Asia Pacific

A shortcut to heaven: How women and children became suicide bombers in Indonesia

Last week, Indonesia was struck by a series of terrible terror attacks that involved whole families, including children, the first such incident in the world’s most populous Muslim country.

Dian Oeprianto, his wife and four children, including two daughters, Fadhila, 12, and Pamela, 9, carried out bombings at three churches in Indonesia’s second largest city of Surabaya on Sunday, May 13, killing at least 13 people and injuring 43.

Neighbors saw Dian’s sons Yusuf, 18, and Firman, 16, praying in a mosque near their home the day before the attack.

“On Saturday night, two of Dian’s children prayed in the mosque and [afterwards] weeping together,” National Police spokesperson Setyo Wasisto told The Defense Post.

“Most likely they knew that they would carry out amaliyah [terror attacks],” Wasisto said.

On Sunday morning, Dian drove his wife and two daughters to the Indonesian Christian Church Diponegoro, with bombs strapped to their stomachs. Dian then headed for the Surabaya Center Pentecostal church alone, driving a car with a bomb in it. At the same time, two of Dian’s sons, one of whom carried a bomb, drove to Santa Maria Tak Bercela Church on a motorcycle.

The first explosion occurred at the SMTB church, followed by two other blasts. All six members of the family were killed.

In the evening, a bomb exploded prematurely in a low-cost apartment in Sidoarjo, just outside Surabaya, where Anton Febrianto and his family lived. Anton’s wife and one of their children died in the explosion, and he was shot and killed by police. Their three other children survived.

On Tuesday, a third family blew themselves up at the Surabaya police headquarters. The husband, Tri Murtiono, took his wife Ernawati and their 8-year-old daughter, Ais, on a motorbike while their two sons rode on another bike with a bomb.

Four family members were killed in the incident, while Ais survived. A video shows the dramatic moment when the girl got up from the blast site and was carried to safety by a police officer.

Explosion at Pentecost church, Surabaya, Indonesia
Motorcycles burn following a blast at the Gereja Pantekosta Pusat Surabaya (Pentecost Church Central Surabaya), in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, May 13, 2018. Image: Antara Foto/Surabaya Government handout via Reuters

The three families knew each other

East Java Police Chief Inspector General Machfud Arifin told The Defense Post the three families knew each other and often gathered at Dita’s house for religious studies led by a man who allegedly taught them a radical doctrine. Police are now searching for the teacher, but are not revealing details of his identity.

“They were present every Sunday at Dita’s house with their children,” Machfud said, adding that they were taught together by the same teacher.

He said the parents further indoctrinated their children through jihad videos. Anton went as far as to not send his children to public schools to limit interaction with other people.

“But one teenage child who survived the explosions in a low-cost apartment [in Sidoharjo] refused to follow his parents’ teachings,” Machfud said.

“He chose to stay in school and stay with his grandmother,” he added.

The 15-year-old boy, known by the initials AR, confessed to police that Anton, who worked as an online watch seller, often invited him to jihad, but he rejected it for not conforming to his thinking and the teachings of Islam. His father, AR said, assembled the bomb himself by studying YouTube videos.

Chairman of the Commission for Protection of Children (KPAI) Susanto told The Defense Post on Monday that the children were isolated at home.

“Their parents told them to tell their neighbors that they were homeschooled,” said Susanto, who uses only one name.

“They were only taught by their aunt, a sister of suspected terrorist [Anton],” he said.

Susanto said his agency will rehabilitate the children in various aspects, including religious, educational, and social.

“They need a proper touch of religious understanding and do not lead to radicalism,” he said, adding that rehabilitation efforts are also needed to avoid the stigma of being the children of a terrorist.

Sofyan Tsauri, a former terrorist who now campaigns against terrorism, told The Defense Post that there were at least two things behind the actions of these families. First, the attacks were a veiled message for other jihadists, especially men, to carry out acts of terror.

“They want to provoke other jihadists to do the same as them,” said Tsauri, who was jailed for six years for a terrorist act in 2010.

“With the suicide bombing, they were saying that ‘we’ve sacrificed our children and wives, where are the [male] jihadists who are members of the Islamic State?’” he added.

He said they were trying to create a new trend by involving the whole family in terror attacks.

Second, Tsauri suspects that the families studied messianic doctrine, which teaches that the end-times are near and violent jihad is a path to heaven.

“They hallucinate that the world is a fallacy, and life after death is the real goal,” he said. “To reach heaven together, they must die first, and the way to get to it is through jihad.”

The families did not appear to have a large digital footprint. Only Dian’s wife Puji Kuswati had a Facebook account, but she was last active in 2014.

