Thrown off a motorbike as her parents blew themselves up, nine-year-old Mila was the sole survivor of a family suicide bombing, part of a wave of such attacks involving children that rocked Indonesia.
Orphaned and radicalized, there were concerns for her future after the Islamic State-inspired strike, but a renewed focus on rehabilitating the children of terror suspects may offer Mila, and others like her, a chance at normality.
She is among a small group who are being treated at a Jakarta safe house in a unique scheme that provides psychological and social care to the offspring of suicide bombers or children directly involved in terror plots. The world’s biggest Muslim majority nation is grappling with the growing global threat of ‘family attacks’ and also with how to reintegrate returning I.S. jihadists and their relatives as the extremist group’s caliphate lies in ruins, a challenge faced by many nations including France and the United States.
“It hasn’t been easy dealing with [the children] because they believed in radicalism…and that bombing was a good thing,” said safe-house head Neneng Heryani, who gave AFP exclusive access to the state-run compound on the edge of Indonesia’s capital. “They were taught that jihad was essential to go to heaven and that you must kill non-believers. It was very hard to change that mindset,” she added.
Social workers and psychologists are trying to re-socialize the children with counseling and an emphasis on normal daily routines, which include lessons, mosque visits, and regular playtime.
For Mila—a name given by AFP to protect her identity—this treatment means helping her find a way to cope with her parents’ suicide bombing and living with the knowledge they involved her in mass murder, and intended for her to die.
Other children of terror suspects, including those linked to the deadly suicide bombings in Surabaya last year, are also undergoing this dedicated treatment. “Deploying children in such a way is indefensible and deplorable,” Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono said, adding that the 2018 incidents were the first time suicide bombers used their own kids in attacks in Indonesia.
The youngsters that survived had been subjected to years of jihadi indoctrination by their families and often shown violent propaganda, counselors say. Gaining their trust has not been easy but staff at the safe house believe their approach could help neutralize the years of radicalization.
At the heart of the rehabilitation effort are lessons about Indonesia’s national heroes, building trust and Pancasila, the nation’s ideology which stresses unity and respect for ethnic and religious minorities in a country of some 260 million spread across thousands of islands.
“We still teach them that the Quran is the foundation for everything and that they have to believe in it. But if you violate other people’s rights, then that’s not okay,” said social worker Sri Musfiah Handayani.
Trying to help rehabilitate the children of suicide bombers is largely uncharted territory. “This is the first time that we know of. It’s not a common phenomenon,” said Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).
While children are easy prey for extremists, “that vulnerability can also provide a starting point for treatment,” said Haula Noor, an expert in radicalized families at Australian National University (ANU). “We should view these children as both victims as well as potential perpetrators,” she added.
A surge in Islamist attacks in the past decade has dented Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance. Mila was wedged between her parents on a motorcycle as they detonated themselves at a Surabaya police post last May.
That attack came after another family—including a nine and 12-year-old girl—from the same Quran study group staged suicide bombings at several Surabaya churches, killing themselves and a dozen congregants, while injuring scores more. Then, in March, the wife of a suspected Indonesian militant blew up herself and child at their home after an hours-long standoff with police.
The incidents have aggravated international fears that women and their children would be increasingly used, as they tend to attract less scrutiny.
“There are going to be two main trends in the future—attacks carried out by families and also by lone wolves,” said Stanislaus Riyanta, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia.
In April, the pregnant wife of one of those involved in the Sri Lanka bombings that left nearly 260 dead, detonated her own suicide vest killing herself, her three young children, and several police officers when authorities raided their home.
When AFP visited the safe house she now calls home, Mila, dressed in a bright pink hijab, appeared bubbly as she took notes and asked questions during lessons. She had never had any type of formal schooling before. “The progress has been very significant. Now she can interact with people,” said social worker Sri Musfiah Handayani.
The children kissed the hand of an AFP reporter as they filed out, a common sign of respect in Indonesia.
While the treatment for Mila and her group is unique because it is specifically for children who have been involved in suicide bomb plots, Indonesia has broader de-radicalization programs, which some 200 children, all related to militants, have been through. “We need to approach them gently because they were willing to die [for the cause] so it doesn’t make sense for us to use force,” said Suhardi Alius, head of the National Agency for Combating Terrorism.
Experts say successful rehabilitation comes down to the support they receive assimilating back into society. Officials are working on a support plan for the safe-house kids to ensure they receive healthcare and education after their treatment. But extended families are often wary about taking the children in—and that could be a trigger for returning to extremism later in life. Noor said: “There is a strong possibility they’ll fall back into the parents’ ideology if the stigma remains.”