Online Radicalisation of the Indonesian Diaspora
This article assesses instances of online radicalisation among a fringe of Indonesia’s diaspora community. Although not a new phenomenon, the problem has been exacerbated in recent years alongside the proliferation of social media. First, the role of online narratives in radicalising segments of Indonesia’s diaspora to partake in terror-related activities is examined. Some potential steps the Indonesian government can take to tackle this issue are then discussed. Mainly, it is argued there is a need to develop a systematic preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) campaign that amplifies positive narratives and credible voices in order to challenge the narratives of radical groups. This should be complemented by efforts to strengthen diplomatic engagement with various host countries of vulnerable Indonesian diaspora communities, so as to build better capabilities to degrade, detect and respond to terror threats.
Social media has greatly diminished the barriers to joining violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). Since 2014, in tandem with the rise of IS, the global threat landscape has witnessed a shift from “collective action” towards “connective action”. The former is characterised by formal organisational control and a stronger collective identity.
In such instances, an individual typically first joins an extremist group and is then directed by the group to commit an act of terror. By contrast, the latter, spurred by mediating technologies, tends towards self-organised digital networks with a fluid ideological identity onto which diverse individuals can project themselves. An individual may join a terror group based on a connection forged over social media, but may never meet a member of said group in real life.
Connective action is especially relevant today given IS has recalibrated its online strategy to promote a decentralised virtual caliphate. Advances in information and communication technology have also amplified the proliferation of extremist ideas online, and exacerbated the funding, movement and recruitment activities of IS and other extremist networks.
In this regard, radicalisation among vulnerable segments of migrant and refugee communities in parts of the world by IS has come under the spotlight in recent years. While most venture overseas in search of a better life, some migrants can be radicalised owing to a failure to integrate into the host country as well as social, economic and cultural discrimination or marginalisation. In the hands of IS and other terror groups, the internet and social media have become effective tools in the radicalisation process.
Indonesia’s diaspora population is estimated at more than 10 million people. Many Indonesians have ventured abroad for educational advancement, but a significant portion has also taken up jobs as nurses, caregivers, plantation workers, domestic workers, professional workers and more, mainly in parts of Asia, the Middle East and the West. A fringe group of this diaspora has been involved in violent extremism.
While official estimates are scarce, Indonesia’s Financial Transaction Report and Analysis Centre, locally known as PPATK, has observed that one of the threats spawned by online radicalisation among the Indonesian diaspora is in relation to terrorism financing activities. The PPATK cited that terrorism financial flows involving the diaspora from overseas into Indonesia are prevalent in the United States (US), Malaysia, Philippines, Australia and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the flow of funds for terror-related activities from Indonesia overseas has been observed in Malaysia, Philippines, Australia, the US and Singapore.
Indonesia’s National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) has also estimated that between 2013 and 2017, more than 2,150 Indonesians travelled to the Syria-Iraq theatre to join IS. As of 2021, there were 115 Indonesians still held in the al-Hol, al-Roj and Ain Issa camps in northeast Syria, although the actual number could be higher due to the difficulty of verifying identities and nationalities of people in the camps.
This paper identifies two groups in the Indonesian diaspora for whom the virtual space plays a significant role in their experiences of extremism, albeit in different ways. The first, Indonesian domestic migrant workers, can be described as vulnerable targets of online radicalisation, in that their experiences abroad make them especially vulnerable to extremist propaganda online. The second, Indonesian nationals in Syrian displaced persons camps, are resilient producers of pro-IS online propaganda – in spite of organisational setbacks, counter terrorism efforts, social media takedowns etc., they continue to create, spread and recycle propaganda online – which has security implications beyond Indonesia.
- Indonesian Domestic Migrant Workers
Radicalisation among segments of Indonesian domestic migrant workers is often a complex, multi-dimensional process. A useful starting point may be to consider the potential link between radicalisation and social marginalisation/alienation.
