Memorial for the victims of the 2002 Bali bombing in Kuta, Indonesia. CREDIT: <a href="">Jonathan Liem/Public Domain</a>
Memorial for the victims of the 2002 Bali bombing in Kuta, Indonesia. CREDIT: Jonathan Liem/Public Domain

Indonesia's Jihadists, and the Rise of Female Terrorists

Mar 22, 2017

Indonesia is sometimes described as "the smiling face of Islam," but the reality is much more complex. Naraniyah explains the shifting landscape of Indonesian Islamic extremist groups, and notes that women are playing an increasingly important role, many of them inspired by images on social media of female ISIS supporters around the world.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart. I'm here with Nava Nuraniyah. She is an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict based in Jakarta.

Nava, great to have you here today.

NAVA NURANIYAH: Thanks for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: Your research looks at terrorism, religion, and politics in Southeast Asia, and you're here talking about your research in New York City. What is the big picture of the developments of terrorism in Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)? What are you seeing?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Recently, most of the terrorist attacks that happen in Southeast Asia are inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but in Indonesia it's known more as ISIS. It also has revitalized connections between groups in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines; and also among different groups in the Philippines, for example, who are now making alliances based on their shared allegiance to ISIS.

But having said that, the extremists are also still divided, so in Indonesia you have extremists who are loyal to al-Qaeda and al-Nusra in Syria. On the other hand, you have the pro-ISIS extremists, and these are usually the younger ones who had no international connection before and less skills than the al-Qaeda affiliates.

DEVIN STEWART: So you're saying that ISIS has less influence in Indonesia compared to the rest of ASEAN?

NAVA NURANIYAH: No, no. Actually in Indonesia they are divided. But the thing is the pro-al-Qaeda ones are laying low. They have this temporary withdrawal from violence because their main bastion in Central Sulawesi was diminished. So, since 2007 they have not done any attacks. That's why ISIS, even though they might be smaller and are less skilled and have less capacity, they are the more visible one right now.

DEVIN STEWART: Which countries does ISIS have the most influence on in Southeast Asia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: In especially Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Because these three countries have a long history of Islamist extremist groups. It is built on the old links during the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and then the Darul Islam because post-Bali bombing a lot of the Indonesian extremists were arrested, so they ran away to the Philippines. Even before that, they trained together in Afghanistan. So the links have been there. It has just been rebuilt.

DEVIN STEWART: You've also looked specifically at the Indonesian situation. How would you characterize it? Aside from the divisions that you mentioned earlier, what else is unique to the situation in Indonesia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: In Indonesia the women have been playing an increasingly important role. Last December the police arrested one woman who was supposed to be Indonesia's first female suicide bomber. This has never happened in the Philippines or Malaysia. You know that the Philippines has a long history of insurgencies, but no female suicide bombers.

DEVIN STEWART: What's going on here? Why are women playing a role in Indonesia more than other places?

NAVA NURANIYAH: There are different reasons. It's not that they have not played a role. They were always in the picture, even during the Jemaah Islamiyah, but their role was strictly limited to motherhood and teaching. So the only job that they were allowed to do back in the Jemaah Islamiyah era in the 1990s was teaching at all-girls' schools because JI had all these Islamic boarding schools around Java that were linked to JI. Also, when they were really poor they could work as a trader and all that.

But recently one reason is because of the inspiration from all these female ISIS supporters around the world which are now accessible through social media. So before they just couldn't imagine. They knew that some women do that—in Palestine, for example, they did suicide bombing—but they never really saw it in person, like the images that I saw on social media. And also the access that they got, both with local and also international jihadists, because these women, especially the Indonesian migrant workers overseas, they speak English, they have great networking skills, so they can reach out directly to the European jihadists, Jihadi John for example, so that they can bypass the hierarchy of traditional jihadi organizations.

DEVIN STEWART: This sort of broadening of the awareness of roles for women, is that all over the world or is it specifically in Southeast Asia or specifically in Indonesia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Before, in other parts of the world, as I said, in Palestine, and in 2005 al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq, they started using female suicide bombers. So it is a growing trend, not just in secular terrorist groups, but also now, because traditionally Islamic extremists are much more conservative about female roles. But yes, they have opened up a bit to having women as combatants.

DEVIN STEWART: Is the Indonesian government addressing this, or is it just taking note right now? What is the strategy so far? What are people thinking?

