While Mother’s Day was being celebrated in the United States, Canada, and Australia, a gruesome “celebration” of another kind took place in Indonesia: three nearly simultaneous suicide attacks on three separate churches in Surabaya, all carried out by the members of the same family.
The wave of carnage aimed at killing morning service-goers rocked the Indonesian city, killing at least 11 people, and injuring another 40, and people around the world asked how a mother, Puji Kuswanti, could strap bombs on herself as well as on the bodies of her two daughters, Fadila Sari, 12, and Pamela Rizkita, 9, and take them to the Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church to blow themselves and others up.
Meanwhile, the family’s sons, Yusuf, 18, and Alif, 16, rode motorcycles into Santa Maria Catholic Church, and detonated explosives they were carrying. Their father, Dita Sopriyanto, drove his bomb-laden car into the grounds of Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church where he self-detonated.
The so-called Islamic State already has claimed credit for the attack while Surabaya Police Chief Tito Karnavian confirmed to the BBC that the family belonged to an Indonesian ISIS-inspired network, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). While al Qaeda killed 202 persons in the Bali bombings in 2002, since then ISIS attacks in Indonesia have been smaller scale and foiled. Recent prison riots set off with ISIS incitement may have spurred these attacks.
The family of six suicide attackers is thought to be among more that 500 Indonesian ISIS sympathizers who have returned from Syria and Iraq. If true, they must have imbibed the ISIS takfir ideology according to which all those who do not adhere to ISIS’ strict interpretations of Islam are enemies worthy to be killed, even if they are other Muslims.
The members of this family, or at least the parents, believed they were taking a short-cut to paradise, faithful to the militant jihadi teaching that “self-martyrdom” and the killing of the enemies of ISIS brings about the instant reward of bypassing the Judgment Day, forgiveness of all sins, 72 virgins for male martyrs, and eternal beauty for females. This also includes the opportunity for the “martyr” to grant entry to paradise to another 70-plus family members.
Thus far no Indonesian women or children have taken part previously in terror attacks—this one now opens the door for such participation and underlines the dangers of female and child returnees from ISIS.
The issue of ISIS returnees remains a hotly debated topic. Many governments worldwide are openly expressing their concerns over a flood of weapons-trained ideologically militant men returning home since the territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and much of Syria. While that deluge has not materialized—most of the men have been killed, arrested, or remain at large in the region—the question of how to deal with women and children returnees has no clear answer.
Governments facing the problem of female returnees are trying to decide on a case-by-case basis. The debates continue over whether they should be allowed to return home at all, and if so, whether they might represent a danger to society. Questions also linger over whether they need to be prosecuted—in the case of adult women—and if they can be successfully rehabilitated and reintegrated, in the case of both women and children.
Given that ISIS routinely separated boys as young as 6 from their parents in camps where they were ideologically indoctrinated and weapons trained, it is not inconceivable that teenage male returnees might pose a grave danger. ISIS also routinely invited foreign fighters’ wives to join the dreaded ISIS hisbah (morality police), in which they were issued Kalashnikovs, were given great power over others, and took part in brutally abuse of other women for violating ISIS-mandated dress codes and other infringements.
Similarly, foreign women were invited to become ISIS’ online recruiters, writing blogs, contacting others online, and seducing them into joining. And our interviews doing research for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism make it clear that some women were also combat trained, particularly as ISIS faced the U.S.-led coalition’s onslaught, with women being trained to throw grenades, place and detonate explosives, and fire rifles. Some were issued suicide vests and were also sent to detonate themselves.
Whether that was the case with Puji Kuswanti is still not clear, and it is too early to say whether her suicide and the martyrdom of her children will be the exception or the rule for mothers and children indoctrinated by the blood cult that is ISIS.