Medan, Indonesia – When Zakiah Aini, a 25-year-old university dropout, walked into the Indonesian National Police Headquarters in Jakarta brandishing an air gun on the last day of March, it was initially widely reported, and perhaps assumed, that the perpetrator had been a man.
But in recent years, an increasing number of Indonesian women have become involved in violent attacks across the archipelago, particularly following the return of people trained under ISIL (ISIS) in Syria and the formation of ISIL-affiliated groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).
“ISIS created the permission 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 generalised calls for supporters to do what they can, it opens the door for women to participate more readily than under previous command and control structures that promote formal hierarchies that ultimately exclude women.”
As well as Aini’s attack on the police headquarters, which ended with her being shot dead by police officers at the scene, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, Sulawesi was attacked the week before Easter by two suicide bombers who had been married for just 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 husband and wife team attacked a cathedral in Jolo in the Philippines in 2019. At least 20 people were killed in that attack and dozens wounded.
All the women involved in the attacks were thought to have been linked to JAD, which is sometimes dubbed the “Southeast Asian ISIL”.
According to Jacob, it is important not to dismiss such attacks or speculate that the women involved were simply following orders from men.
“Obviously there are many dimensions to this, but the first thing to get out of the way is this awful, sexist notion that these women are lured or coerced into participating,” she told Al Jazeera. “These women are active and willing participants in their own right and have always been an integral part of Islamist militancy in Indonesia. The difference is now the shift to more active or ‘front-line’ roles.”
Following the attack on the police headquarters, National Police Chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo described Aini as a “lone wolf”, although in a letter she wrote to her parents and siblings, she included a short illustrated manifesto in which she raged against perceived “un-Islamic” institutions such as free elections, non-Syariah compliant banks and civil servants, including former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, who was jailed for blasphemy in 2017.
She also posted an ISIL flag on Instagram before the attack and purchased the weapon she used from a man in Aceh province who was a member of JAD and had been convicted of terrorism.
Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the hardline group Darul Islam who has since founded the Institute for International Peace Building and runs deradicalisation programmes and workshops across Indonesia, told Al Jazeera that social media had played a part in the women’s move into direct violence.
“Historically in Indonesia, women played a more supportive role and were not involved directly in terrorism even if they were part of terrorist families,” he said.
“There is no single reason why women get involved in terrorism but they are mostly driven by very private and emotional reasons.”
These may include issues like revenge, redemption, or relationship factors such as the prospect of finding a partner in the case of travelling to Syria, he added.
“Radicalisation isn’t gender-neutral and is experienced differently by men and women. We need to look at gender as a social construct and not in terms of biology. For example, the notion that men are inherently violent and women are inherently peaceful.”
But, he cautions, the study of gender within hardline groups is something that remains in its infancy.
“More research is needed to identify the driving forces for women’s participation in violence. The government must work closely with civil society and private sectors to work on both online and offline interventions.”
Even within radical groups themselves, there appears to be some contention over the role of women.
Sign of desperation?
A former male member of JAD, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that while in ISIL circles it is seen as permissible for a woman to be involved in an attack against a party considered an enemy “the decision to be involved or not usually depends on the group planning any such attacks”.
The JAD group that he was part of “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 such attacks on the public, female attackers are also used as a propaganda tool.
“The involvement of women in front-line attacks is allowed in ISIS circles and is used to inflame morale,” he said. “The idea is to spread the narrative that if even women dare to sacrifice their lives, then what about men?”
However, there may also be more mundane and practical reasons for women’s more active role.
“We saw the more explicit call by ISIS for women to engage in jihad against the enemy back in 2017, which you can see as less of a feminist breakthrough for ISIS, but more a necessity given they were on the back foot and needed to mobilise all sectors of the so-called caliphate to survive,” Jacob said.
Since the start of the year, Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism unit, Densus 88, has conducted dozens of raids across Indonesia and arrested more than 100 suspects, including Munarman, the former secretary-general of the banned hardline group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), and three other senior FPI officials in April and May respectively.
Local authorities have also tightened security across the archipelago since the March bombing in Makassar and the attack in Jakarta, amid speculation that Aini gained entry to the National Police Headquarters more easily because she was a woman.
“The call from ISIS came at a good time when there was an opening and security forces were slow to pick up on the potential of women to plan and participate in attacks,” said Jacob.
“In the Indonesian context, these messages find a receptive audience with those dealing with a fairly decimated network after years of police crackdowns and surveillance.”