NAVA NURANIYAH: To be fair, it is a very recent issue, and I think the government only started to realize that now women can do these as well. So no, there has not been any specific policy.

We have an increasing number of female terrorist inmates in prison, and also we have a large number of deportees. These are Indonesians who tried to go to Syria but were stopped and deported from Turkey or other third countries. We have about 400 of them, and half of them are women and children, so this is a growing problem for the government.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you have any suggestions for the government?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Sure. For one thing, these women when they were deported they were interrogated by the police first and then they were housed in the shelters run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. So far, the social workers have no expertise whatsoever in dealing with female extremists, or even extremists in general. This is the shelter for troubled teenagers. So, as you can imagine, we need more training for the police, the correction center, and the social workers to deal with female extremists.

What I want to highlight is that oftentimes the police, and also even the NGO workers, directly assume that women are just victims or reluctant participants at most. But I think we have to see females as agents because that is what my research in the past couple of years has shown, that women also have agency. So we need to have a thorough assessment of whether these women are just victims, whether they are willing participants, or whether they are actually financiers and even operatives. So we need to just take away all the assumptions and actually work with the facts.

DEVIN STEWART: What would you say are the main drivers fostering extremist activities in Indonesia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: There are some mixed motives for each individual. I don't think there is one single structural factor. What they see now is that—so extremists have always been there since post-independence. Back then they were Islamist insurgents and their goal was to have an Islamic state. But that never happened.

Then, during the Suharto era, the government repressed Muslim groups. They banned the biggest Islamist party, so there is always that grievance that there is no space for Islamic politics. But, since the fall of Suharto, now Muslim groups can have political parties that participate in formal politics. So for the large part of the Muslim groups there is really no motivation to be on the extremist bandwagon.

However, for these very few minorities—this is the fringe of the fringe—they still hold old grievances about not having an Islamic state, but also they are inspired by this transnational jihadi ideology, and because they actually participated in the Afghan jihad, they even have more connection and interaction, hence more inspiration.

And then, it is being strengthened by the images of the so-called ISIS caliphate. They were inspired to join and to be part of this global movement.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the role of religious doctrine, or also—I think it might be a cliché—a lot of people talk about the role of poverty. How about that? There is a lot of controversy about those two ideas, but it is always in the news. Do you want to comment about those factors, poverty and religious doctrine?

NAVA NURANIYAH: For poverty, I see a very weak link between terrorism and poverty because the profiles of the extremists are widely varied. Some of them come from the middle class; some of them are highly educated; some of them are not. So there is no direct connection.

However, I can see that there is a link between religion and terrorism. Most of the Muslims are fine—I'm a Muslim woman. But we cannot deny—I don't want to be an apologist—of course they are inspired partly by this religious doctrine. But it's not just religious doctrine per se. It is a political-religious doctrine and goals. It is political goals basically, but they just frame it with the religious doctrine.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe what their political goal is?

NAVA NURANIYAH: For this current generation of extremists, like the extremists before, of course they want to have an Islamic state, but they just disagree on whether this is a—even the state is a very modern concept, so they can't agree about the scope of the state.

But now the current wave of extremists want to be part of the global caliphate. That is what they want. That is why they're going to Syria. Because the Turkish government is more strict in the movement of jihadists so they couldn't go to Syria anymore, that is when they started doing attacks within Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there cooperation within ASEAN to fight extremism between the countries that are being affected?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Yes, there is, but it is not as good as it should be. I am sure the police are monitoring the chat groups because they are very big on Telegram, and the police have interrupted terrorist plots on Telegram or Facebook.

But I think the Indonesian police and the authorities need more expertise. They need people who can speak Tagalog who can actually work with the Filipino government and the Malaysians. They have to be more transparent. Back in the days after the Bali bombing the cooperation really improved, but a lot of that, from what I learned, is based on the personal relationships between individual officers. We need to build that more institutionally rather than just personally.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting.

I know that social media is another area of your expertise. Am I understanding correctly that you're saying that social media and Internet connection globally is both helping to spur and develop extremism but it's also helping to fight it at the same time? Is that the right picture, where police can monitor chat groups and so forth?


DEVIN STEWART: Are there other things that you've learned from looking at the social media and Internet element in religious extremism?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Yes. First is about the recruitment patterns. It has changed because of social media. Of course, it helps both the terrorists and also the counter-violent extremism organizations. But in terms of terrorism itself, the recruitment and the patterns of the organization have changed.