Individuals who have experienced personal trauma (e.g., abuse, divorce, culture shock) and/or perceived maltreatment by society, can in some instances experience a loss of significance or self-worth. As such, they may be attracted by opportunities to restore their sense of self-significance. This could make them vulnerable to the persuasive rhetoric of extremist groups like IS, which promise honour and eternal martyrdom through (their version of) jihad.
The desire to belong can lead vulnerable individuals, including migrant workers feeling an acute sense of alienation, to join extremist groups. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable as they experience ‘dual alienation’ – a lack of integration and/or acceptance into the mainstream society of their host country as well as disassociation with their home country and family.
Recent case studies involving Indonesian migrant workers also illustrate how certain vulnerabilities to radicalisation can be rooted in upbringing and family dysfunction. The story of Indonesian domestic migrant worker Ika Puspitasari is a case in point. As the eldest of six from a broken home – her father left the family for another woman and her mother was mentally ill – Ika felt responsible for her family’s survival and future, which led her to move overseas to work as a domestic helper in Malaysia and Hong Kong.
With a rural background and limited formal education, Ika experienced “a culture shock” when she arrived in Hong Kong. She turned to alcohol, drugs and romantic relationships to “escape” from her “life problems”. However, she later felt great remorse over her “many sins” and went on social media to try to learn more about Islam. There, she was gradually exposed to the narratives of IS, which seemed to offer her an instant solution to absolution and redemption.
In 2014, when former IS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph and the group controlled swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, Ika felt attracted to the idea of living in a caliphate governed under shariah. To demonstrate her support of IS, she changed her clothing style and friendship circle. She also uncritically consumed IS narratives almost every day.
In mid-2016, she decided to plan and conduct a terror attack, aided by her online IS group and husband, whom she had met online and subsequently married. They created a dedicated group on Telegram and appointed a member named Azzam, to fulfil the suicide mission. However, this plan was disrupted by the Indonesian police and Azzam was placed on a ‘wanted list’. Having already invested (financially and psychologically) in the operation, Ika volunteered to replace Azzam as the suicide bomber.
The plan was foiled again when her husband and other members of the online IS group were arrested in mid-2016. Ika was later deported from Hong Kong in October 2016. Back in Indonesia, she planned for another suicide bombing in Bali on New Year’s Eve, but was arrested by the Indonesian authorities in December 2016 before she could realise the attack.
Ika’s radicalisation process took place solely within the online space – she “never met any of the people from the Daulah (the name for IS supporters in Indonesia)”. But Ika’s case is not exceptional.
An earlier 2017 report by the Institute for the Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) identified at least 50 Indonesian domestic workers who had taken part in online extremist discussion groups – 43 in Hong Kong, four in Singapore and three in Taiwan. Many had embarked on the pathway of radicalisation to violent extremism via jihadi social media (with the war in Syria a particular lodestone). They were then drawn further into pro-IS networks through personal relationships with militants online, some of whom later became their boyfriends and husbands. Over time, these women were groomed into propagandists, liaisons, financiers and would-be suicide bombers.
By mid-2017, of these 50 domestic workers, four had travelled to Syria to join IS, 16 had returned to Indonesia, and eight were deported from the abovementioned host countries or from Turkey while en route to Syria.
Although small in number, the cases above illustrate the correlation between exposure to marginalisation (which migrant workers often face) and vulnerability to the radical rhetoric promulgated by extremist groups online. At the same time, it should also be acknowledged that offline dynamics still persist and remain influential in many instances, including participation by vulnerable individuals in offline Islamic study groups with members of pro-IS networks.
- Indonesian Nationals in Syrian Refugee Camps
The Indonesian government presently has no repatriation policy for pro-IS Indonesian nationals in displaced persons camps in Syria, although it has debated repatriating children under 10 years of age on a case-by-case basis. This has stirred concerns over (the lack of) preparedness at the national and local government levels in safely and effectively managing such deportees. Meanwhile, a number of Indonesian nationals based in the Syrian camps are still actively spreading pro-IS content online, even as the overall volume of such content declines.
