Is Indonesia ready to tackle the growing challenge of female militants?

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

As women take on new operational roles in Indonesia’s militant landscape, the country’s counterterrorism approach is missing an essential workforce—female officers.

By Umair Jamal

Last month, an Indonesian woman linked to the Islamic State (IS) militant group was killed when she allegedly tried to attack police officials in Jakarta.

The incident has again raised fears that IS-linked extremist groups in Indonesia are increasingly recruiting women for operational roles.

This marks a major shift in the strategy of Indonesia’s militant groups as they previously did not encourage women to engage in violence.

However, research shows that female militants bring strategic benefits for militant groups and that to counter this threat successfully, Indonesia needs to recruit more women for counterterrorism positions.

Female militants are Indonesia’s next security challenge

Indonesia’s security agencies convicted only four women on terrorism charges between 2002 and 2014. However, 51 out of 475 people detained or convicted for terrorism since 2014 were women, according to a study by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) quoted by BenarNews.

In 2017, Indonesia’s government apprehended three women who were planning a series of suicide bombings across the country. One year later, Indonesia was rocked by its first suicide bombings carried out by a family, targeting three churches in Surabaya. The next day, another family carried out a suicide bombing of the Surabaya police headquarters. Together, the attacks left 28 dead and injured more than 50 people.

In another deadly suicide bombing in January 2019, an Indonesian couple killed 23 people in the Philippines. Later that year, Indonesian police arrested another couple for allegedly planning a knife attack against the country’s minister for politics, law and security and other officials. After the arrest, authorities launched a search operation and arrested several women suspected of having ties with militant groups. 

In November 2019, a suicide bomber attacked an Indonesian police station, wounding at least four police personal and two civilians. Following the attack, police arrested the bomber’s wife, who had been visiting another female terrorist in prison. Further police investigation revealed that the suicide bomber and his wife were planning a major terrorist attack in Bali. 

In total, between 2017 and 2019, police found at least 13 cases in which women were involved in terrorist activities in Indonesia. These included women taking on a variety of different roles, including acting as recruiters, offering financial support to terrorists and carrying out suicide bombings.

These numbers show that women are increasingly becoming a front line force for militant groups.

Photo: Vimeo

Why do militant groups recruit women in Indonesia?

In the past, women’s participation in Indonesia’s militant landscape was largely limited to non-violent roles as the mothers, daughters or wives of extremists who carry out attacks.

However, gender roles have changed since the rise of IS in 2014 as the group has explicitly encouraged women to become suicide bombers.

“The combination of ISIS and communications technology has dramatically changed how women extremists see themselves,” said Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst with Jakarta’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

“With the rise of IS, tactical considerations and women’s attempts to renegotiate their roles have surpassed ideological justifications for women’s non-violence in Indonesia,” writes gender an extremism analyst Sara Mahmood in her recently published paper, Negotiating Stereotypes: Women, Gender, and Terrorism in Indonesia and Pakistan. Mahmood is a researcher at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

After 2014, many women from Indonesia travelled to Syriaand Iraq to fight alongside IS. Seeing these Indonesian women in operational roles,militant groups in Indonesia started recruiting women for combatant roles.

In other cases, women themselves already wanted to play more active roles in extremist groups. “ISIS has given them a more universal mission, while various forms of social media have enabled them to share information and reinforce their own aspirations,” said Nava.

Echoing Nava’s views, Mahmood notes that “Regardless of the [militant] group’s assignment of ‘feminine’ roles to women, women themselves wanted to engage in violence in the hopes of attaining martyrdom.”

Researchers studying the role of women in Indonesia’s militant landscape picked up the following conversation in a Telegram chat group in 2017: “I wish someone would give me a bomb and show me the way so that I can blow up their offices,” said a woman, stating her willingness to launch an attack.

“Me too,” responded another woman in the chat group.

Research shows that female militants offer strategic benefits to militant groups. According to two studies from the late 2000s cited by Mahmood, “Women deployed as attackers allow these groups to gain publicity” and for others “female suicide bombers generate more shock value and media attention, giving more publicity to a terrorist group’s cause.”

Studies further show that “women dressed in burqas can perpetrate suicide bombings with relative ease because of the lack of physical security checks.”

In other cases, Mahmood writes that “organizations use the participation of women as a way to shame men into participating in violent jihad, especially if they are trained in combat and enlisted as suicide bombers.”

Is Indonesia’s gender-based counterterrorism approach effective?

Analysts say that the growing frequency of women-led militant attacks indicates that Indonesia is still not effectively integrating the female threat into its counterterrorism strategy.

For instance, Indonesia’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism, also known as BNPT, has not yet bridged the gaps regarding gender mainstreaming; its organizational structure is still dominated by men and women are simply ignored in the counterterrorism sector. “They typically carry out administrative tasks instead of assuming decision-making and strategic positions,” writes Amalina Abdul Nasir in an article for The Diplomat.

Others say that the minimal representation of women in counterterrorism means that Indonesia won’t be able to address the challenge posed by female militants. Mercedes Fitchett, a program manager with the US Air Force, writes for the Council on Foreign Relations that “The predominantly male Indonesian security, defense and counterterrorism organizations are unable to carry out effective monitoring, surveillance, targeting, infiltration and interrogations of female ISIS targets” as “women cannot interact with men unless they are part of their close-knit family.”

Some analysts say that the fact that women’s perspectives are missing from Indonesia’s counterterrorism approach indicates a major policy failure. “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 Rubiyanti Kholifa, director of the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), told BenarNews.

Officials working at the BNPT “don’t have a gender perspective in their analysis,” she added.

Male experts working at the BNPT 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 said.

“Women are increasingly important [for militant groups] because of the absence of men who have been arrested or have died,” Wawan Hari Purwanto, a deputy at Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency (BIN) said.

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 umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15