For recruitment, in the past you saw them largely top-down, so they recruited among students either in Islamic boarding schools or in public schools and universities. But now they have broadened their outreach, so now people who are not—in the past, people, especially women, who join extremist groups were born and raised in jihadi families; their fathers were with Darul Islam or Jamaah Islamiyah. But now you have people who had no prior exposure to extremism joining.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe that? What do you think the experience would be like of someone who hasn't had that background but suddenly they're exposed to it online? Is there sort of a caricature or an archetype that you have in mind where you think, Okay, this person is surfing or looking at the different groups on Facebook or something? How does that work?

NAVA NURANIYAH: I have to say first that in most cases there is both an online and offline element. Very rarely is it purely online.

But usually, especially people who have no background whatsoever, in many cases they go through a personal crisis first. It could be an unwanted pregnancy or losing a job. Or not even a crisis, just feeling that they're not religious enough and that they want to change or they want to be a better person. And then they start looking for something meaningful in their lives.

This is the crucial step. When they look for something, they could either meet a great moderate cleric and they're happy with it, or they could meet more extremist-leaning friends, so they go out and join. Usually, when they start demonstrating their sympathy to the jihadi cause, or for the women when they start wearing niqab, their family gets freaked out and that's when they experience further alienation. This is what makes them even more isolated. They isolate themselves with people who share their worldview. Because of this blocking of other perspectives, it normalizes their point of view, which otherwise would be very strange.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like a vicious cycle. It also sounds like cult behavior in the classic cult textbooks on religion and religious studies.

Indonesia has sometimes sought to be a model for a state that is heavily influenced by Islam and yet is pluralistic and multi-ethnic. Do you think that Indonesia is living up to its aspiration to possibly be some type of model, or do you think it has a long way to go?

NAVA NURANIYAH: It has a long way to go. Indonesia, despite this image as the "smiling Islam" and all of that, we've always had our problems. The Muslims have never been united. Religious conflict has always been part of daily experience for Indonesia, and recently because of the case of the Jakarta governor.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you explain that a little bit?

NAVA NURANIYAH: We have the first Christian Chinese guy as the governor of the capital city. [Editor's note: Henk Ngantung, also of a Christian Chinese background, was briefly governor of Jakarta in the mid-1960s.] At the beginning it was all right. There were some protests. But because he ran as the vice governor—so he was not the main man running—they made it, and because they ran on a policy platform, there was no sectarian basis in the campaign. Yes, that worked out really well.

But then, this guy, Ahok, he is not the most politically astute person, and so he made a remark which was exploited by the intolerant groups as well as the political opponents, so this is what made it big. It is just a perfect storm. Even the moderate Muslims who in their daily lives have business with Chinese and are not racist in a way, but because of this event they are all mobilized, and there was all this campaign on social media and WhatsApp. People now take their daily news from social media. It has become a big problem. So now they have this rage against the Christian governor.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you think is going to be his political future? Is he going to stay in power, or is he going to keep going up in Indonesian politics? Some people have wondered if maybe he could be a national figure in the future.

NAVA NURANIYAH: I am afraid that is becoming a lot more difficult for him now. But we will see the result shortly.

DEVIN STEWART: Of the blasphemy charges?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Of the election and see if despite the whole blasphemy charges he is going to make it. But I think it's really hard.

DEVIN STEWART: Very hard. So you don't see him as being the leader of the country anytime soon?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Not anytime soon. But these days things are more difficult to predict.

DEVIN STEWART: Things are unpredictable, that's for sure.

NAVA NURANIYAH: Yes, yes, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Another thing I think you've looked into is the relationship between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority in Indonesia. How would you characterize the relationship between the various denominations of Islam in Indonesia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Most Indonesian Muslims are Sunnis. We have a very small Shia community. The estimate goes from 1 million to 5 million, so the highest estimate would be 4 or 5 million.

For the longest time they have lived in harmony, there has been no problem, because Indonesian Islam is largely traditionalist, and the traditionalist Muslims, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), shared some elements with Shiaism, for example, the Muharram celebration, the Ashura. It is kind of from that. But it is not necessarily Shia because it has been adopted as a part of the local tradition and culture. They have things in common, so the relationship has been great for most of Indonesian history.