Broadly speaking, three types of narratives can be observed from their social media:
- Ideological narratives including Al-Wala’ wal-Bara’ (loyalty and disavowal); the prohibition of democracy; caliphate ideals; taghut/taghout (any focus of worship other than Allah) and more.
- Informative narratives such as news on the victories of IS over its enemies or how many people were martyred in attacks.
- Narrative content that promotes life in Syria under IS leadership, such as the ample provision of daily necessities; Islamic healthcare; taaruf
Narratives that encourage individuals to assist IS through militant acts, fund-raising and donations, among others, have also been detected online. An Indonesian national held in one of the Syrian camps said in an interview that “demonstrating support for [the] IS cause on social media [would] help them to get donations from IS supporters not only [in] Indonesia but also [in] Turkey, France, Germany and the UK”. One of the methods commonly used to move such funds is cryptocurrency, she added.
Additionally, detailed guidelines on how to make firearms and bombs can be found on IS-linked Telegram groups and on websites created by Bahrun Naim, a senior Indonesian IS militant who was killed in Syria in 2016. Other narratives cover topics on Islamic healthcare and lifestyle. Taken together, they aim to strengthen IS followers’ confidence in pro-IS groups in Indonesia as well as nationals based in the Syrian camps.
Based on anecdotal accounts, two Indonesian ummahat (literally “mothers”, but in this context used to denote female IS sympathisers), Winda Permatasari and Ummu Azzam Hurayroh, who currently reside in the al-Hol camp, are very prominent among some pro-IS circles. By sharing their personal experiences of hijrah and updates on activities in the camp on Facebook, they panegyrise life under IS and encourage fellow pro-IS supporters to wage jihad and perform hijrah to the land of Syam (Syria).
Winda Permatasari has had her account taken down at least three times over the past two years but she persists in creating new accounts, which are then promoted by other ummahat once she appears online again. Ummu Azzam Hurayroh often posts calls for jihad, declaring that the “ISISer” (a term for IS supporters in Indonesia) should work individually and collectively to carry out lone-wolf attacks and to seize weapons from the police and military. For example, in a Facebook post dated December 29, 2021, she provided advice to scared mujahideen, stating that there are many ways to conduct jihad even if one does not emigrate to Syria, including by spreading terror amongst the taghut people in one’s home country. Her Facebook post received 108 reactions (likes and comments).
Two more Indonesian women in an unidentified refugee camp also run pro-IS Facebook accounts under the names Umm Maryam Asy Syami and Ruang Rindu. Both have a relatively extensive reach, with a single posting able to generate up to 100 comments and almost 300 likes. While Ruang Rindu’s postings highlight daily life in Syria, Umm Maryam Asy Syami uses her platform to provoke strong emotions in her audience and thus galvanise their commitment to the IS cause.
These ummahat have also become a medium for Indonesian pro-IS supporters to voice their complaints. Their willingness to actively engage pro-IS supporters in cyberspace and their persistence in producing and disseminating pro-IS content on social media help to perpetuate the hold that IS and its narratives exert over the vulnerable.
However, Indonesian pro-IS supporters in displaced persons camps have not limited their activities to social media alone. In 2022, five Indonesian nationals – Dwi Dahlia Susanti, Rudi Heryadi, Ari Kardian, Muhammad Dandi Adhiguna and Dini Ramadhani27 – were sanctioned by the United States for their role in facilitating extremist activities in Syria and elsewhere. Susanti, Heryadi and Kardian live in the al-Hol camp in Syria, while Adhiguna and Ramadhani are believed to reside in Kayseri, Turkey. The network allegedly helped pro-IS supporters in Indonesia to travel to Syria and other IS-dominated areas; and facilitated money transfers between Indonesia, Turkey and Syria that were used to, inter alia, purchase weapons and smuggle children out of the camps to IS recruiters in other Syrian governorates.
