The lengths that extremist groups are willing to go in order advance jihad is traditionally thought to know no bounds. Indeed, the onslaught of well-documented terrorist attacks in recent years has not discriminated in its targets: young or old, male or female, and despite religious and political beliefs. But on the extremists’ side, perhaps surprisingly, groups have traditionally limited the woman’s role in jihad to a supportive position – largely relegated to reproductive and nurturing roles – rather than directly engaged in violence and support networks beyond child education and household matters. But in Indonesia, where Muslim women have long been more active than their counterparts abroad, a new activism of women extremists is taking place, and women there are breaking their own glass ceiling by joining the front-lines of jihadist extremism.
Last month, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) released a report titled “Mothers to Bombers: The Evolution of Indonesian Women Extremists.” The report highlights new opportunities through social media and the Internet that revolutionize the ways in which women engage with extremism. Examining these new drivers seeks to understand the current environment that produced Indonesia’s first two would-be female suicide bombers, Dian Yulia and Ika Puspitasari (alias Tasnima Salsabila), who were arrested in December 2016 for volunteering for suicide missions in Jakarta and Bali, respectively.
With Indonesia’s 50 million internet users, and a fast-growing number of smartphone users, social media and encrypted messaging services like Telegram provide new channels of communication where women can actively take part in “radical chat forums, meet like-minded men, read ISIS propaganda, and share aspirations in the safe space of encrypted messaging.”
Women in propaganda and terrorist financing
The report highlights numerous stories, including the ones of Nurul Azmi Tibyani and Syahadah. The story of the former illustrates the role of women toward disseminating online propaganda and engaging in terrorist financing and networking. Originally a student at the prestigious Airlangga University in Surabaya in 1998 or 1999, she joined a faction of Darul Islam/Negara Islam Indonesia (NII). After prematurely leaving university, Nurul gained online fame through her presence in an online mIRC chat room called Café Islam, a place where jihadis such as Bali bomber Imam Samudra often recruited new talent.
This was the beginning of Nurul’s online network, which would proliferate through the early and mid 2000s, using several other platforms such as Yahoo Messenger and forums on websites like Arrahmah.com and Tawbah.com. With a desire to be closer to extremism and an online persona as a “beautiful, committed, and smart mujahidah,” Nurul was connected to various jihadi men for possible marriage, including a romantic involvement with Muhammad Jibril, who was later convicted for his involvement in fund-raising for the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings. Nurul later married a former prisoner named Cahya, whose team stole $600,000 and helped fund a terrorist training camp in Poso.
After their marriage in June 2011, Nurul and Cahya conspired to use her bank account to transfer some of the stolen money. After their capture in March 2012, Cahyra was sentenced to eight years and Nurul to four. Her story is one of a young woman using social media to transform herself from a highly educated university student to one working on the front lines of extremism with some of Indonesia’s most notable jihadis.
Syahadah (an alias) is another example in the report of a young Indonesian women finding a route to jihadism through the Internet and social media. Raised by a single mother and educated in secular schools, she followed a common model — becoming a troubled teenager who skipped class, smoked, and befriended undesirable friends. But after graduating high school in 2005, Syahadah sought to fill a religious void. Originally joining religious study groups run by the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in Jakarta, she became disappointed with the group, feeling it was too political and felt more like cadre development than religious learning.
That same year, Syahadah became fascinated by the media reporting of the second Bali bombing in October 2005, and later becoming heavily engaged in pengajian’s (a radical organization) Facebook group. Through this online community, which was already full of Indonesian women who “posted profile photos of women and children from other jihadi struggles holding guns,” she was hired to administer an online forum alongside a Malaysian woman. Until 2011, she remained engaged directly in “jihadi by the pen,” serving a new and indispensable role for women in the development of the jihadi virtual community.
Taking up arms
The cases relating to the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia Timur (MIT), Indonesia’s only Islamist insurgency until the death of their leader Santoso in July 2016, outline the role of women in logistical support roles as well as directly engaged in combat. Rosmawati (alias Roso), who was arrested in January 2015 for terrorism, supported MIT through financing, acting as a conduit for financing between MIT sympathizers around Indonesia and the fighters in Poso. Working with another wife of an MIT member, she also helped arrange deliveries of supplies to the fighters in the jungles. While Rosmawati is not the first case of aiding extremists logistically and financially — in 2015-16, electronic transfers from Syria to Indonesia and the Philippines frequently went through women’s accounts — she is a testament to the growing number of women serving in pivotal roles for jihadist movements.
During the final days of MIT, prior to Santoso’s death, wives of senior leaders were given military training for self-defense as Indonesian forces closed in on jungle hideouts. And while the circumstances that threatened the existence of the movement likely resulted in the women’s training rather than ideologically underpinnings, the timing coincided with expressions of admiration by women over Telegram for women jihadis in other parts of the world.
IPAC’s report traces the historical role of women in Indonesian jihadist movements and tells the stories of those who are finding new capabilities through social media and other technologies. Refusing traditional roles of reproduction and family education, they are increasingly found in key roles – whether it’s financing militant groups, disseminating propaganda online, or even taking up arms against state forces. The implications are severe, and with women now expected to serve in new ways (often by their own will), the risks of terrorism demand new data analysis on female networks to understand the scope, scale, and direction of this new phenomenon. As noted in the report, civil society groups should take up the cause of working with families of detainees, women deportees from Syria, and women in conflict areas.
As extremist groups, both globally and in Indonesia, continue to adapt to changing circumstances and find resources and networks harder to use, we will continue to see the rise of women in jihadism. IPAC’s case study of Indonesia provides critical insight for the global fight against terrorism, and we would be wise to not ignore it.