Finding love and jihad

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

CENTRAL JAVA/JAKARTA, Indonesia – Putri* giggled as she watched the trio fuss over her 11-month-old son. Her two young brothers-in-law made fun with their faces. Her mother-in-law did gurgling sounds. All of them were trying to make her baby open his mouth wide enough to sneak in a spoonful of cough syrup.

Her husband Arfan* would come home soon from tilling the field with his father. The simmering pot of vegetables and fish would be ready and the family would gather for supper.

Putri’s life would have been very different if she had married Young Farmer, a smooth-talking Indonesian radical she had met online while she was working as a domestic worker in Singapore. She would have been among the several Indonesian migrant women indoctrinated by men they met and married online and together, planned suicide bomb attacks with. 

Young Farmer, who also went by the alias Abu Nakir Shaab, was arrested by Indonesian authorities for plotting terrorist activities. 

“He was so smart. He knew so many things about Islam, but I never suspected him of being a bomber – a terrorist,” said Putri. 

Migrant women: Target for radicalization?

Last month, CNN reported that 3 Indonesian women working in Singapore were arrested in September on suspicion of taking part in terror-financing activities. The women were reportedly promoting ISIS online and donating money to overseas militants. One was reportedly prepared to become a suicide bomber. 

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and the most populous Muslim-majority nation, has about 9 million citizens working abroad, the majority of whom are women employed in domestic work. The most popular destination countries for Indonesian foreign workers are Hong Kong, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan.

Indonesian labor migrants sent back about $9 billion in remittances in 2016.

Their steady income – reported to be 3 times more than what they would make in Indonesia – coupled with the alienation of migrant life make female migrants ideal for extremists looking for women who will join the cause either by funding their trips to Syria, bankrolling their ambition to be a mujahideen, or partnering to carry out a suicide bomb attack. 

In a 2017 report, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based think tank, raised the alarm on Indonesian migrant workers falling prey to ISIS extremists. (READ: Indonesian domestic workers radicalized in Hong Kong – report and Indonesian women seeking to become ISIS suicide bombers – study)

According to the IPAC report, there were close to 50 Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong who had been radicalized. It is a considerably small number considering the estimated 150,000 Indonesians working in Hong Kong, but the number could be higher. 

Dete Aliah, a migrants rights activist, said that there are likely many more radlcalized female foreign workers. “But it is difficult to find them and track them because they are hidden.”  

'That could have been me'

It was in 2015 when Putri, then 22, left her hometown in the mountains of Central Java to become a domestic worker in Singapore.

She had wanted to be a teacher. She had always liked studying and her math grades proved that she was actually good at it, but money was always tight for her and her family. It was a more practical choice to join her older sister who was already a domestic worker in Singapore. 

After two years in Singapore, the novelty of living abroad gave way to the drudgery of domestic work and the isolation of living in a different country. The world she found online on Facebook and in chat rooms was her source of daily social interaction – and even romance.  

Young Farmer reached out to her on Facebook Messenger and introduced her to Islamic readings. After 3 months of chatting online, Young Farmer asked her to marry him on Telegram. Putri refused – not because she wasn’t in love with him – but because “Marriage on Telegram cannot be real!” 

Young Farmer soothed her misgivings by proposing to meet in Turkey and getting married there before moving to Syria to live in The Caliphate. It all sounded so exciting to Putri. “I started saving money to go to Turkey,” she said. 

The trip to Turkey never happened. Putri never even got to meet Young Farmer in person. 

Young Farmer, who had been under surveillance by authorities, was arrested in 2017 in Indonesia for plotting suicide bomb attacks. Also arrested with him was Adilatur Rahman and Rahman’s bride, Anggi Indah Kusuma, a domestic worker in Hong Kong he had met and married online. Kusuma had been deported back to Indonesia after she posted a Facebook video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State.

Young Farmer’s electronic footprint led back to Putri, causing her to be deported from Singapore. 

Putri read about Young Farmer’s arrest online and the involvement of the former domestic worker, Kusuma, and shuddered. “That could have been me.”

From bride to bomber

Dian Nova Yuli would have been Indonesia’s first female suicide bomber had she not been arrested by Indonesian authorities in December 2016. Yuli, her husband, and a group of other radicals were plotting a suicide bomb attack at the presidential palace.

