IN late 2015, a 35-year-old professional from Jakarta named Umm Vegas left for Syria to join her English-Irish boyfriend, a fighter with the Islamic State (IS). They had been e-dating through Facebook, as Umm pursued her dream of marrying a mujahid and “raising children in the wondrous new caliphate.”
This is one of many case studies of radicalised Indonesian women in a new report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) based in Jakarta. Entitled “Mothers to Bombers: The Evolution of Indonesian Women Extremists”, the report analyses an apparent growing trend of Indonesian women seeking to play an active role in violent extremism.
Whilst the group has been officially banned since August 2014, the Indonesian government says around 1,200 people are IS sympathisers in the country. The national police’s elite counter terrorism unit, Densus 88, estimates that between 200 to 300 Indonesians are fighting for IS in Syria. Statistically, the proportion of Indonesians with IS in Syria remains low at only 1.2 fighters per one million of the population, compared to Belgium with 40 or Tunisia with 280.
Nevertheless, just last month there were shock revelations that a well-educated, former employee of the Finance Ministry had tried to enter Syria with his family to join IS. A further one hundred Indonesian citizens are reportedly to be deported from Turkey after attempting to join IS.
According to a representative of the National Police, “IS recruits are not just ordinary people, but also intellectuals, academics. IS recruiters have infiltrated universities through events in their mosques.”
IPAC’s director and expert on Southeast Asian terrorism, Sidney Jones, told Tempo magazine in January that “women from Indonesia and neighboring countries have been wanting to play a bigger role in Syria for the past two years. They no longer see themselves as just wives, mothers or even ustadzah but also as combatants. They feel greatly influenced by what women in Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya, have been doing.”
“Another factor is the change inside ISIS (IS) itself, which once banned women from fighting, although in an emergency, they are allowed to be involved in battle.”
The former leading group in Indonesian extremism, Jemaah Islamiyah, who executed the Bali bombing in 2002, forbade women from fighting. With the arrest of three female armed combatants in Poso in 2015, this is clearly not the case for IS sympathisers in Indonesia today. Women are eager to be recognised as fighters in their own right and are seen by IS as useful bombers because they are less likely to be detected.
The IPAC report identifies four “subsets” of Indonesian women extremists that have emerged in recent years. First are migrant workers who have lived in the Middle East or East Asia with greater English or Arabic language skills and “more of an international outlook”.
Second are those who have joined IS along with their family unit, as few women have gone to Syria on their own.
Third are women arrested in Turkey and deported back to Indonesia before they were able to enter Syria, with the report warning that “they are not being monitored on a systematic basis nor are there any programs in place to assist with their reintegration.”
Fourth are female militants of the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), or the Mujahedeen of Eastern Indonesia in Poso, Central Sulawesi, who IPAC says were the “closest any organisation has come in recent years to an Islamist insurgency” in the country until the death of their leader Santoso in July 2016.
IPAC attributes the increase in female IS members to not only the appeal of a “pure” Islamic state, but also the proliferation social media and information technology: “Women can take part in radical chat forums, meet men, read ISIS propaganda, express their aspirations and find like-minded friends all in the relatively safe space of encrypted messaging.”
Like Umm Vegas, many see it as an opportunity to find jihadist husbands – a process made easier by the rise of encrypted apps. Accordingly, there is an upward trend in intermarriage between Indonesian and non-Indonesian IS fighters.
IPAC had predicted in July 2016 that women would “may be a matter of time before we see a female suicide bomber in Java.” In December, three people – two men and a woman – were arrested for plotting an attack on the Indonesian presidential palace planned for during the changing of the guard.
Indeed, the arrests were made after police intercepted a letter sent from the woman to her parents signaling her intention to carry out jihad.