Experts: Terror Attacks by Women Show Indonesia Doesn’t Take Female Militancy Seriously

Arie Firdaus
Experts: Terror Attacks by Women Show Indonesia Doesn’t Take Female Militancy Seriously Dian Yulia Novi (left) sits next to her husband, Nur Solikin, during their trial at a court in Jakarta, Aug. 23, 2017. Dian was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for her involvement in an Islamic State-inspired plot to carry out a suicide bomb attack on the presidential palace.

Zakiah Aini, an Indonesian woman who was killed last week while allegedly trying to attack police officers, loved to talk to people on social media but rarely socialized in real life, her neighbors and friends told local media.

On March 31, the college dropout told her mother at home that she was going out. She then walked into the national police headquarters in Jakarta and pointed a gun at police, before officers shot her dead.

Zakiah was radicalized online, said Wawan Hari Purwanto, a deputy at the State Intelligence Agency (BIN).

“She was active on social media. She was an introvert, but chatty on social media,” Wawan told BenarNews.

Zakiah, 25, was the second woman to die in a span of four days while apparently on a suicide mission in Indonesia. On March 28, Palm Sunday, a newlywed couple set off at least one bomb in a suicide attack outside a Catholic church in South Sulawesi province, injuring 20, police said. 

These latest attacks – which authorities linked to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group – show that the Indonesian government had not done enough to curb rising radicalism among women or taken threats posed by female militants seriously, experts told BenarNews.

The incidents exposed the government’s lack of policies in countering such a threat, they said.

A dearth of women’s perspectives in counter-terrorism policy-making is largely to blame, said Dwi Rubiyanti Kholifa, director of the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN).

“At the BNPT, for example, there are no women at the [decision-making] level, so it is difficult to have a woman's perspectives,” Dwi told BenarNews, referring to the National Counterterrorism Agency.

Officials “don’t have a gender perspective in their analysis,” she said.

They don’t seem to understand that “some women carry out a terrorist attack for penance, some for recognition, some for a sense of empowerment, while some were driven by gender injustice and inequality,” Dwi added.

As an example Dwi cited the case of Ika Puspitasari, a former Indonesian maid in Hong Kong who was jailed in 2017 back in her home country after being convicted of plotting an attack on minority Shia communities.

Ika felt marginalized and gained confidence and empowerment after pledging allegiance to IS, Dwi said.

‘Very dangerous’

Once they are in prison or have served out their sentences, female convicts and ex-convicts are not kept under such close surveillance as their male counterparts, said Dete Alijah, a terrorism researcher at the Society Against Radicalism & Violent Extremism (SeRVe) Indonesia.

“After they walk free, there is no monitoring. Women are very dangerous because they are easily radicalized, and they are also difficult to de-radicalize,” Dete told BenarNews.

Women have become more prominent in terrorism after IS, in 2016, declared that combat was just as necessary for women as for men, said Sidney Jones, who directs the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a think-tank in Jakarta.

The militant group was slowly losing its grip in Syria and Iraq and needed more recruits, Jones said.

“At that time, there was a sudden change in the attitude of the central ISIS – allowing women to fight the war,” Jones told BenarNews, referring to the militant group by one of its other names.

The militant group changed its tune on women in combat that year when, Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian IS fighter in Syria, said that an attack was more likely to succeed if a woman carried it out.

“Bahrun Naim said that women would not be suspected when carrying a backpack. We saw that Zakiah managed to enter the national police headquarters,” Jones said, referring to the huge complex where the headquarters are housed.

Do the recent attacks by women show that female militants are increasing in number? Very likely, according to an IPAC study published last September.

For instance, only four women were convicted of terrorism in Indonesia between 2002 and 2014, but women made up 51 of 475 people convicted of, or detained for, terrorism since then, the study found. 

Police tape seals off the area around the Surabaya Central Pentecostal Church in Surabaya after it was targeted in a deadly terrorist attack, May 13, 2018. [Yovinus Guntur/BenarNews]

IS and women in combat

The shift in the responsibilities of women, from playing supporting roles, such as harboring fugitives, to being actively engaged in terrorism emerged after the arrest of would-be suicide bomber Dian Yulia Novi in December 2016.

Dian, then 29, was about to carry out a suicide attack at the presidential palace in Jakarta when police arrested her.

A host of women-led attacks followed in the next few years.

Puji Kuswati became the first Indonesian woman to die in a suicide attack when she, her husband and four children set off bombs at three churches in Surabaya on May 13, 2018.

The next day, another woman, Tri Ernawati, along with her husband and three children detonated explosives at the Surabaya police headquarters.

The two attacks killed at least 22 people, including the suspected bombers.

Also in 2018, a 26-year-old woman and her husband tossed a pressure-cooker bomb at a police station in the Indramayu, a regency of West Java province, but it failed to explode.

In 2019, a woman named Solimah blew herself up with her 2-year-old son in the North Sumatra town of Sibolga while resisting arrest, despite an appeal from her arrested husband to surrender.

Technology as militancy-enabler

By 2021, intelligence and counterterror agencies would have been aware of a rise in female militancy. So, experts said, it appeared the authorities could not replicate with women radicals their relative success in arresting and deradicalizing male militants.

BNPT Deradicalization Director Irfan Idris denied that his agency was not responsive to women’s participation in extremism.

“At BNPT, we keep tabs on the patterns of terrorism, including the rise of female attackers. We have been talking about this for some time,” Irfan told BenarNews.

“But technology makes everything easy [for the attackers], including accessing radical content via the internet and social media. That is a challenge in itself.”

Irfan also denied that female convicts were not placed in de-radicalization programs.

“That is not true. Deradicalization programs are for men and women,” he said.

In its report released in September 2020, IPAC had said the government needed to increase the number of female prison officers, whose roles were important as companions or guardians, amid the rise in the number of women convicted of terrorism cases in recent years.

IPAC said assistance provided by female guardians, or people entrusted with accompanying and providing guidance to female militants, was more effective than religious counseling in eroding prisoners’ radical views.

IPAC’s Jones said the development of information technology enabled women IS sympathizers in Indonesia to discover that women in other countries were already actively involved in fighting.

“So those who are not satisfied being in the seat as housewives find role models in women who are more active in other countries such as Chechnya, Palestine and Iraq,” Jones said.

“Thanks to the internet, the women also have a channel for brainstorming and discussion, including girls-only Telegram chat groups.”

For example, Zakiah, who was killed at the police headquarters last week, had posted messages supporting IS on Instagram, National police chief Gen. Listyo Sigit Prabowo said.

“She wrote something about fighting [a] jihad,” Listyo told reporters hours after police gunned down the woman.

Calls for women to join holy war have featured in IS propaganda media, including the Indonesian-language Al-Fatihin magazine, said Muhammad Adhe Bakti, managing director of the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies, or PAKAR.

“The ISIS-affiliated magazine in one of its issues in March 2018 ran stories about ‘brave female jihadists,’ complete with religious justification,” Adhe told BenarNews.

The emergence of female terrorists has also resulted from the dwindling numbers of male militants, BIN’s Wawan said.

Police said in December 2020 that they had arrested 228 terrorism suspects in 2020.

Some of those arrested were suspected of planning to carry out attacks, while others had been on a wanted list for previous acts of terrorism, police said.

Meanwhile in February and March, police snared nearly 50 suspects from Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group.

“Women are increasingly important because of the absence of men who have been arrested or have died,” Wawan said.


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