How are women transforming Indonesia’s extremist landscape?

Graffiti of the ISIS flag sprawled on a shipping containerPhoto: Thierry Ehrmann

The role of women in Indonesia’s extremist landscape has grown rapidly. But as jihadi groups are traditionally dominated by men, the government has yet to develop strategies to address the radicalization of women.

By Umair Jamal

Last week, a women believed to be the wife of Eastern Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT) leader Ali Kalora was arrested by the Indonesian police. The woman, identified as Ummu Syifa, was allegedly caught trying to deliver money to MIT fighters. She is likely to be charged under the country’s strict anti-terror laws for aiding and abetting a violent militant organization.

This is not the first time that a woman has been caught assisting a terrorist organization. There is growing evidence to suggest that women are playing increasingly public roles in the country’s militant landscape.

Though jihadist groups in Indonesia, as elsewhere, have historically been dominated by men, Indonesian women are now taking on active roles in the country’s militant organizations, even perpetrating attacks.

Militant groups, particularly local groups allied with the Islamic State, are actively using tactics like social media to entice women to join their cause in Indonesia, inviting them to enter spaces that had been exclusively male.

Combating the threat of female radicalization is not going to be easy for the Indonesian authorities. The country’s law enforcement agencies need a new approach when it comes to monitoring, apprehending and de-radicalizing women involved in extremist activities.  

How has the role of women in Indonesia’s terrorist organizations changed?

Recent years have seen Indonesian women taking a more active role in the country’s extremist networks, whether in connection with transnational groups such as Al-Qaida or the Islamic State, with local groups or acting alone.

In 2017, Indonesia’s police arrested two women in connection with a plot to attack the presidential palace in Jakarta. The arrest of female suicide bombers highlighted a major shift in tactics from Indonesian militant groups. It was the first time women were found guilty in a suicide bombing plot in Indonesia.

In 2018, three families, including a mother and two daughters, carried out a bomb attack on Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church in Surabaya. The bombing was unprecedented as it not only involved women but also showed planning primarily among family members, rather than a terrorist organization or network.

“The need for this knowledge is urgent,” wrote Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. “If three families can be involved in two days-worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act.”

In January 2019, an Indonesian couple attacked a church in the Philippines, killing at least 23 people.

Children raised by extremist parents are also at risk for radicalization.

In Indonesia, “Police are becoming more aware about women’s involvement in violent extremism, shifting from supporter to initiator and now perpetrator,” said Adhe Bhakti, a terrorism expert with the Center for Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Jakarta.

How are extremist groups seeking to radicalize Indonesian women?

Violent militant groups in Indonesia are using different media to radicalize and recruit women.

The key threat in this regard comes from families and networks that have been fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Indonesian security forces believe that between 2013 and 2018, around 600-1,000 Indonesians tried to enter Syria or Iraq to join the Islamic State. Between 2014 and 2017, Turkey deported an estimated 573 Indonesians and most of them were those unable to make it to the self-proclaimed caliphate. These individuals also include female jihadists who either stayed back or returned to Indonesia to carry out the mission of the Islamic State and other local militant groups.

A report published by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies notes that in Indonesia, extremist networks’ use of social media and encrypted chat apps have brought women to the forefront of their operations. “For a long time, women had been barred from accessing extremist public spaces, let alone taking an active role as combatants. But through social media, women are now able to play more active roles as propagandists, recruiters, financiers, and even suicide bombers,” noted the report.

“The combination of ISIS and communications technology has dramatically changed how [Indonesian] women extremists see themselves,” said Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst working with the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

On the other hand, militant groups in Indonesia are quickly realizing the added value that female militants bring to their operations, networking and recruitment efforts. For instance, the propaganda magazine Al-Fatihin, published by an Islamic State-inspired militant group in Indonesia, recently carried an entire section featuring articles on the significance of women jihad. The magazine is reportedly circulated in jihadi group chats on Telegram and WhatsApp and now has editions in both Indonesian and Malay.

Women that have not been able to join militant groups are forming their own online propaganda groups to recruit and radicalize others. This doesn’t bode well for Indonesia’s security.

Does Indonesia’s counterterrorism approach take into account the new roles of women extremists?

Over the last few years, Indonesia has moved to strengthen its security laws and increased interagency cooperation domestically to counter militant threats. For instance, the country’s recently-revisited counterterrorism law now terms “joining terrorist organizations, disseminating such teachings or taking part in military-style training at home or overseas” as a prosecutable crime.

Reportedly, Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) is planning to introduce a national action plan to counter violent extremism in the country. The government is also working to introduce a policy on repatriation for Indonesians who remain in camps in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

However, the current government is doing very little on the ground to address the issue, particularly the threat posed by female jihadists. For instance, despite reports of thousands of children being radicalized nationally, only about 100 children have attended formal de-radicalization programs in Indonesia.

Militant groups’ growing reliance on women indicates a key operational shift in these organizations’ tactics. Indonesia’s security agencies need not only a robust de-radicalization program targeting women but also a change in their monitoring and profiling strategies. Moreover, the government needs to introduce more programs to combat and monitor extremism online.

“You can’t go back to the old model of de-radicalization targeted only at males,” warned Sidney Jones, the director at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

As militant groups work across different media to increase their recruitment of women, the government needs to come up with effective counterterrorism plans—leaving the issue unaddressed will have serious implications for the country’s national security.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15