Yuli was working as a domestic worker first in Taiwan and then in Singapore when she was radicalized online. She was inspired by reading profiles of jihadists on Facebook. Through others, she was introduced to her husband, Nur Solihin. The two were married over Telegram despite never having met each other. The couple was reportedly tutored on bomb-making methods through encrypted messaging channels.

A few months later, Ika Puspitasari was arrested for planning a suicide bomb attack on the resort island of Bali. Puspitasari was a domestic worker in Hong Kong who was radicalized by a husband whom she also met online. 

“Both were moderate Muslims when they were in Indonesia. You could even call them beginners in Islamic teachings. They were introduced to the ideals of violent extremism by men they met online and became their boyfriends,” said an officer of Detachment 88, Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism group, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“Men are usually the ones indoctrinating women. I wouldn’t say that they are particularly targeting migrant workers, but they are using marriage and courtship to hook women in,” the Detachment 88 officer added. 

Several terrorism experts and an NGO official Rappler interviewed confirmed that women were targeted for radicalization by extremist groups. Migrant women, in particular, are attractive to jihadists because they can be convinced to donate their salary to fund terrorist activities.

“Extremists will tell them that their salary is haram (forbidden by Islamic Law) because they are working for takfir – a non-believer. To be a good Muslim, they need to purify their salary by making a zagat or donation to a certain charity or organization, which may be just a front for terrorism,” said Mira Kusumarini, executive director of C-SAVE, a Jakarta-based network of civil society organizations working together to prevent violent extremism. 

“Migrant women are absolutely a target. Terrorists need women to amplify attacks. Women are drawn to jihadists – they find them sexy,” said Mohammad Adhe Bhakti, director of Indonesia’s Center for Radicalism and De-radicalization Studies. 

Facebook, Telegram: Dating and vows

The loneliness and isolation of migrant life transform the internet into a platform where they can anchor onto something familiar, like religion. 

It is also online where these women are exposed to extremist interpretations of Islam.

Bhakti cited a story in the 2018 edition Al Fatihin (The Conquerors), a digital magazine circulated in jihadist group chats on Telegram and WhatsApp. A two-page article entitled, “The Tasks of Muslim Women in Fighting Against the Enemy” detailed how women must take up the religious fight and encourage their husbands and children to do the same. At the bottom corner of the first page was a black and white photo of a lone woman in a burqa firing a rifle from behind a barricade captioned, “The courage of Muslim women in the Islamic State against kuffar (non-believer) aggression.”

Another edition of Al Fatihin released in the same year, contained a full-page illustration that could be mistaken for a feminine hygiene product had it not been sandwiched between pages reporting beheadings and other war news. A pink flower in full bloom fills the center of the page headlined as “Jihad Wanita” or “Jihad Woman.” Surrounding the flower are 6 paragraphs about a woman’s obligation to take up jihad.

Once onboard, said Bhakti, “women can become more militant and aggressive, recruiting others or matchmaking other women with jihadists” who are looking for a benefactor who can bankroll their dream to be a mujahideen or a suicide bombing partner. 

Facebook is the de facto dating site to meet men who introduce them to radical religious teachings, while Telegram is a virtual space where marriages and vows to carry out terror attacks are exchanged.

“Women’s involvement in violent extremism is shifting from supporter to initiator and now, perpetrator,” said Bhakti.

Filipino migrant workers also vulnerable

Similar to Indonesia, the Philippines is a labor exporting country where women make up more than half of the labor migrant market. Many are employed as domestic workers, mostly in Saudi Arabia and other countries in The Gulf.  

There have been two reported cases of Filipino women arrested for involvement in terrorist activities. Lady Joy Ibana Balinang (also spelled as Lady Gior Bali Nang) was arrested in 2015 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, along with Syrian national Mohammad Shafiq Al Barazi. 

Balinang had run away from her employer and was allegedly sewing together explosive belts. It was unclear if they were romantically involved or if Balinang was coerced into engaging in terrorist acts.  

According to Saudi authorities, Barazi was suspected of turning the home he and Balinang were sharing into a bomb factory and keeping a safehouse for militant fugitives.

In August 2016, a 32-year-old unnamed Filipina suspected of having ties to ISIS’ affiliate in Libya was arrested in Kuwait for joining the Islamic state and plotting attacks. 

Kuwaiti authorities monitored her emails and found her correspondence with the Libyan associate of ISIS.

“She confessed she was ready to carry out any terrorist attack once circumstances and means were ripe in order to undermine security and stability in Kuwait, as well as ignite sedition,” the state-run Kuwait News Agency reported.

