‘Victims and perpetrators’: Rehabilitating Indonesia’s child bombers

JAKARTA (AFP) – 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 radicalised, there were concerns for her future after the Islamic State (IS) extremist group-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 re-integrate returning IS extremists and their relatives as the extremist group’s so-called “caliphate” lies in ruins, a challenge faced by many nations including France and the United States (US).

“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.

Picture taken on May 10 shows childen, whose parents were suicide bombers or those directly involved in terror plots, attending a religious function during the holy fasting month of Ramadhan in a mosque at a safe house in Jakarta. – AFP

Social workers and psychologists are trying to re-socialise the children with counselling 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 last year’s 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 extremist indoctrination by their families and often shown violent propaganda, counsellors said.

Gaining their trust has not been easy, but staff at the safe house believe their approach could help neutralise the years of radicalisation.

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 Al-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 Director of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Sidney Jones.

While children are easy prey for extremists, “that vulnerability can also provide a starting point for treatment”, said Haula Noor, an expert in radicalised families at Australian National University (ANU).

“We should view these children as both victims as well as potential perpetrators,” she added.

A surge in extremist 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 -year-old and 12-year-old girl – from the same study group staged suicide bombings at several Surabaya locations, killing themselves and a dozen others, while injuring scores more.

Incidents such as these and more have aggravated international fears that women and their children would be increasingly used, as they tend to attract less scrutiny.

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.

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-radicalisation programmes 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,” Head of the National Agency for Combating Terrorism Suhardi Alius told AFP.

Experts said successful rehabilitation comes down to the support they receive assimilating back into society.