Medan, Indonesia – When Zakiah Aini, a 25-year-old university graduate, entered the Indonesian National Prefecture in Jakarta brandishing an air pistol on the last day of March, it was initially widely reported, and perhaps assumed, that the author had been a man.
But in recent years, a growing number of Indonesian women have been involved in violent attacks throughout the archipelago, especially after the return of people trained under ISIL (ISIS) in Syria and the formation of groups affiliated with the ISIL. ISIL with Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). ).
“ISIS created the permitting structure for the inclusion of women in more front-line roles,” Judith Jacob, a terrorism and security analyst at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera. “By encouraging opportunistic attacks and widespread calls for supporters to do what they can, it opens the door for women to participate more easily than under previous command and control structures that promote formal hierarchies that ultimately exclude women.”
In addition to Aini’s attack on the police headquarters, which resulted in the death of gunmen by police officers at the scene, in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, Sulawesi was attacked the week before Easter by two suicide bombers who had only been married for seven months.
In 2018, a church in Surabaya, on the island of Java, was similarly attacked by a husband and wife, as well as their four children, and another team of husbands and wives attacked a cathedral in Jolo in the Philippines in 2019. At least 20 people died in that attack and dozens wounded.
It was believed that all the women involved in the attacks were related to JAD, which is sometimes referred to as “ISIL of Southeast Asia.”
According to Jacob, it is important not to rule out these attacks or speculate that the women involved simply followed orders from men.
“Obviously, this has many dimensions, but the first thing to get out of the way is this horrible, sexist notion that these women are attracted to or forced to participate,” she told Al Jazeera. “These women are actively and fully involved and have always been an integral part of Islamist militancy in Indonesia. The difference now is the shift to more active or front-line roles.”
Following the attack on police headquarters, National Police Chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo described Aini as a “lone wolf”, although in a letter he wrote to his parents and siblings, he included a small illustrated manifesto in which he infuriated institutions. perceived as “non-Islamic,” such as elections, banks, and civil servants who do not comply with Syariah, including former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, who was imprisoned for blasphemy in 2017.
He also posted an ISIL flag on Instagram before the attack and bought the weapon he was using from a man from Aceh province who was a member of JAD and who had been convicted of terrorism.
Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the hard-core Darul Islam group that has since founded the Institute for International Peacebuilding and organizes eradication programs and workshops across Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that social media had an important role in the transition of women to direct violence.
“Historically in Indonesia, women had a more supportive role and did not directly participate in terrorism, even if they were part of terrorist families,” she said.
“There is not a single reason why women get involved in terrorism, but they move primarily for very private and emotional reasons.”
These may include issues such as revenge, redemption or relationship factors, such as the possibility of finding a partner if you travel to Syria, he added.
“Radicalization is not gender neutral and is experienced differently by men and women. We must consider gender as a social construct and not in terms of biology. For example, the notion that men are intrinsically violent and women are intrinsically peaceful. “
But, he warns, the study of gender within hardline groups is something that is still in its infancy.
“More research is needed to identify the driving forces behind women’s participation in violence. The government needs to work closely with civil society and the private sector to work on both online and offline interventions. “
Even within the radical groups themselves, there seem to be certain disputes over the role of women.
Sign of despair?
A former male member of JAD, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that while in ISIL circles, a woman is allowed to take part in an attack on a party considered an enemy. the decision to be involved or not “usually depends on the group planning these attacks.”
The JAD group of which he was a part “did not want to involve women in front-line attacks, while the JAD group in Surabaya involved women as part of its attack strategy in the 2018 church bombings.”
He adds that in addition to the psychological impact of these attacks on the public, women attackers are also used as a propaganda tool.
“Women’s participation in front-line attacks is allowed in ISIS circles and is used to inflame morale,” she said. “The idea is to spread the narrative that if even women dare to sacrifice their lives, what about men?”
However, there may also be more mundane and practical reasons for the more active role of women.
“We saw the most explicit call from ISIS for women to participate in jihad against the enemy in 2017, which you can see as a feminist breakthrough for ISIS, but more a need given that they were behind it and they needed to mobilize all sectors of the so-called caliphate to survive, ”Jacob said.
Since the beginning of the year, Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism unit, Densus 88, has carried out dozens of raids across Indonesia and arrested more than 100 suspects, including Munarman, the former secretary general of the banned the hardline group the Islamic Defenders Front (REIT), and three other senior REIT officials in April and May, respectively.
Local authorities have also tightened security across the archipelago since the March bombing of Makassar and the attack in Jakarta amid speculation that Aini had easier access to the national police headquarters because she was a woman. .
“The IS call came at a good time when it opened and security forces took a long time to capture the potential of women to plan and participate in attacks,” Jacob said.
“In the Indonesian context, these messages find a receptive audience with those dealing with a rather decimated network after years of repression and police surveillance.”