Strengthen Social Friendships among Youths
Social media is also important for terrorist groups. Terrorists have exploited online communication to impart values, norms, and customs among followers, members and potential recruits. Creating an online space for open conversations strengthens the groups bond through dialogues such as those concerning infidels, personal issues, recruitment, propaganda, and religious discussions.
Furthermore, terrorist groups leverage the use of social media by using encrypted communication applications with typically leaderless forums to complement face-to-face communication. The use of such chat groups benefits them in three ways. First, terrorists utilize private conversations among selected members to steer them towards extremism. Second, virtual interactions on particular applications, like Telegram and WhatsApp, facilitate greater outreach to wider audiences, including diaspora communities, migrant workers, sympathizers, and supporters. Third, younger terrorists prefer such forms of communication because the online community with 24-hour access enables them to build emotional bonds among friends, thus convincing themselves that they are not alone in striving for their jihad goals. Justification of their beliefs is essential to their self-esteem, increasing their likelihood of conducting their attacks.
Previous research on social media usage among Indonesian jihadists shows the increasing use of social media since the inception of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. Initially, Facebook Fan Pages were created to support IS. Examples of Facebook pages were Para Pendukung Khilafah, We Are All Islamic State, Khabar Dunia Islam which promoted violence and supported international networks, including expanding groups based in Indonesia. Support was subsequently moved to encrypted media to communicate among members, including Telegram and WhatsApp after such Facebook pages were shut down. These platforms are not only more secure, but they could accommodate as many as 200 members.
Generally, encrypted communication platforms hugely benefit jihadist groups in several ways, from religious conversations and private news sharing to the opportunity of promoting online businesses and even to recruit individuals who were prepared to join IS in Syria. These were evident from the following incidents. Previously, there was an Indonesian telegram group named “Wa Aiddu” called for those who wanted to devote themselves to Syria. Ika Puspitasari, a female terrorist convicted in 2017, used Telegram and WhatsApp to be involved in religious study groups which reinforced her extremist views while she engaged with other jihadists. In September 2014, she pledged her allegiance to IS through Telegram. She subsequently graduated from simply joining these virtual groups to initiating other groups in Telegram and WhatsApp to organize fund-raising to finance attacks including bomb-making. Similarly, Rizky Kurniawan, a local IS follower, was exposed to extremist ideologies after joining a WhatsApp group called MENITI TAUHID in 2017. The group taught him to understand and adopt ideas about false democracy, jihad and IS. Another terrorist, Agus Melasi led several telegram groups like “Penyaringan” to recruit followers and “Istiqomah Jihad”, a private chat group to discuss a plan of crafting a TATP bomb, arrows, and hand-crafted weapon.
Understanding and anticipating the next evolution of online violent extremism is essential in developing future strategic counter-terrorism policies. Drawing lessons from the aforementioned incidents, policymakers and practitioners should also focus on identifying mitigation strategies against the flourishing use of sophisticated technology and social media which terrorist groups abuse to facilitate their indoctrination tactics. This is predominantly utilised by women in the family to involve children in terrorism.
The vast growth of modern technology benefits terrorist groups as a communication and learning launchpad to reinvigorate radical values, norms and customs inside the family unit. It is necessary to complement existing counter-terrorism strategies by monitoring the education pathways of youths both offline and online. Online accounts used for disseminating teachings through videos, private forums, and audios strongly influence the children to engage. Unfortunately, this cannot be eliminated through counter-narratives and censorship techniques. The government should enforce additional efforts targeted at parents in order to strengthen family values that promote moderate religious ethics and customs. This is essential in response to the evolving global trends and threats of violent extremism that recently highlight the tactics of lone-actor attacks inspired by their terrorist ‘idols.’
Furthermore, robust counter-terrorism policies addressing the abuses of modern technology and social media are also required. Despite the extensive benefits of the internet, there is an urgent call to develop effective mitigation strategies through strategic collaborations among domestic agencies and international counterparts. It is also important to create an intervention strategy corroborated with the private sector. For instance, imposing restrictions and policies for e-commerce business in knowing their customers and filtering the limit of purchasing weapons and chemical substances that can be assembled into bombs or used as hazardous materials.