When parents take their children to die in jihadist suicide bombings, what can be done?

Indonesian police officers carry body bags at the scene of a bomb blast in front of a church in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, 13 May 2018. EPA

When parents take their children to die in jihadist suicide bombings, what can be done?

A series of suicide bombings in Surabaya, East Java, in the past two days is the worst terrorist attack Indonesia has seen since 2005. Families attacked three churches on Sunday and a police station on Monday, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens. People are doubly shocked and sickened that the bombings were carried out by parents who brought their children along to die.

On Sunday, a mother took her two daughters, aged 9 and 12, and detonated a bomb at the Indonesian Christian Church. Her two sons, aged 16 and 18, rode a motorcycle to the Santa Maria Church and blew themselves up. Her husband, Dita Oepriarto, reportedly the Surabaya cell leader of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an extremist group that has pledged allegiance to IS, drove his car to the Pentecostal Church and bombed it.

On Monday, a family of five riding two motorcycles detonated a bomb at Surabaya Police Headquarters.

The attacks lend weight to warnings by analysts not to ignore the role of women in violent extremism. In 2016, Indonesian police caught the first female jihadists – Dian Yulia Novi, who had prepared a pressure-cooker bomb and planned to detonate it in Jakarta, and, a few days later, Ika Puspitasari in Bali.

The increase of women’s role in violent extremism has been helped by the fast growth of social media, which extremist groups use to recruit members.

But the attacks show not only a shift in women’s roles in violent extremism, but also the involvement of families in acts of terror.

IS might be giving up persuading people to come to Syria. The group has lost most of the territory it occupied and the Syrian government has defeated most of the IS fighters. But the attacks of the past few days are part of a propagation of jihad involving family members locally.

Parents bringing children to die

People are shocked that the perpetrators brought their children in the attacks.

There is, however, a rational parental choice behind these acts, based on their belief that a reward for their amaliyah (the term jihadists use to refer to field action) is waiting for them in the afterlife. They believe they will be together again in heaven.

A photo of the family police say was responsible for Sunday’s attack in Surabaya. Handout, Author provided

If a father committed a suicide bombing alone, he would be leaving his wife and children to bear the stigma of a terrorist’s family.

Meanwhile, as women are taking a more active role in terrorism, as mothers they will find it hard to leave their children without being able to ensure their children follow their ideology. So, they choose to do the amaliyah together.

This may also be part of their strategy to disseminate their propaganda to persuade other militants to follow in their footsteps.

The story of ‘Ummu Shabrina’

Propaganda to involve the family in amaliyah has been circulating since 2014 in Indonesia’s militant communities. A story about Ummu Shabrina and her family’s journey had been widely spread. The four-chapter story ended with border guards arresting her and her children.

Ummu Shabrina closed her story with a strong message to all families of IS supporters to strengthen their resolve and sacrifice themselves for Islamic State.

The role of family in radicalisation

I research the family’s role in creating a jihadist. As the primary unit for an individual’s social and psychological development, the family is an effective domain for extreme ideological development through the process of socialisation. This can happen through daily activities such as discussing jihadism, Islam and politics, watching extremist videos together, participating in couple’s and parents’ religious activities, etc.

Children view this as something usual and common in families. They may not question it, as they trust their parents as their guardians.

For families who had gone to Syria, living under Islamic State rule also created a context for the socialisation itself. Unwittingly, it becomes a family ideology shared and accepted by all family members who went there.

Children also imitate how parents express their commitment and loyalty to an ideology or organisation on a daily basis. Children then shape their “ready loyalty” that they wish to attach to someone or something like an ideology, leaders or organisation, etc.

This kind of loyalty does not emerge naturally. It is primarily the result of parental values being inculcated in their children in the form of ideas, norms, customs and methods.

There are examples of successful values transmission to jihadists who are upholding their father’s legacy and following a career in jihadism. Hatf Saifurrasul, 13, died in Syria in 2016. He was the son of Saiful Anam or Brekele, a jihadist convicted of involvement in a bombing in Poso, Maluku, in 2005 and other crimes.

The family is like two sides of a coin. On one side, a family is a place for radicalisation and terrorism engagement. On the other side, a family is also a place for disengagement. The key is in the cohesiveness between members of the family, including between parents, and between parents and children.

The better the condition of the family relationship, the more values will be transmitted, as parents have more opportunity to transmit their values to children. And, vice versa, the worse the condition of the family relationship, the fewer values will be transmitted in the family.

Indonesian residents light candles during a vigil for the victims of the church attacks in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, May 13 2018. EPA

What should the government do?

The government has carried out counter-terrorism operations and raids, run deradicalisation programs and provided economic support programs for reformed militants. In addition to these strategic counter-terrorism efforts, several recommendations might be useful to deal with radicalisation within families.

A preventive program targeted at parents may prevent the values of radicalism being transmitted to children. Children are likely to adopt the views of their parents, especially when they frequently share similar extreme ideological matters, and when there is both an ideological consensus and a high degree of religious salience. Therefore, prevention should start with educating the parents, as it begins in the family.

Social interventions can counter extreme ideologies, such as community activities involving parents and children. Where an extreme ideology is perceived as less important, where there is an intervention, and where children acknowledge that they have options in life, extreme ideologies are less likely to flourish.

The government should actively involve people who have returned to Indonesia from Islamic State in Syria in counter-extremism programs. In 2017, it was reported that around 600 Indonesians had joined IS in Syria, including around 100 women. With IS losing much of the territory it occupied, some have returned home.

Finally, extreme ideology is not something that easily happens to people, and nothing about ideological transmission is predictable. An ideology ultimately serves the individuals who hold it by providing them choises in life - to be a terrorist or a humanist.