BY now, so much has been written about the tragedy in Surabaya some may feel there’s nothing more to say.
It’s been almost three weeks since Puji Kuswati and her two daughters, aged nine and 12, walked into a church courtyard and detonated the explosives strapped around their waists. That’s a lifetime in news, but there’s something about the nature of this attack that demands our attention and makes it worthy of further analysis.
Puji’s husband, Dita Operanti, and her two teenage sons also carried out attacks that day. Each attacking local churches as parishioners prepared for Sunday service. In total, the three attacks killed 13 and injured about 40 others.
This would prove to be only the beginning, as later that day, and the following morning, two other families blew themselves up, taking their children with them.
The attacks sent shockwaves through Indonesia, not only because they were the deadliest since the 2002 Bali bombing, but because of their brutal and unprecedented nature: it’s the first time on Indonesian soil that parents have involved their children.
You don’t have to have to be a parent to find this troubling. What is particularly haunting is the idea of a mother standing over her infantile daughters as they detonate the deadly explosives hugging their tiny bodies.
When something disturbing takes place, questions abound. But in this particular instance, the one nagging question just begging for an answer is this: what makes a mother blow up her own child?
‘House of infidels’
“They don’t want to leave their kids in the house of infidels. They want the children to enjoy the martyrdom, the sharia,” Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Indonesia, told Asian Correspondent.
Nava, who has researched terrorism and radicalisation in Indonesia, details cases in which women would beg their husbands to allow the entire family, children in tow, to travel to Syria to join the fighting.
The reason for the women’s insistence is a fear that, when separated, there is no “guarantee that their faith will remain consistent.” Martydom and entering into heaven together is the ultimate extreme of this thinking.
There also remains concern over the wellbeing of the children if they are left behind, not only having to live without parents in a society of “infidels,” but facing the stigma of being related to terrorists, according to Dete Aliah, director of SeRVE Indonesi, an NGO working on radicalism and violent extremism in women.
It’s likely that other families will not want to adopt them, Dete told Asian Correspondent. They will be ostracised as, as is quite often the case, the children will have been indoctrinated and radicalised too – sometimes as young as 10, Dete said.
As the role of women within terrorist organisations increases, this is becoming a more common concern.
It is only recently that women have been involved in the terrorist act itself.
Al Qaeda and their affiliated cells, in the case of Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah, did not consider women as players in combat. Seeing their role as strictly to mother future jihadis, those who wished to participate were actively prevented from doing so.
It was with the introduction of Islamic State (IS or ISIS) that changed all that, says Dete.
Before 2015-2016, she explains, women were very much limited to supporting roles, such as logistical arrangements and acting as couriers, for example.
“With the presence of ISIS, the role of women has evolved. ISIS is offering the opportunity to promote the conflict further, not only as a supporting role, but they can also play the main actor.”
Despite initially encouraging women to join the caliphate with their families, as mothers, teachers and propagandists, rather than as combatants, the tactics IS used opened the door for change.
“ISIS managed to turn the concept of jihad into a family affair, with a role for everyone,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Women were ‘lionesses’, children were ‘cubs’. Everyone was given a sense of mission. Only by having normal families living normal lives could ISIS hope to make a claim to functioning like a normal state.”
With women becoming a staple feature in and around combat zones, others further afield and seeking more action were liking what they saw online and heard about in chat rooms.
Through her work with radicalised women, Nava tells of the power of the violent online content.
The violent videos that much of the public associates with groups like IS were not only a major part of the mother’s indoctrination, but that of their children. Women would often force their children to watch these videos in order to “prepare” them for the holy war that awaited them, Nava said.
Coupled with the violent holy war message was that of togetherness and camaraderie. Members became part of a group with a higher purpose; one that cared and looked after each other and held an unbreakable solidarity.
This sense of belonging is a common trait of most terrorists, social and organisational psychology professor Alex Haslam told Asian Correspondent.
“Terrorist are often portrayed as lone wolves who are doing this on their own and have become unhinged in some way, like they have a very dark, perverted personality or personal story. Whereas the reality is, it’s always a group process,” said the University of Queensland academic.
“It’s always about some ‘us’ that’s being mobilised and perceived to be being advanced through this action.”
In the case of Surabaya, Puji and her family were very much ingrained in the group process, despite her neighbours and friends having no suggestion of their extremist beliefs. Puji’s husband, Dita, was believed to be leader of a chapter of local IS-linked terror group, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah.
All three of the families that took part in the May 13 – 14 bombings were members of the same religious study group. According to police, they met every Sunday to study Islam and watch jihadist films.
“If it’s just isolated people who have these views, they probably won’t do very much. But once they feel that they’re part of some sort of movement, and have access to material and resources within that movement, then it becomes easier,” Haslam explains.
“In a practical sense, you can get more information. But, more particularly, there’s a psychological sense that you get a sense of your own righteousness.”
This sense of belonging and solidarity within a group makes the family unit a logical next step for co-radicalisation.
Radicalising the family
While mother-child terrorist acts are a rare phenomenon, terrorists undertaking violent attacks alongside family members are not.
Given the hardships and risks associated with radical activism, one would suspect that jihadis would seek to shield their family members from harm. But there are numerous examples of terrorists turning to their spouses and extended families – and now, it appears, their children – for recruits, either as homegrown terrorists or as foreign fighters.
A report by Mohammed Hafez, a specialist in Islamist movements, political militancy, and violent radicalisation, shows there are countless examples throughout recent history.
A study on the Italian Red Brigades in the 1970s and 80s found almost 25 percent of the militants “had at least one relative, usually husband or wife, brother or sister” in the movement.
More recently, the 2015 San Bernadino shooters were husband and wife; six of the 19 hijackers in 9/11 were brothers; the Boston bombings were perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers; the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Kouachi brothers; and the Paris attacks by the Abdeslam brothers.
The insular nature of the family unit makes co-radicalisation easy and combatting it incredibly difficult.
“It’s no longer only about men,” says Nava. “The programmes need to engage with their wives and their children.”
NGOs and government groups are beginning to do this in Indonesia. Dete’s group SeRVE Indonesi is running working groups with vulnerable women that aims to socialise and empower them to break free of the radicalised dogma. Women are trained to then take that message to others they suspect are susceptible to extremist messaging or whose husbands are involved in with extremist groups.
But that only works for those who have been identified, says Nava. The secretive and cunning nature of many people’s radicalisation means some threats are much harder to target.
“For those sympathisers who are not even active online, who keep it very, very secret, there really isn’t anything we can do.”