The involvement in terror-related activities of segments of the Indonesian diaspora, such as domestic migrant workers and displaced persons in refugee camps, illustrates the enduring role of ideology in terrorist recruitment. There is an observable connection between factors linked to personal problems, including the ‘need’ to restore self-worth or find a sense of belonging, and vulnerability to radical narratives. This is because the narratives actively propagated online by violent extremist groups like IS appear to provide solutions to the perceived needs of vulnerable individuals, promising personal empowerment, honour in the community, rewards in the afterlife etc. through the conduct of jihad.
These diasporic cases illustrate the importance of exposing the community to more positive Islamic narratives, which can act as better models of beliefs and behaviours for the vulnerable segments of the Indonesian diaspora. In this regard, moderate Islamic groups like Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which are widespread and highly respected in Indonesia, can be better leveraged by the authorities, who need to mitigate the persistence of radical narratives both in the country and elsewhere. Unlike IS and other Islamist extremist groups, Muhammadiyah and NU are mindful of the importance of contextual understanding when it comes to teaching about jihad. The government should therefore further their work with religious associations and civil society organisations to promote the teachings of moderate Islam in order to counter extremist narratives.
Indeed, the Indonesian government, particularly the BNPT and the National Police’s Detachment 88, have attempted to amplify ‘credible voices’ in order to counter terrorist messaging. To that end, they have tapped former militants (who have since been rehabilitated) to share stories about their journeys into and out of extremist networks. Adopting a peer-to-peer approach by using such credible voices can be an effective means to deter and disengage extremist sympathisers online. However, where this P/CVE strategy falls short is its lack of context – and gender-specific responses – to the individual causes of radicalisation, including among the diaspora. It is thus critical to develop a P/CVE policy which acknowledges and addresses the distinct processes of and drivers towards violent extremism experienced by different genders and different individuals.
Additionally, there is a need to comprehensively profile the Indonesian diaspora in conflict zones such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and southern Philippines to identify potential vulnerable groups and develop appropriate strategies for early intervention. Non-governmental organisations that provide humanitarian aid in conflict zones should also be closely monitored to ensure that they are not misused by terrorists for money laundering, terrorism financing and other nefarious purposes.
Finally, the Indonesian government should strengthen ties with countries hosting significant Indonesian diaspora communities to improve the integration of migrant workers within mainstream society and address issues of marginalisation and alienation.
About the Author
Noor Huda Ismail is a Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash
 Daniel Lundgaard and Liana Razmerita, “Connective Versus Collective Action in Social Movements: A Study of Co-Creation of Online Communities,” (presentation, Connected Life 2016, University of Oxford, Oxford, June 21-22, 2016), https://research.cbs.dk/en/publications/connective-versus-collective-action-in-social-movements-a-study-o.
 Dounia Mahlouly, “ISIS: From Connective Action to Transnational Insurgency?” VOX-Pol, September 6, 2017, https://www.voxpol.eu/isis-connective-action-transnational-insurgency/.
 Mathew Lauren Bin Bukit, “Risk of Radicalisation Among Segments of the Indonesian Diaspora,” RSIS Think Tank, May 23, 2022, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-event-article/rsis/187332/.
 Committee on Migration, Refugees and Displaced Persons, Radicalisation of Migrants and Diaspora Communities in Europe (Strasbourg: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 2018), https://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-en.asp?fileid=25054&lang=en.
 “Indonesian Diaspora Around the World: Who Are They?” ASEAN Trade Union Council, November 22, 2016, https://aseantuc.org/2016/11/indonesian-diaspora-around-the-world-who-are-they/.
 Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (PPATK), Terrorism Financing South-East Asia & Australia: Regional Risk Assessment 2016 (Jakarta: PPATK, 2016), https://www.ppatk.go.id/backend/assets/images/publikasi/1528345294_.PDF.
 Alif Satria, “Swift Action Needed on Indonesians in Islamic State Refugee Camps,” BenarNews, May 20, 2022, https://www.benarnews.org/english/commentaries/column-swift-action-needed-on-indonesians-in-islamic-state-refugee-camps-05202022151342.html.
