New research shows why terrorists quit terrorism

Relatives and friends of Aloysius Bayu Rendra Wardhana, who died in a blast at Santa Maria Tak Bercela Church, attend a funeral in Indonesia on May 23. (Juni Kriswantojuni/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives and friends of Aloysius Bayu Rendra Wardhana, who died in a blast at Santa Maria Tak Bercela Church, attend a funeral in Indonesia on May 23. (Juni Kriswantojuni/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 13 and 14, the city of Surabaya, Indonesia, reeled from terrorist attacks targeting churches and police headquarters carried out by three families, including children as young as eight. Indonesian police claim that the families were all members of the Surabaya cell of Jemaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD), a loose network of pro-Islamic State groups and that Dita Oepriarto, the mastermind of the first church attack, had been their leader. How does such shocking radicalization occur, and can family ties work the other way?

While conducting research for my book, “Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists”, I found that parental support for participation in acts of violence and immersion in a larger social network committed to the use of violence were key to someone remaining an unrepentant terrorist. However, the converse was also true. These same support networks could serve as the linchpin of successful disengagement and reintegration.

The role of family in terrorism

It is commonly assumed that those who join extremist groups are struggling with personal crises or are misfits, drifters or disaffected loners. However, this profile has not been common in Indonesia, where many who join extremist groups are part of other Islamic and Islamist movements before joining and where extremism can run in families.

Islamist extremism in Indonesia has long been notable for the presence of intergenerational kinship ties. One prime example is the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Jihadi-Salafi network whose members were responsible for some of Indonesia’s most notorious terrorist attacks, including the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings and the 2002 Bali bombing. In JI circles, some families can trace their involvement in the extended extremist community back to the Darul Islam rebellions of 1948 to 1962.

Family can be an ideal recruiting ground. Kinship ties provide unmatched loyalty and unconditional support, reinforcing group connections and ensuring commitment. Children and youth are socialized through everyday activities — conversations, stories, lessons, activities — and gradually begin to internalize their parent’s (or elder brother or uncle’s) values and priorities. All of it seems normal. There may be not even be a conscious decision to join per se. Instead, they are slowly groomed by parents or other older relatives, culminating in eventual acceptance into the movement by virtue of their familial legacy.

Kinship also provides cover for conducting illegal activities. One is less likely to inform on their relatives. Loyalty to and love for family members can outweigh serious personal misgivings, leading someone to participate in a terrorist attack who might not otherwise be inclined to do so.

For example, Dita Oepriarto’s 16-year-old son, Firman Halim, was reported to have been crying inconsolably at dawn prayers at their local mosque. Yet he then boarded a motorcycle carrying explosives with his 18-year-old brother and exploded at the Santa Maria Catholic church. Likewise, Ali Imron, one of the participants in the 2002 Bali bombing, has repeatedly asserted that he objected to the plot. However, he went along because his older brother Ali Gufron (alias Mukhlas) was one of its masterminds. He explains, “I was a junior member and a younger brother.” After repeatedly failing to convince Mukhlas that the attack was ill-advised, he did his part.

While many other groups have avoided or condemned the practice, the Islamic State has been normalizing and even celebrating the use of women and children in attacks. Given JAD’s affiliation with the Islamic State, it is perhaps less surprising to find its members plotting attacks that involve the participation of entire families. Such an attack would be intentionally shocking, generating a great deal of media attention, and the family probably believed they would meet again in heaven.

The power of social networks

I have conducted more than 100 interviews with 65 members of Indonesian Islamist extremist groups over seven years. Of those who successfully reintegrated back into society, all had the support of family members, as well as friends and mentors. Of those who remained committed to the use of violence, all had the support of their parents in doing so. Having an alternative social network to extremism, including family, was critical to successful disengagement and reintegration.

Family members played three important roles in the process of turning away from terrorism. First, someone might disengage from an extremist group for family. For one founding member of JI, the tipping point came when he was tasked to shuttle then-emir Abu Bakar Ba’asyir around Kalimantan at the same time his wife was in labor with his second child. This individual had been growing closer to the quietist Salafi community, and he realized they would never have asked him to make such a sacrifice.

Second, and more common, was family to act as “reinforcers.” If someone was considering disengagement, knowing they had the support of family provided critical encouragement for that decision. One JI member was amazed by his mother, who intervened upon his arrest to inquire about his studies. He had been working toward a BA at one of Indonesia’s top universities. Incredibly, the head of the counterterrorism team promised he would be able to continue his studies while in prison. By his release, he had obtained his degree in accounting, had married and, after release, he devoted himself to building a family.

Third, upon release from prison, support from parents helped keep former extremists on the straight path, even amid difficulties. A former trainer with a local JI affiliate in the district of Poso credited his mother’s role in both reinforcing his decision to disengage and supporting him after prison. When he decided to surrender himself to the police, as he was on the Most Wanted List, she encouraged the decision, telling him, “I have prayed for that every day. I was praying for your heart to be moved.” When he left prison, he moved back in with her and his siblings. He has since become a peace activist and a filmmaker.

Just as family is among the most powerful recruitment tools an extremist group has, family together friends and mentors are foundational structures facilitating successful disengagement and reintegration. They enable the extremist to imagine a life after terrorism and a life apart from the movement.

Julie Chernov Hwang is an associate professor in the department of political science and international relations at Goucher College. She is the author of “Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists,” (Cornell University Press, 2018). You can follow her @Julie_C_Hwang.

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