The Answer to Combating the Next ISIS Could be Found in Indonesia

Published August 9th, 2018 - 10:59 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via AFP/FILE)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba via AFP/FILE)


  • In Indonesia, radical extremism is a family affair
  • Initially empowered by imperial Japan, some Islamist militias become insurgent groups
  • Their ideologies are being carried down by family through generations
  • Dealing with the core problem of radicalization requires other countries to take note of this phenomenon



Early on a May Sunday in Surabaya, Indonesia, congregants headed into the Santa Maria Catholic church for a morning prayer. Then, a little after 7:30 AM, two teenagers aged 16 and 18, drove near the entrance on motorcycles and blew themselves up.

Around the same time, a mother with her two daughters, aged nine and 12, detonated bombs strapped on their bodies at the GKI Diponegoro church. At the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal church, a man detonated a car bomb.

The coordinated attacks killed 14 and injured dozens, but what shocked the world was the fact that the assailants were all part of the same family. Before the city could recover from the shock, another family of four suicide bombers blew up a police station the next day.

Jihadi violence ebbs and flows, with groups rising and falling in prominence as they gain and lose followers and legitimacy. Al Qaeda, once the premium jihadi brand that local groups scrambled to associate with, was made to look stale and outdated by the explosive rise of ISIS. As ISIS fades, many around the world are holding their breath, waiting for the next global terror group to emerge.

But some Indonesian families have associated themselves with radical extremism for decades, spanning generations.

Inside the terror networks of Indonesia, a global lesson is laid bare; that even though particular manifestations of violent jihad come in waves, the ideology can remain firmly entrenched. Indonesia’s long history of radical violence and of families fostering extremist sentiments can serve as a blueprint to understand how jihadism remains resilient, and how it can be combated at its core.

The answer to how to combat the next ISIS may be in Indonesia.


Indonesia’s Troubled History with Jihadi Violence

Indonesians training during the Indonesian National Revolution (Wikimedia)

Indonesia is home to about 225 million Muslims, rivaling the total number of Muslims in the entire Middle East. The beginnings of its current jihadi networks can be largely traced back to the early 20th century and a man named Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosoewirjo.

Indonesia was then occupied by the colonial Dutch, who had established schools that emphasized secularism and taught their curriculums in Dutch. Kartosoewirjo was pursuing a medicine degree at one such school, where he met Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto, a famous political leader. Shortly thereafter, Kartosoewirjo dropped out of medical school and began devoting his life towards political Islam—an ideology that was gaining traction as resentment against the colonial Dutch occupation grew.


Kartosoewirjo (Wikimedia)

Kartosoewirjo argued for an Islamic state that was governed by Sharia Law, and gained popularity by combining Islam with a political edge geared towards self-determination.

During World War II, the Dutch hold on Indonesia loosened and the Japanese empire took over the country, replacing one colonial power with another.

Japan, thinking Indonesia could be a good obstacle to any Allied advances on its empire, immediately instituted a strategy of creating and empowering Indonesian Islamist militias and political parties. Japan hoped that by laying the foundations of an Indonesian civil society, they could ultimately institutionalize long-term control over the country.

Seeking to co-opt Indonesia’s Islamists, they created the Masyumi party in addition to establishing Indonesia’s very own Hizbullah, described by historian Harry Benda as a “separate Islamic fighting corp.” Though Japan’s creation of a Hizbullah has nothing to do with the current Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is enlightening and strange to see a Japanese empire, which treated its emperor almost as a deity, establish Islamist militias in its occupied territories that acted on behalf of an ideology that would have likely been violently cracked down upon in mainland Japan. Japan’s geostrategic empowerment of Islamist militias has since become a tactic deployed by powerful countries to wage proxy wars against each other.

Even though Kartosoewirjo found himself and his vision for an independent Islamic state isolated and largely blocked from Japan-controlled Indonesian politics, his militia received support from Japan.

When Japan surrendered in WWII, the Dutch went back into Indonesia to try and reclaim its lost colonial foothold in Asia, but they were met with a well-armed network of formerly Japan-backed Islamist militias. Inside the political vacuum of a fledgling Indonesian state, a withdrawn Japanese force, and a weakened Dutch army, Kartosoewirjo sensed an opportunity.

Following the Renville Agreement of 1948, which ceded West Java to the Dutch, Kartosoewirjo with his militia group Darul Islam, declared an Islamic state and filled a political vacuum with a breakaway state. His own announcement of an Islamic state came decades before ISIS made the same such strategy its signature political ploy.

Kartosoewirjo was able to sustain an Islamic state in West Java, implementing sharia law and defending the territory against both Indonesian nationalists and the Dutch, until 1962. Suffering from military defeats, Kartosoewirjo was captured and executed, and his Islamic state crumbled. His project to create an Islamic state lasted about 13 years, 10 years longer than what ISIS could manage.


Remnants of the Islamic State in Indonesia

Police at the scene of one of the bombed churches in Indonesia, May 2018 (AFP/FILE)

After Kartosoewirjo’s death, many of his followers dispersed into Indonesian society. But some taught their children the ideology and values that informed their own worldview, thus cementing a generational legacy of militant extremism.

