What would have caused an Indonesian maid in Singapore to turn towards ISIS?

The Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen said in his post on Facebook, “The recent attack in a Christmas market in Berlin and the arrests in Jakarta of terrorists with explosives remind us that terrorism is a clear and present danger, but we must not allow this fear to rob us of our way of life. If we do, then terrorists have already won.”

The arrest of a militant Indonesian maid who had worked in Singapore two weeks ago (10 Dec) has forced security agencies and experts to reconsider how to counter violent Muslims extremists in Southeast Asia and to rethink common assumptions of why people become radicalised.

Police officers guard a neighborhood in Bintara Jaya subdistrict, Bekasi, West Java, on Saturday after the National Police’s Densus 88 counterterrorism squad found a high explosive bomb in one of the houses in the area, along with a woman who was allegedly designated to detonate the bomb at the Presidential Palace compound in Jakarta / photo: thejakartapost.com
Police officers guard a neighborhood in Bintara Jaya subdistrict, Bekasi, West Java, on Saturday after the National Police’s Densus 88 counterterrorism squad found a high explosive bomb in one of the houses in the area, along with a woman who was allegedly designated to detonate the bomb at the Presidential Palace compound in Jakarta / photo: thejakartapost.com

The common assumptions have long assumed that poverty and ideology are the two main urges of militancy, but experts are realising that these are just two factors among many in a more complex problem.

SCMP reported that experts at a recent regional forum on violent extremism in Kuala Lumpur, organised by IMAN Research, said there was increasing evidence that people joining or aligning themselves with the Islamic State (IS) terror group were fueled by a combustible mix of feelings, including:

  • Political helplessness,
  • Attraction to extremist ideology,
  • Loneliness and a need to belong to a cause bigger than themselves.

The US Department of Justice official, Travis Smith, said in the forum, “There has to be more focus on the mayor and the mother. Meaning that the local community and family that an individual grows up in plays a very important part in building resilience against extremism.”

The findings of an expert at the Institute for Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) who studied cases of Indonesian domestic helpers radicalised while working in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, corresponds with Smith idea.

The Ipac expert said these helpers were not driven purely by poverty or ideology, but that a multitude of factors combined to push them towards extremist ideology. He said their first taste of such ideology would usually be through the internet and social media sites such as Facebook.

The Ipac scholar explained more, “Experiences that left domestic helpers vulnerable included feelings of loneliness and isolation from their families in Indonesia. Some domestic helpers become depressed after leaving their children at home while they looked after their employers’ children in a foreign country.”

“Mistreatment was also an issue, with problems such as having travel documents seized by their employer or being forced to cook pork, which is forbidden to Muslims,” the scholar said.

Some maids were sympathetic to the sufferings of Muslims in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, while others followed their male partners in joining IS out of a sense of adventure or to repent for past sins.

“They seek a sense of social belonging and something more meaningful so they turn to Facebook and it is here they are pulled into IS,” the researcher said.

Smith, the US Department of Justice official, said IS’ slick recruitment videos were aimed at inspiring feelings of belonging, fraternity and duty to a higher cause, SCMP wrote.

Smith told the conference, “They have similarities to armed forces recruitment videos in how they inspire people.”

Converted to the IS’ world-view, some maids were then avoided by their own community, pushing them further into the extremists’ embrace, said the Ipac expert.

“ISIS is good at creating an ideology that can be personalised,” he said.

Some of the women married men in Syria and joined their husbands in the conflict zone, some were involved in fundraising while at least one has taken on a combat role: Indonesian Dian Yulia Novi (27).

On December 10, Dian was arrested along with six others as they plotted to bomb the presidential office complex in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Dian Yuliana Novi / photo: tvone
Dian Yuliana Novi / photo: tvone

Dian Yulia, who had also worked in Taiwan, told Indonesian TV station TVOne she had become radicalised while working in Singapore.

An expert on political psychology, Dr Matteo Vergani of Deakin University in Australia has investigated the personal, social, and political backgrounds of violent extremists to understand why some people take up arms while others remain passive supporters.

Vergani said his studies indicated a combination of ‘social push’, ‘group pull’ and ‘personal vulnerability’.

For instance, in the case of a domestic helper, an individual might be ‘pushed’ by feelings of exploitation in the foreign country, while their estrangement from their family made them vulnerable to being ‘pulled’ into an IS Facebook group which offered a sense of belonging.

“Not one factor is strong enough, whether it is ideology or political disenfranchisement. Not all lonely people become extremists either; it’s always a combination of these.” Vergani said.

Early this year, Malaysiakini also has reported six Malaysians were charged with experimenting with explosives in order to attack key ‘vice’ areas in Kuala Lumpur. Plots targeting Putrajaya were also reported.

 

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