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How people become suicide bombers: the six steps to terrorism

Anti-terror police guard the house of the family that detonated bombs in Surabaya, Indonesia, May 15 2018. Fully Handoko/EPA

Suicide bombings of three churches last week in Indonesia by a couple, Dita Oepriarto and Puji Kuswanti, who involved their children were the result of a long process of radicalisation. A perpetrator of violent extremism goes through several phases until he or she becomes determined to be a mujahid or “fighter” and carries out an attack.

Dita had been exposed to extremist thinking since he was young, according to a junior classmate in high school in Surabaya, Ahmad Faiz Zainudin. Ahmad Faiz on his Facebook page shared his recollection of Dita in high school. The story went viral and was discussed in the Indonesian Lawyer Club (ILC) show on TV One on May 15, 2018.

Faiz wrote that they met in religious study groups outside school hours in Surabaya in the 1990s. Faiz said that at that time Dita and his group deemed people outside their religious group as thagut or demonic.

Based on this, Faiz was not surprised when he found out that Dita was the perpetrator of the bombings. Dita also reportedly told his family that he would like to die as a martyr.

According to Fathali Moghaddam of Georgetown University, psychology theory can explain Dita’s case. He said there were six phases one goes through before committing a deadly violent act. Each stage takes time, depending on a person’s level of exposure to a violent ideology.

A sense of injustice and desire for change

The six phases start from a base. At this stage the feeling that most people have in common is one of suffering injustice. In the context of “Islamic terrorism”, they feel the international system oppresses Muslims. They often refer to Palestinian oppression by Israel and, more recently, Rohingya Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar.

In Faiz’s story, he said the issue during his high school years was the slaughter of ethnic Bosnian Muslims by Serbia. Islamic magazines often cover the Bosnian war.

Those who wish to find the perpetrators of the injustice enter the second phase.

Looking for the mastermind and starting to fight

In the third phase they try to find who’s behind the oppression of Muslims. Currently, they blame the United States and the democratic system. Therefore terrorist groups often target American interests and denounce the democratic system.

As Indonesia embraces democracy, terrorist groups call the state a demonic government. Therefore, they see law enforcers such as the police as enemies. Meanwhile they have targeted the church for the “infidels” and to gain international attention.

In the fourth phase, they start to agree to resist using all means, including suicide bombings. People who agree with what terrorist groups do may be in this stage.

Preparations and explosions

In the fifth phase, they start to prepare to attack. Extremists deem the preparations (idad) before the attack (amaliyat) part of jihad, or holy battle. Dita’s family did this by preparing bombs, putting on the suicide bomb belt and approaching the targets. In the sixth stage, Dita and his family detonated the bombs.

Psychology professor Sarlito W. Sarwono writes that the seeds of extreme ideology are sown from a young age and it’s not an instant brainwashing process. Therefore, changing their extreme ideology is not easy. To prevent exposure to extreme ideology the young should be targeted with values of tolerance from a young age.

The case of Dita’s family illustrates this. It could not have been a short brainwashing process to make Dita bring his whole family to carry out suicide bombings together. Rather, it was the result of an extreme ideology that he has held for a long time. For children who carry out suicide bombings, they have learned the ideology of violence from their guardians, such as their parents.

Dita’s family is well off. His family also seemed like a happy one. If we look at Dita’s family pictures, there is no indication that they hold extreme beliefs. Terrorist are stereotyped as men with long beards and veils for women. They did not wear those.

From here it is evident that being a terrorist is not a matter of physical appearance and clothing, but the extreme ideology embedded in one’s head and heart.

Family network extremism

Family can serve as fertile ground for radicalisation. For example, the main perpetrators of the Bali bombings of October 12 2002, Mukhlas, involved his siblings, Ali Imron and Amrozi, to commit the deadly bombings with him.

A member of Jemaah Islamiyah who took part in the violence in Poso, Farihin, followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather. They were involved in “jihad” violence in the era of President Soekarno. His father, Ahmad Kandai, is a member of Darul Islam, a group that tried to assassinate Soekarno in Cikini in 1957.

Farihin’s brothers, Abdul Jabar and Salahuddin, were involved in a series of bombings in the early 2000s. Abdul Jabar was involved in the bombing of the Philippine embassy in Jakarta in 2000. Salahuddin was involved in the bombing of a mall in Jakarta in 2001.

After ISIS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi in Syria proclaimed himself leader of an Islamic State in 2013, many Indonesian families, including those from the public sector, flocked to Syria to join IS. A civil servant in Indonesia’s Ministry of Finance who was educated in Australia, Triyono Utomo, was one of the people who brought his wife and children to join IS. Dwi Joko Wiwoho, director of the Integrated Services One Door Batam Enterprises agency, also brought his wife and children to Syria.

Although family has been known as a radicalisation ground, the suicide bombings involving a family in Surabaya were the first for terrorism networks in Indonesia.

When terrorist attacks were carried out mainly by members of Jemaah Islamiyah, suicide bombings were only done by men. The perpetrator would leave a will for their parents or their wives and children. In the case of the Surabaya bombings, there were no wills as the whole family carried out the attack.

Then how to solve it?

There are no shortcuts to solve the problem of terrorism. Countering violent extremism through education in the values of tolerance takes a long time.

In the short term, security forces must identify all IS supporters in Indonesia and question them to understand their network and obtain profiles of their members and supporters.

Indonesia can learn from France, which succeeded in pacifying a terror network that involved women and children to terrorise the French government in the 1950s. France identified and questioned supporters of the terror group and ultimately uncovered its organisational and terror patterns. Thus the terror that haunted France could be stopped at that time.

Indonesia should start identifying and questioning IS supporters and not wait for innocent people to fall victims to the attacks of a small group of violent extremists.

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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