What to Do About Indonesia's Forgotten Women and Children of ISIS

More than 200 women and children moved to the Islamic State. Only half of them returned.
Illustration by Farraz Tandjoeng

Nurshadrina Khaira Dhania’s dream of living in an Islamic caliphate had turned into a nightmare. In 2015, Nurshadrina, then a 16-year-old girl, was brought to live in Syria, under the brutal government of the Islamic State (ISIS). It didn't take her long to learn that all the propaganda she saw were lies. There was no free education for children. No health services.

Instead, she was witness to the kinds of scenes of near-constant violence that characterized life in the Islamic State. She started to feel like her family had been tricked. They began to plot their escape from Raqqa, and, hopefully, eventual return to Indonesia.


It took months of waiting in a refugee camp in Ayn Issa, a small city halfway between Raqqa and the Turkish border that was then under the control of Kurdish forces, before they could return. Nurshadrina returned home in September of last year, where she became an outspoke critic of ISIS as part of a government deradicalization program run by the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).

Watch: ISIS Left This Behind For The Children Of Raqqa

It's a positive end to an otherwise horrific story. But it's also a rare one. Nurshadrina may have successfully return with a new outlook on her old radical views, but there are nearly 100 Indonesian women and children who joined ISIS still out there, somewhere, with little government oversight or help, according to a study recently published by London's International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR).

That study, titled From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State, uncovered that of the known 41,490 foreign members of ISIS, only 7,366 have returned home. Two hundred thirteen of those foreign ISIS members were Indonesians—all of them women and children—and out of that total, only 54 women and 60 children, a total of 114, have returned home. The fate of the 99 who remain is still unknown. They could be dead. They could be in what little territory ISIS still controls. Or they could be somewhere else entirely.


And now, after the suicide attacks in Surabaya, which involved women and children bombers, counter-terrorism experts are more worried than ever about the threat those missing 99 might pose to everyone living back home.

"Women and minors are poised to play a significant role in carrying forward the ideology and legacy of [ISIS] after the physical fall of its ‘caliphate’ in late 2017,” the report read. “Women and minors affiliated with and inspired by [ISIS] have already demonstrated their prominence as security threats, with numerous foiled and successful attacks plotted and carried out globally."

To-date, "hundreds," of Indonesian citizens have returned home from ISIS controlled territory, according to Suhardi Alius, the head of the BNPT. The anti-terrorism agency has been reluctant to release exact figures on the number of returnees here in Indonesia, and, for years, they could do little more than watch them from a distance.

Now, under the new anti-terrorism law, Indonesia can detain returnees in the BNPT's deradicalization facilities—a kind of rehab for terrorists—until they are deemed sufficiently deradicalized and allowed to return home. This is where any of those missing 99, the surviving ones, will end up if they return to Indonesia. And those who try to rejoin a radical group upon their release can be jailed for up to 15 years, under the new law.

That controversial law was pushed through the House in the wake of the Surabaya attacks by the administration of President Joko Widodo, which argued that we needed better laws to keep everyone safe.


Some rights groups say the new law goes too far. And others say it relies too heavily on a flawed assessment of what "radicalism" even means.

It’s not easy to measure radicalism," said Siti Darojatul Aliah, of the humanitarian agency Serve Indonesia. "How can we say someone is radical? The rehabilitation program won’t solve the problem if it’s still done the same way. Most of them still have the same radical ideologies when they leave rehab."

Another core problem with the program is an over-reliance on the idea that money can fix the problem. The government has an assistance program that aims to keep returnees away from their old support networks by providing them with some cash to restart their lives. But this kind of program, when it's used too much, fails to take into account all the other factors that go into someone's radicalization.

“There are so many reasons why someone becomes radicalized," Siti told VICE. "It can be a personal factor, like revenge. They need to explore the root causes in each case.”

Then there's the issue of women and children. Government anti-terrorism agencies lack a special program for women and children who returned from the Islamic State. Instead, they are often overlooked by programs that have, historically, placed greater emphasis on fighting-aged men.

“There are no programs related to deportants yet, especially special program for women," explained Sidney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC). "There should be a program to help them live [in a new environment]."

Women have taken on an increasingly central role in terrorism in recent years. Female migrant workers in Hong Kong, for example, have been active recruiters, fundraisers, and agents for ISIS. And here in Indonesia, at least 13 women have been detained recently for their roles in terrorist groups. Without a concentrated effort to monitor, and deradicalize, all returnees, regardless of their genders, there's no way to truly fend off another attack.

"The government and academics have institutions to solve the problem, but they don’t see women as key actor in radical movement,” said Lies Marcoes, researcher and activist in Rumah Kita Bersama.