Puji Kuswati poses with her four children
In an undated Facebook photo, Puji Kuswati poses with her four children. Puji and her husband brought their children with them to carry out suicide bombings on three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia, on May 13, 2018.

Purwati often shared pictures of her activities with her children and notes about Islamic advice and life after death.

“Hanging all hope and happiness to God only, that’s zuhud [asceticism]. Hope we can,” Puji wrote in a post on January 22, 2013.

“The trouble in the world is nothing compared to the troubles of the Hereafter. The thing that makes it easy for us is our closeness to God,” she wrote in her next post on March 3, 2013.

Women and terror attacks

Indonesian police chief General Tito Karnavian said the direct involvement of women in suicide bombings was not a first for Indonesia.

“But this is the first time that children, aged nine and 12 years, were equipped with a bomb and then committed suicide,” Karnavian said in a press conference in Surabaya on May 14.

The day before the church attack in Surabaya, police arrested two women, aged 18 and 21, who allegedly planned to attack police with scissors. Police are still investigating the case.

The direct involvement of women in acts of terror in Indonesia began in December 2016, when police caught at least four women, including two who were arrested before they could carry out suicide bombings, according to a January 2017 report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

“The arrest of two female would-be suicide bombers in Jakarta in December 2016 shows the desire of Indonesian women for a more active role in violent extremism,” IPAC said.

In the report entitled “Mothers to Bombers: The Evolution of Indonesian Women Extremists,” the organization theorized that the phenomenon may be a reflection of the pro-ISIS movement’s weakness that male leaders are more willing to oblige them than in the past. But the initiative has also come from women, the report said.

Family suicide bombers

Terrorism expert Al Chaidar told The Defense Post that the strongest motive behind the families’ decisions to carry out the attacks together was the desire to enter paradise together.

“They have a strong belief that the way to gain heaven is through martyrdom,” said Chaidar, who is also a lecturer at Malikussaleh University.

He said people who die in martyrdom, according to Islamic teachings, are promised by God to enter Paradise.

According to Islamic teaching, the Prophet Muhammad said a person who is killed while defending themself, their property, religion, or family is a martyr. Islamic terrorists usually limit martyrdom to those who die defending religion, including by fighting against those they regard as kafir, or infidels.

Chaidar said that by dying as martyrs, the families believed they would soon enter heaven without going through the difficult time after death.

“Martyrdom is a shortcut to heaven,” he said.

He said Dita Oeprianto and Tri Murtiono brought their whole families to death with them because of their strong belief in the literal interpretation of At-Tahrim verse 6 in the Quran, which says to “keep yourselves and your family from the fire of hell whose fuel is human and stone.”

“They translate ‘martyrs’ [as those who die] by means of suicide bombings and fight against those they perceive as kafir,” Chaidar said.

The use of an entire family in suicide attacks has never happened before, according to his research, Chaidar said.

“There has never been any research or theory that explains how the whole family could be involved in a suicide bombing,” he said.

The ISIS connection

Police are now searching for two men believed the be the families’ spiritual leaders, one of whom is Kholid Abu Bakar.

According to Chaidar, Bakar is a loyal follower of Aman Abdurrahman, the leader of Jamaah Anshar Daulah (or Jamaah Ansharut Daulah), who declared loyalty to Islamic State.

He was deported from Turkey last year while trying to join ISIS in Syria.

“The core of their teachings is killing the infidels, even Muslims they classify having committed? a great sin, is permissible. And it can lead to heaven,” Chaidar said.

IPAC Director Sidney Jones said that the Surabaya bombings may be the first time that parents took their children on a family outing to blow themselves up.

“At the height of Jemaah Islamiyah’s influence, just before the Bali bombings, families were committed to the cause, but only an adult male would ever be considered a warrior,” Jones said in a statement published this month by The Interpreter, an independent think tank based in Sydney.

Jones said ISIS managed to turn the concept of jihad into a family affair with a role for everyone. Men could fight, women could reproduce, teach or treat the wounded, and their children could grow up in a pure Islamic state. “Women were ‘lionesses,’ children were ‘cubs.’ Everyone was given a sense of mission,” she said.

But many of the women were not satisfied with the traditional role ISIS assigned them, Jones explained.

“Some wanted more action and admired women suicide bombers in Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya,” she said.

Jones said the the Indonesian government must map known pro-ISIS networks and document the family connections. The government urgently needs to know more about these families and their backgrounds before they can begin to develop more strategic programs, she said.

“The need for this knowledge is urgent. If three families can be involved in two days’ worth of terrorist attacks in Surabaya, surely there are more ready to act.”

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