Shortly after Darul Islam’s fall, some of its former members founded Komando Jihad, a militant group that operated from the 1970s until the mid-1980s. At the same time, “[a] network of survivors and children of DI [Darul Islam] activists was then drawn into politics in complex ways in the 1970s,” according to John Sidel, an expert on radicalization and professor at the London School of Economics.

Many of the families who were involved in Darul Islam then went on to help form Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a radical extremist group that has aligned itself with al-Qaeda and continues to operate, though for much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Indonesia enjoyed relatively few terror attacks as Islamist parties become integrated into Indonesian national politics.

“It shows pretty conclusively that under conditions of democracy Islamist politics becomes largely parliamentarized and domesticated, rather than radicalized,” said Sidel in an interview with Al Bawaba.

“The call to jihad in Indonesia in the early 2000s represented a last hurrah of sorts for a bunch of sore losers, i.e. Islamists who had emerged in the final years of the authoritarian Suharto era and hoped that the future would be theirs, given that they seemed to be gaining influence in public life. But once elections were held in 1999, it became clear that this wasn't in the cards, and from there it's been a mix of compromise and sour grapes, with the occasional terrorist attack at the far end of the spectrum.”

Despite this general trend, the ideological remnants of Darul Islam has carried on through networks of families and kinship, instituting radical extremism on their own way.

“Today, entire families are being radicalized, recruited and groomed for attacks,” Rohan Gunaratna, a security analyst at the Singapore-based International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research said to Al Bawaba.

“The Surabaya attacks in May 2018 demonstrated that governments and their partners should develop a holistic approach by engaging the husband, wife and children.”


Indonesia as a Global Blueprint

A candlelight vigil for the victims of the suicide bombings in Surabaya, Indonesia (AFP/FILE)

The resilience of extremism through family networks is not unique to Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia’s history with jihadi violence could serve as a blueprint to help understand how radical ideologies persist and how it can be tackled.

Scott Atran, a professor at Oxford University and seasoned expert on radical violence, provided an in-depth example as to how families can foster radicalism: the family of Fatima Aberkan, the Belgian ‘Mother of Jihad.’

“Her brother, Abdelhouaid, was one of the facilitators of the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on Sept 9, 2001, which Bin Laden believed gave him cover with the Taliban to execute the 9/11 attacks. Fatima was condemned in 2015 to 8 years in prison for contaminating her entourage with jihadist ideology and again in 2016 for being a leader of a terrorist group.    During the time she spent in Syria she sent messages to her circle in Belgium encouraging them to travel to Syria to fight jihad. One of her son's died in Syria, another was tried and condemned for terrorist activities. Her two daughters also went to Syria. Fatima's sister, Naima, was tried and condemned for participating in jihadist activities. Salah Abdeslam, after the attacks in November 2015 was sheltered in Molenbeek [in Belgium] by Abid Aberkan, a cousin of Fatima, in the basement of Aberkan's mother's house, Djemila M. Aberkan and Djemila M. were arrested along with Aberkan's wife.”

The example of Fatima Aberkan shows, above all else, that solving the problem of radicalism is not merely about singling out radical individuals, but of identifying networks within which individuals and families operate. Even in the age of the ‘lone wolf terrorist,’ absolute isolation does not exist: even if there is no physical contact between individuals, ideas are shared, inter-linked and made actionable.

As evidence comes in from efforts at deradicalization or disengagement from radical activity, families and networks are appearing to be crucial variables.

Julie Hwang, while researching for her book “Why Terrorist's Quit,” saw that “parental support for participation in acts of violence and immersion in a larger social network committed to the use of violence were key to someone remaining an unrepentant terrorist. However, the converse was also true. These same support networks could serve as the linchpin of successful disengagement and reintegration.”

While interviewing 65 members of Indonesian radical groups over seven years, Hwang found that every successful case of individuals being reintegrated into society involved a support network of family members and friends.


These social networks “enable the extremist to imagine a life after terrorism and a life apart from the movement,” she argues.

This is reflected in Atran’s own research as well. In collaboration with the Santa Fe Institute, Atran and his colleague Nafees Hamid modeled the network of terrorists in Brussel and France to find that the stronger the family structure, the “greater the effects of radicalization or de-radicalization efforts,” as he put it.

“It follows that working with families can significantly boost deradicalization efforts.”


Nafees Hamid (Artis International) and Mirta Galesic (Santa Fe Institute) (Courtesy of Scott Atran)

Red indicates radicalization or “extreme violence” while dark blue indicates no support for radicalization. The Santa Fe Institute’s findings show a correlation between family influence and radicalization and de-radicalization efforts. Overall, the graphics shows that as familial influence grows, so too does the ability to both promote and dissuade engagement in radicalization.  

“If you can get a key family member, often a spouse, to disengage, that can help,” said Sidney Jones, the director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Indonesia.

“What policy makers are missing is that the process has to be long-term and often has to involve some form of mentoring.”

Although such programs can be costly, experts are unanimous that they are critical to stemming the kind of long-term radical extremism that persists through generations and carries on, undeterred by strong-armed, military-backed efforts to drive them away. 

ISIS will come and go, just as countless other extremist groups have in the past. But the radical beliefs it stood for can become ingrained in families who either sympathized with the group or lived under the its rule, impacting societies worldwide, for decades to come, just as it happened before to accelerate individuals’ allegiances to ISIS.

The history of Indonesia is both a warning sign to this phenomenon and a guide on how to tackle it before it can become cemented.

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