But recently—I think it was 2011—we started having Sunni-versus-Shia clashes in some regions, especially in East Java. East Java is the traditionalist stronghold, so mostly Nahdlatul Ulama. Then they started having conflict with the Shia, but it is mostly local rivalries among the clerics. So there is the political economy factor there.

But then you also have intolerant groups at the national level who exploited the very local conflict in East Java and made it into this big anti-Shia—they formed this national anti-Shia alliance. So there are Salafis, the traditionalists who would normally hate each other, but they were united by the anti-Shia alliance.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel like religious leaders are being effective in advocating a pluralistic and tolerant society?

NAVA NURANIYAH: For the most part I think it is effective. Maybe it is not the religious leaders per se; it is just the community and the family values. I think it helps. But for the religious leaders, all these interfaith dialogues might be good, but I don't see how it has much traction for the normal people.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about the normal people for a bit. You said earlier in this interview that the tension between various ethnicities and religions in Indonesia is a daily experience. Can you describe that for someone who has never been to Indonesia?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Right. I don't want to exaggerate it. We have had a long history. We had some violent sectarian conflict back at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s. That also had to do with the unstable political situation because of the fall of Suharto. But since then there has been very little—other than small cases—violent sectarian conflict. But casual racism, like everywhere else, exists.

DEVIN STEWART: Who is often the victim of the casual racism? How would you describe it?

NAVA NURANIYAH: It depends on the area. For example, in Kalimantan it would be the Javanese immigrants versus the local ethnics, and in most parts of Indonesia, usually the Chinese.

This is a bit complex because, on the one hand, the Chinese have economic power, like everywhere. Even in small towns, usually the shops, the businesses, are largely owned by the Chinese minority, and for the most part they can work together. Even with the traditionalist Muslims they have good business relations. Like when the cleric wanted to build a pesantren [Islamic boarding school], sometimes they could owe—not money, but because the construction shop is owned by the Chinese, because the Chinese want to have a good life in that town, they have cooperation. So the cleric would borrow money or the construction materials and pay them later on. It is common.

But recently, because of all this propaganda and mobilization, it is just getting harder. It is not the way it used to be. There is more hatred, maybe people are more outspoken. Maybe in the past people didn't really talk about it.

DEVIN STEWART: What is causing that?

NAVA NURANIYAH: I think the Ahok thing is a big factor.

DEVIN STEWART: So the controversy around the governor is giving people a political tool to foster some animosity?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Yes. But there has not been any violence against the Chinese since the end of the Suharto era, when the huge economic crisis happened, and the looting of Chinese shops. It hasn't happened again in this round, so now it is more of the growth of not necessarily racism against Chinese as a whole. Some people, the moderate ones, they could compartmentalize their hatred against Ahok and their daily relationship with their Chinese neighbors or business partners.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think the average Indonesian just wants to get along with their neighbors?

NAVA NURANIYAH: Yes. They just want to have political stability because that way they can make money and live normally.

DEVIN STEWART: And take care of their families?


DEVIN STEWART: And yet, religion seems to find its way into the political discourse.

A final question, to just kind of cast out into the future: What should we look for in terms of the role of religion in Indonesian politics? Do you think it will be a positive thing in the background, or will it foster some conflict? Do you want to make any forecasts on that?

NAVA NURANIYAH: I think it would still be positive because I think it is really important that religious groups are given space in formal politics. We have Islamic parties, but they haven't done really well, to be honest. Despite all this religious mobilization and the rhetoric, the Islamic parties are not actually doing very well. They have not.

DEVIN STEWART: Why is that?

NAVA NURANIYAH: It is one thing to be socially conservative in your daily life in the way you dress, education, and everything, but you can vote differently. That is why I think it is important to not exaggerate this thing.

It could be a unique case of mobilization in the name of religion, but it would not necessarily increase the vote for the Islamist parties because the ones, like Prabowo, who have been using this religious sentiment are actually the secular opposition parties. If they keep exploiting religion in a negative way, I think it will be bad. But I think the people are smarter than that. They will fight back.

DEVIN STEWART: Could that backfire? Exploiting religious tensions seems like a risky political approach. Could it actually backfire against those parties?

NAVA NURANIYAH: As long as they bring up the Ahok case, I think they would still be successful. But you can't keep using one same issue in a few years. So it might not last.

DEVIN STEWART: It might not last.

Nava, thank you very much for speaking with us today, and it was great to talk to you.


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