 Alif Satria, “Contemporary Organizational Dynamics of Indonesian Terrorists,” (presentation, CENS Countering Extremism Workshop, Centre of Excellence for National Security, Singapore, November 8-10, 2021), https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/RSP-Workshop-Report_211215-JF_CS_15-December-2021.pdf.
 These anecdotes are based on the author’s field research.
 Ika was initially exposed to some of IS’ social media accounts and read a post about the Kepunton Solo Church bombing in 2011. Oddly, she perceived the incident, which involved the detonation of a suicide bomb amongst a Christian congregation, as an act of heroism against the enemy of Islam. The attack wounded at least 20 people.
 These findings are based on the author’s research.
 Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, “The Radicalisation of Indonesian Women Workers in Hong Kong,” IPAC Report No. 39 (2017), http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2017/07/IPAC_Report_39.pdf.
 Ibid; for instance, Tarsih (not her real name), another Indonesian migrant worker based in Hong Kong who had been radicalised online, was deported from Turkey in January 2017 after she attempted to enter Syria to join the boyfriend she had met on Facebook.
 “WNI Eks ISIS Tidak Dipulangkan, Bagaimana Nasib Anak-Anak?” Deutsche Welle News, February 12, 2020, https://www.dw.com/id/pemerintah-tolak-pulangkan-wni-eks-isis-bagaimana-nasib-anak-anak/a-52345958.
 At the height of IS’ operations, pro-IS supporters in Indonesia took to social media (Twitter, Telegram, Facebook etc.) in their thousands to celebrate IS’ battlefield conquests and spread official propaganda. Since 2016, however, the concerted efforts of governments, tech companies and civil society has led to platform takedowns, real-world counter terrorism gains, and counter and alternative narrative initiatives by civil society organisations, among others. Moreover, many Indonesian pro-IS supporters seem to have lost narrative steam on social media, resorting to recycling old content. See Jordan Newton, “Indonesian Pro-IS Supporters on Social Media in 2022: Surviving Not Thriving,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Vol. 14, No. 3 (2022), https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/CTTA-June-2022.pdf.
 Author’s interview with a female Indonesian national in a Syrian refugee camp via WhatsApp on April 1, 2023. In February 2016, at the age of 21, she travelled to Syria and married an IS supporter from Algeria, who later died in an armed clash. She now lives in the al-Roj Camp with her 5-year-old son.
 Jordan Newton, “Indonesian Pro-IS Supporters on Social Media in 2022: Surviving Not Thriving,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses Vol. 14, No. 3 (2022), https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/CTTA-June-2022.pdf.
 Ummu Azzam Hurayroh, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/100058170125790/posts/337152021567133/?app=fbl.
 Based on ICPVTR’s research.
 For example, in a posting from February 1, 2023, Umm Maryam Asy Syami wrote about a recent incident where 23 women and children in her camp were shot by guards as they tried to escape, accusing male pro-IS supporters (who comprise the majority of her Facebook friends) of neglecting jihad and failing to “protect [their] sisters”. Many of her Facebook friends commented on the post, saying they felt guilty and apologising for not being able to help her, although there was no mention of carrying out retaliatory attacks or performing hijrah to Syria. Based on ICPVTR’s research.
27 Office of Foreign Assets Control, Counter Terrorism Designations: Specially Designated Nationals List Update (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2022), https://ofac.treasury.gov/recent-actions/20220509.
 Office of Foreign Assets Control, Treasury Designates Facilitation Network Supporting ISIS Members in Syria (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2022), https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0772.
 “US Targets Islamic State Financiers in Turkey, Syria, Indonesia,” Al-Monitor, May 10, 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/05/us-targets-islamic-state-financiers-turkey-syria-indonesia.
 Ali Mustofa, “5 WNI Masuk Daftar Hitam Amerika Gegara ISIS, Ada yang Kenal?” JPNN.com, May 10, 2022, https://bali.jpnn.com/politik/15382/5-wni-masuk-daftar-hitam-amerika-gegara-isis-ada-yang-kenal.