The woman’s husband, reported to be a Somali national and active ISIS fighter in Libya, asked her to go to Kuwait as a domestic helper. 

It is uncertain if these two reported cases were outliers or indicative of a wider trend of Filipino female migrants becoming radicalized.

For love or jihad?  

Women have traditionally been passive bystanders in jihad, taking on auxillary roles in support of the men in their life – fathers, brothers, and husbands. Their motivations to take on more active roles as suicide bombers are a subject of debate.

“A woman falls in love with her ears first before their heart,” said Rizka Nurul, a researcher who appears in the documentary film about former domestic workers Yuli and Puspitasari entitled, Pengantin, which means bride, but is also code for suicide bomber. 

According to Nurul, while Yuli and Puspitasari were wooed and radicalized by the promise of eternal martyrdom that could be attained by becoming suicide bombers, their connections with these men also made them feel loved and the idea of jihad gave them a sense of purpose.

Nava Nuraniyah, an IPAC researcher argued against the binary view that women are either brainwashed and seduced into taking up jihad or terrorist provocateurs. A mix of personal crisis and political grievances are potent motivators for women to subvert subordination in jihadist organizations and assume female combat roles. 

“Far from being coerced, most women join ISIS of their own free will. A shared ideology might spark the initial interest in ISIS, but it is emotional factors such as a feeling of acceptance and empowerment that make them stay,” said Nuraniyah.

Andhika Chrisnayudhanto, director of regional and multilateral cooperation at the National Counter Terrorism Agency of Indonesia (BNPT), said ISIS has successfully marketed itself to both men and women.

“Unlike other terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS appeals to both women and men. They even made it more appealing for men, shaming them by showing that women are joining, as if saying, ‘Hey, why are you guys doing nothing?’” 

Chrisnayudhanto, however, is cautious about singling out migrant women as a primary target for radicalization. “It’s hard to say who is most vulnerable. Migrant workers are prone but we shouldn’t single them out and  be stigmatized.”

Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based terrorism expert, sees the migrant workers radicalized in Southeast Asia as small in number but significant in terms of threat. 

“It is important for the Indonesian embassies to work together with the government in host countries to educate the other migrant workers so that they will not drift towards extremism. It is a recent phenomenon, but it has to be addressed sooner or later,” said Gunaratna. 

Currently, both Indonesia and the Philippines are working on bolstering orientations given to migrant workers to include a counter-terrorism module.  

BNPT’s Chrisnayudhanto said that their country has included countering violent extremism modules in its mandatory seminars for departing migrant workers. The agency supplements this effort with talks on recognizing and preventing radicalization in countries where there are a large number of Indonesian guest workers. 

In the Philippines, Jay Teves of the Overseas Workers Welfare Association (OWWA), confirmed that the mandatory pre-departure orientation (PDOS) seminars have been updated to include sessions on countering violent extremism. The sessions were developed in partnership with the country’s National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA). 

“The PDOS service providers have all undergone training to include counter-terrorism in all PDOS seminars,” said Teves.

New reality in jihadi structure

A recent IPAC report noted that the fall of ISIS territories in the Middle East emboldened jihadist networks in Indonesia rather than discouraged them.

Rogue individuals, mostly men, find each other online and band together to plan terror attacks. Parallel to this may be the rise of pro-ISIS women willing to take on more combat roles. 

Indonesia has already seen the extent that women would go to carry out a terror attack.

In May 2018, 3 coordinated bomb attacks in Indonesia’s second largest city of Surabaya, rocked two churches and a police station. The attacks killed 28 people and shocked the world who saw for the first time terror attacks carried out by suicide bombers who included women and their children.

In a United Nations Security Council report released in February, the Surabaya bombing was described as “a new model for suicide bombings and noted that a caliphate had provided some of the inspiration for the attacks. The role of young people and women in terrorist operations in the region appears to be changing. ISIL initially discouraged the involvement of women, but more recently has welcomed their direct participation.”

Experts said that counter-terrorism efforts, surveillance, law enforcement, and deradicalization will shift from its focus on only-male terrorists to factor in women’s roles and better understand their motivations. 

IPAC director Sidney Jones said that Indonesian authorities have much to gain by studying the women currently in detention and learning from their experience.

“We have to accept that women are now a permanent part of the jihadi structure,” said Jones. – Rappler.com 

*Names have been changed.