Surabaya Attacks Shine Light on Indonesia's Juvenile Jihadist Problem

Four of the six attackers in the first string of suicide bombings were children.

by Adi Renaldi
15 May 2018, 8:07am

A police officer holds up a photograph of the terrorist family. Photo by Nanda Andrianta/Antara Foto/ via Reuters

It's hard to parse the outrage and sorrow after the kind of terrorist attacks that hit church services in Surabaya Sunday morning. There's the shock and pain that follows any terrorist attack, the disbelief at the number of dead and about another human's capacity to inflict this much pain. But Sunday's attacks added a new element to the sadly routine national discourse that follows a terrorist attack—the use of children.

This was the first time in Indonesia that so many members of the same family were involved in a terrorist attack. At the Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church, mother Puji Kuswati had her two young daughters, ages nine and 12, in tow when she set off her suicide belt. And the girls weren't just tragic bystanders caught in the blast of their mother's attack either. They both were outfitted by their parents with explosive belts of their own, according to police.

Minutes later, her remaining children, both of them teenaged boys, drove motorbikes up to the Santa Maria Catholic Church and detonated their own suicide bombs. Her husband took his own life in a suicide attack at a third church as well when his explosives filled vehicle blew up.

It's hard to reconcile this kind of tragic violence with the photographs of the family making their rounds on social media today. In one photo, its impossible to look at the faces of the children and not see a sense innocence.

But there's an uncomfortable truth here as well. Child soldiers have long been used by terrorists and warlords in conflict zones, including in areas controlled by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq where the terrorist organization has gone to great lengths to indoctrinate women and children with their brutal ideology.

“In their propaganda, ISIS targets the women to bind their children in the teachings of a pure Islamic nation,” said Sidney Jones, the director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), at a seminar on child soldiers earlier this month. “The children never had a choice.”

Puji, her husband, and their children had all just returned from Syria, where they lived under ISIS rule. There were, according to some estimates, as many as 700 Indonesians in Syria and Iraq at the height of ISIS' rule, and nearly 100 of those were children. Now, as these Indonesians return home in the wake of ISIS' collapse, local authorities are having to come to terms with a new kind of Islamic radical in their midst—children who grew up inside the Islamic State.

It's these children, the sons and daughters of parents who brought them to the Islamic State, that are most in need of rehabilitation. But under the current law, the authorities can't arrest returnees from overseas ISIS territory or put their children into rehab programs, like the one run by a former terrorist in North Sumatra that hopes to rehabilitate the children of arrested and killed Indonesian jihadists.

Watch: This Indonesian School Is Deradicalizing The Children Of Convicted Terrorists

"A family waging a terrorist attack is nothing new to Indonesia, we have seen it when Bali bombing occurred, the perpetrators there were all relatives," said Solahudin, the head of the Social Conflict and Terrorism Research Center at the University of Indonesia. "What's new to Indonesia is a terrorist attack that was carried by woman and kids from the same family."

But the thing is, as shocking as the use of children in the Surabaya attacks is, it's something we would've seen coming—if we were only paying attention. That's because back in September of 2016, the death of an Indonesian child in small Syrian city more than 150 kilometers north of Raqqa showed that, for ISIS, children were fair game for the battlefield.

Haft Saiful Rasul was carrying an AK-47 on patrol in the city of Jarablus when he was killed in a US coalition air strike. He was two months shy of 13 at the time of his death, according to a Reuters investigation that looked into his death one year later.

Haft wasn't radicalized in Syria. He chose to move to ISIS territory with his aunt and uncle after his father was jailed for playing a role in the bombing of a crowded marketplace in Tentena, Poso, back in 2005 that left 22 dead and at least 40 others injured.

The boy visited his father in jail and asked his permission to move to Syria to wage jihad. His father, a man named Syaiful Anam, or Brekele in militant circles, was proud of his son's decision and gave him his blessing to join ISIS, according to a memoir the jailed terrorist penned behind bars.

"Alhamdulillah, I also wanted Haft to go, but I wasn't sure if Haft was ready or not," he wrote. "So when it was Haft himself who asked for it, and it was already approved by his mother, it was easier."

In Syria, Haft, then only 12 years old, joined a military training camp and graduated in a matter of months. His trainers gave the child an AK-47 assault rifle, a 9mm handgun, two grenades, and a compass and set him off to join a brigade of mostly French nationals in Aleppo.

In Raqqa, Haft had his first brush with death when he narrowly avoided a US coalition airstrike. Three of his friends died in the attack and Haft temporarily lost his hearing. It took him weeks to recover enough to be sent back out to the battlefield.

He wasn't lucky enough to survive the next air strike.

Watch: The VICE News report, ISIS are Leaving Behind Children No One Wants

Haft was radicalized right here in Indonesia. The young boy attended the Ibnu Mas'ud Islamic boarding school in Bogor, West Java, a satellite community of the Indonesian capital. There are tens of thousands of Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, and only a small percentage of them are accused of teaching children radical ideologies.

And while the staff of Ibnu Mas'ud have denied that the school is an extremist institution, the Reuters investigation found that at least a dozen teachers and students had left the school to move to Syria. Another 18 have been implicated in terrorist attacks throughout Indonesia in recent years.

Indonesia has invested heavily in its anti-terrorism efforts since the high-profile attacks of the mid-aughts, but these schools have been able to largely skirt the authorities. While some Islamic boarding schools, like the one founded by jailed terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir, have been implicated in so many terrorist attacks that the press has dubbed them "jihad factories," they still remain open.

And as long as there are radicalized children, in both Indonesia and abroad, there will be terrorist organizations looking to take advantage of these pint-sized militants.

"Why use kids and family members?" Solahudin asked. "That's the biggest question. Well one, it's related to safety. It's difficult for the police to track the plot because it was being planned at the smallest unit—the family.

"And two: the use of kids provokes other terrorist groups. It's almost like they're saying, 'if these kids could carry out a successful attack, then why can't you?' Using kids is far more effective when it comes to spreading the message than, say, if the suicide bomber was a man."

This article originally appeared on VICE ID.