The recent arrest of a militant Indonesian maid who had worked in Singapore has forced security agencies and experts to reassess how they counter violent extremism among Muslims in Southeast Asia and to rethink common assumptions of why people become radicalised.
Poverty and ideology have long been assumed the two main drivers of militancy, particularly in the post-September 11 era, but experts are increasingly coming to a more nuanced view in which these are just two factors among many in a more complex equation.
Experts at a recent regional forum on violent extremism in Kuala Lumpur said there was increasing evidence that people joining or aligning themselves with the Islamic State (IS) terror group were fuelled by a combustible mix of feelings – including political helplessness, an attraction to extremist ideology, loneliness and a need to belong to a cause bigger than themselves.
“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,” United States Department of Justice official Travis Smith told the forum, which was organised by Malaysian think tank IMAN Research.
Smith’s suggestion chimes with the findings of a scholar at the Institute for Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) who studied cases of Indonesian domestic helpers radicalised while working in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
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. Their first taste of such ideology would usually be through the internet and social media sites such as Facebook, said the expert.
“Ninety-nine point nine per cent of Indonesian migrant workers are good, hard-working people. These maids are a tiny minority whose experiences abroad make them vulnerable to being recruited,” the researcher said on the sidelines of the conference.
He estimated such problem cases numbered in the dozens. In comparison, the Migration Policy Institute estimates there are 430,000 Indonesian migrant workers overseas, nearly one third of whom are domestic helpers.
Experiences that left domestic helpers vulnerable included feelings of loneliness and isolation from their families in Indonesia. Some maids became 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, said the scholar.
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Some maids were sympathetic to the sufferings of Muslims in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, while others mirrored their male counterparts 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 DoJ official, said IS’ slick recruitment videos were aimed at inspiring feelings of belonging, fraternity and duty to a higher cause.
“They have similarities to armed forces recruitment videos in how they inspire people,” Smith told the conference.
Once pulled into the orbit of IS’ world-view, some maids were then shunned by their own expatriate community – pushing them further into the extremists’ embrace, said the Ipac expert.
“ISIS is good at creating an ideology that can be personalised,” said the researcher. 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. On December 10, Dian Yulia Novi, 27, was arrested along with six others as they plotted to bomb the presidential office complex in Jakarta, Indonesia. Dian Yulia, who had also worked in Taiwan, told Indonesian TV station TVOne she had become radicalised while working in Singapore.
Dian Yulia’s story and the experiences of other radicalised maids, resonates with the findings of Dr Matteo Vergani of Deakin University in Australia.
An expert on political psychology, Vergani has investigated the social, political and personal backgrounds of violent extremists to discern why some people make the jump to taking up arms while others remain passive supporters.
Vergani said his studies suggested 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,” Vergani said.
“It’s always a combination of these.”