Indonesia has long been a pioneer of counterextremism and rehabilitation aimed at male jihadists. Recent instances of recidivism show that these efforts are imperfect. Nevertheless, two fascinating, small-scale programs are taking a different tack: empowering jihadists’ wives through work and education to set them up for life outside the extremist fray.
Since 2015, the University of Indonesia’s Police Research Center has run the Entrepreneurship and Proselytization Empowerment Program to help the wives of jailed extremists through counseling and business training. It was created by Prof. Sarlito Sarwono, a psychologist with an abiding interest in extremism and terrorism who died last November. The program, continuing without him, has just wrapped up its first cycle of workshops for jihadists’ wives and has reported highly positive results from its 18 participants.
Another nongovernmental agency, the Institute for International Peace Building, also gives loans and business training to extremists’ wives, focusing on those whose husbands have been released from jail. It has now helped three such families get back on their feet despite the stigma that follows former extremists.
A key member of the 16-person Police Research Center’s team, who has taken a greater role since Sarwono’s death, is Nasir Abas, a former terrorist. Abas fought against Russian forces with the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s, and then was prominent in Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, until he served a prison term from 2003 to 2006 and effectively switched sides. Now he advises the Indonesian government on counterterrorism. He has been instrumental in locating and speaking with imprisoned male extremists and persuading them to allow their wives to work with the Police Research Center’s program.
Three people visit every jihadist’s wife who enrolls in the program: a psychologist, a Muslim religious teacher known as an ustadh and a policewoman. After two or three visits to break the ice, the women can enroll in the program’s workshop.
“We need these women to be part of counterterrorism because they’re the missing link in the rehabilitation equation,” Abas told me. “When militant jihadists return from jail, we need another person in their lives to be a positive force.” Otherwise, he says, they face insurmountable odds in resuming a productive life.
The agency held workshops last year across Java, Indonesia’s most populous island. In addition to group discussion on the challenges of having your husband in jail and raising children alone, the women also receive business training from Sutie Rahyono, an entrepreneurship professor.
After attending the training, Tuban said, “I was able to start my business even though I had no prior experience.” Her business success has given her confidence as a homesteader — and to talk frankly with her husband, who is still in jail.
“I’m very optimistic because my husband has promised that he will not repeat his behavior or rejoin Islamic radical groups when he’s out of prison,” she said.
Judith Jacob, a researcher at the London School of Economics, explained that “the family unit, broadly conceptualized, is important to Islamist militant networks in Indonesia.” It is, she added, “not unlike what royal families in Europe did to secure alliances.” She cites Abas as an example: His sister is married to one of the masterminds of the infamous 2002 Bali bombings.
While these kinship ties are an important pathway to radicalization, she said, they could also function as the opposite, because “families are also obviously a support structure when militants are released from prisons.”
The program represents a potential sea change emerging in counterextremism circles toward more practical, less ambitious goals.
“Our target has shifted over the years from deradicalization to disengagement,” the late Professor Sarwono told me last November. “This means we don’t try to change someone’s ideology — there is, after all, no way to truly know what’s in someone’s mind. We want to reduce the possibility of re-engagement with extremism. And families are instrumental for that.”
The Institute for International Peace Building, the other prominent Indonesian program for wives of jihadists, takes a similar stance. It has given small business loans of about $375 to $750 to three women whose husbands have completed their prison terms. One woman who did not want to be identified publicly, along with her husband, who was released from jail in 2011 and struggled to find employment, were the recipients last year of a small business loan and training to open a stall selling “bubur ayam” — chicken porridge — in the suburb where they live with their children. In the end, he sold the porridge for only about six months, after which the stability and income he had gained gave him the confidence to transition into a job as a security guard.
Another released terrorist’s wife in East Java received two cows so they could get started in the cattle trade, and the third, in West Java, received training and equipment to start a fried-duck stall.
They are all now repaying their loans in installments.
“Women are more reliable,” says Dete Aliah, International Peace Building’s managing director. “When male jihadists go to jail, the entire burden of running a family is handled by the wife alone. And on top of all that, there’s the community and family stigma. They bear the consequences of their husbands’ ideology.” But that is exactly why they are in a good position to get their families back on track, she says.
Aliah has interviewed 60 wives of imprisoned terrorists, and said 85 percent of them want their husbands never to re-engage with violent extremism.
“These men long to achieve high social standing,” said Noor Huda Ismail, the organization’s founder. “What we can remind them is that there are paths to do so as a husband and father.” He should know. He became an extremism expert in part because he attended a radical Central Java boarding school known as the “Ivy League for jihadists.”
According to a midterm evaluation from its 18 participants, all viewed the Police Research Center’s job training program positively, and together they gave it an 85 percent approval rating. Among both projects, all of the women who started or helped to start their husbands’ businesses are still afloat, and none of their children have reported an engagement with extremism.
But both of these projects are still tiny. One reason is that Indonesia has a relatively low number of terrorists, especially considering the size of its population — 250 million. Abas estimates that between 400 and 500 terrorists, most of them men, are in jail. The projects themselves, though, are hobbled by two factors. Extremists are highly suspicious of the government, so nonstate agencies have to cultivate their networks and funding with discretion. But donors are hard to find.
“Present or former terrorists don’t trust — they have an allergy to — B.N.P.T.,” as Indonesia’s national counterterrorism agency is known, said Abas.
Aliah echoed the sentiment, saying that B.N.P.T. “are considered infidels, trying to weaken the jihadi spirit.” That is one reason that the two organizations aiding wives are both privately funded. They feel that they can’t, in good conscience, utilize government funding.
Nevertheless, private funding is hard to come by, because many potential donors are leery of engaging with terrorists in any way, and harbor doubts that reintegration can succeed.
“Donors are very hesitant to give money,” said Aliah. “They don’t want to inadvertently finance terrorists.” She said some prisoners’ wives in East Java are clamoring for training for a batik fabric business, but don’t yet have any money to start one.
Indonesia is not alone in trying family-focused counterextremism experiments. In Germany, Daniel Kohler founded the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies, which focuses on families, and particularly mothers, as the unit through which to deradicalize young people who turn toward Islamist extremism. The Austria-based organization Women Without Borders also runs a series of “mother schools” (including one in East Java) to train mothers to detect and curb signs of extremism among young people in their community. Still, even these efforts choose ideology as their battle front. The two Indonesian initiatives stand out for their resolutely practical, vocation-based approach.
Antarctica is the only continent that remains untouched by extremism in the 21st century, and no country has yet found a good solution for returned jihadists. If these two Indonesian programs are replicable, they may be a valuable blueprint. So it will be worthwhile to track their progress in preventing recidivism.
“Our challenges are countless: limited funding, social stigma and even the simple geography of Indonesia,” said Abas. “But terrorists returning to society is a fact of life in many places now. I strongly believe this is the best long-run approach.”
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