Mothers to bombers: the evolution of Indonesian women extremists

Terrorism Women National security Indonesia


The arrest of two female would-be suicide bombers in Jakarta in December 2016 shows the desire of Indonesian women for a more active role in violent extremism. It may be a reflection of the pro-ISIS movement’s weakness that male leaders are more willing to oblige them than in the past, but the initiative has come from the women. Indonesian women’s increasing willingness to organise social media groups, set up fund-raising charities and provide various forms of logistical support for the pro-ISIS movement shows that this is not just men exploiting vulnerable women – though that also takes place – but involves women eager to be recognised as fighters in their own right.

This evolution of women’s roles increases the risk of terrorism and underscores the urgent need to improve collection and analysis of data on female networks. It also highlights the important role that civil society groups can play in working with families of detainees, women deportees from Syria, and women in conflict areas.

The past eighteen months have seen women arrested or identified in several different kinds of active roles:

  • December 2016: Four women were arrested – Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari alias Tasnima Salsabila, both former domestic workers abroad, for volunteering to become suicide bombers, the first in Jakarta, the second reportedly in Bali; Tutin Sugiarti, an herbal medicine dealer and Islamic medicine therapist, for facilitating the introduction of Dian to pro-ISIS cell leaders and for setting up a pro-ISIS charity called Dapur Umahat Aseer (Kitchen of the Prisoners’ Wives); and Arida Putri Maharani for helping her husband make a bomb.
  • October and July 2016: Tini Susanti Kaduku and Jumaitun alias Ummi Delima were arrested as armed combatants with their husbands in the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT).
  • September 2015: Aisyah Lina Kamelya created Baqiyah United Group (BUG), an international pro-ISIS channel on the social media application Telegram. Membership included Indians, Kenyans and Libyans.
  • August 2015: Ratna Nirmala pushed her husband to accompany her and their children to Syria.

The increase in activism is linked to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq in Syria (ISIS) and the appeal of the caliphate as a “pure” Islamic state, but also to the ability of women to benefit from the growing sophistication of social media technology. Women can take part in radical chat forums, meet men, read ISIS propaganda, express their aspirations and find like-minded friends all in the relatively safe space of encrypted messaging.

Four subsets of Indonesian women extremists have emerged, two active, one potentially active and one temporarily dismantled. The first consists of Indonesian overseas migrant workers in East Asia and the Middle East who may have more self-confidence, more of an international outlook, better English or Arabic capacity and better computer expertise than many of their stay-at-home counterparts. As uprooted foreigners in a new country, they also may have a particular interest in establishing a new community where they work. Male extremists appear to see them more cynically as sources of cash, but it makes them a particular target for recruitment and appeals for donations.

A second group consists of the Indonesian women who have joined ISIS in Syria as part of family units (very few single women have tried to leave on their own). In some cases, it was the women who pushed the family to leave, attracted by ISIS videos or determined to bring up their children under Islamic law. With more Indonesians being killed and many of the girls reaching marriageable age, the likelihood increases of more marriages between Indonesian widows and young women with foreign fighters from outside Southeast Asia. Indonesian fighters who have gone over as bachelors have also married local women. This internationalisation of terrorist networks could become a serious headache for security forces around the world in the years to come.

A third group of potential activists are women deportees. These are women who tried to cross over the Turkish border to join husbands or other family members or who were coming in family units but were arrested and deported by Turkish authorities. They are not being monitored on a systematic basis nor are there any programs in place to assist with their reintegration, but in many cases they played active economic roles in their communities before departure; they were radicalised enough to want to leave; and they may be frustrated by not having achieved their goal.

Finally there are the women combatants from MIT in Poso. MIT, from its emergence in 2013 to its leader’s death in July 2016, was the closest any organisation has come in recent years to an Islamist insurgency. The wives of three leaders were trained to use firearms and explosives, but more as a survival strategy than as a deliberate tactic to outwit the enemy (Indonesian security forces). MIT has been largely dismantled through joint police-military operations but the danger of an extremist network re-emerging in Poso is high. The involvement of the three could signal a greater willingness of extremist groups under certain circumstances to include women in training in the future.

It is important to note that Indonesia is far from alone in seeing a greater role for women in violent extremism. In 2003, one scholar wrote: “female involvement with terrorist activity is widening ideologically, logistically, and regionally” and that “contextual pressures [are creating] a mutually reinforcing process driving terrorist organisations to recruit women at the same time women’s motivations to join these groups increases”.

This report examines the evolution of women in Indonesian extremist movements from Jemaah Islamiyah in the early 1990s to the pro-ISIS cells active today. It is based on direct interviews, trial testimonies, social media communications on public sites and analysis of jihadi tracts. It concludes with a series of recommendations about steps the government could take to address the increasingly prominent role of women extremists.

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