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Youth And Jihadi Terrorism In The Indonesian Public Attention (1999-2011)

Jamhari Makruf and Mutiara Pratiwi


There is a growing awareness in Indonesia that terrorist cells tend to target the youth in recruitments. This alert has been particularly obvious since Indonesian television broadcasted a video of an 18-year old teenager being prepared to be blasted together with the Marriott Hotel on 17 July 2009. The video unfolded with his calm narration about sacrificing life in the name of religion. The Indonesian media had revealed to the nation a hard and ironical truth: that for some of their youth, it was their obligation to do jihad in the form of terrorist acts. It was an irony to acknowledge.


However, this interest in youth and jihadi terrorism did not exist a decade ago. This essay is an effort to understand how this concern has been evolving accross time in public discourses. It will reveal that the Indonesian public firstly refused to believe in any potential correlation between its youth and jihadi terrorism. This denial stage then transformed into the “discovery stage” when public took the issue seriously and tried to craft solutions for it. In advancing the analysis, this essay also elaborates on the reasons why Indonesian youth are vulnerable to radical tenets. The framework of “ontological insecurity” reveals that the growing up process from childhood into adulthood some people may get caught in an identity crises, in which he/she may be persuaded into radical activism.


As there is a lack of consensus on the definition of youth, this essay defines it as that stage of human development between the ages of 15 and 30, according to the definitions of youth in the United Nations’ and Indonesian legislation. The United Nations defines youth as those who are between the ages of 15 and 24, while in Indonesia youth is classified as persons between the ages of 16 and 30. Further, this essay chose to limit its study to the period of the post-Soeharto presidential era, from 1999 to April 2011. In many literatures, terror-related activism in this period had different nature than before. Terrorism in Indonesia during this period had more than national or local range and interests.


The first part of this essay focuses on understanding the increased attention paid by the Indonesian public to youth jihadi terrorism since 1999, followed by an elaboration on the alternative reasoning behind it.


Public Discovery: The Vulnerabilities of Youth Against Jihadi Terrorism

In 2011 the youth population in Indonesia is more than 62 million. Just like in many other countries, the youth in Indonesian society are perceived as the source of hope and energy for the nation to progress. Investing in the youth is a good cause to as it will help build a better future for the nation. Furthermore, Indonesian history acknowledges youth as the builders of nationalism. The revolution for independence against colonialism, the promotion of civil societies and nationalism were all engineered by the youth. The rights of the youth to opportunities and development is even being ruled under UU No. 40 2009. This law declares the youth to be assets for states and that they should be protected, respected, and included in national development.


Unfortunately, the involvement of some young Indonesians in jihadi terrorism betrays this trust in the youth. The elaboration below identifies how this concern over youth terrorism developed in Indonesian society. It explains the three different stages – ranging from denial, to curiosity, and finally to “discovery,” that transformed the Indonesian public’s awareness of youth jihadi terrorism.


The first stage is public denial of the idea that Indonesia has the potential for youth terrorism. In other words, there was no awareness yet that the youth were vulnerable to radical doctrine. This stage was during the period from 1999 to 2003, when Indonesia first acknowledged the emergence of jihadi terror cells in the country after experiencing a range of bombings in the name of Islamic solidarity. At that time, there were only few concerns about youth jihadi terrorism in public discourses. Rather than looking at what had gone wrong in Indonesian society, the public blamed external, radical agent provocateurs and to deny that there was a possibility of a terrorist nest in the country. Indeed, counterterrorism then was far less sophisticated than it is these days. The Indonesian government took years to finally catch the actors responsible for the series of bombings and to reveal their identity to the public. Most terror suspects who became prominentwere discovered at the age of 30s and 40s. Some of them are; the perpetrators of the Jakarta Stock Exchange bombing in 2000, Tengku Ismuhadi (30) and Nuryadin (29); and the perpetrators of the Bali Bombing, Imam Samudera (38), Amrozi (46), and Muklas (48). During this period, the public did not pay much attention to the fact that there were a group of youths among the convicted adults. Among them were Agus Hidayat (21) and Andri Octavianus (22), who had helped Imam Samudera fund the Bali bombing through committing robbery in the Serang-Banten Province. 


Secondly, there was the stage of curiosity about youth involvement in the radical Islam agenda. In the period between 2004 and 2008, more findings emerged about the radicalisation, of the youth, alarming the Indonesian public. The important contributors to this discourse were mostly scholars and researchers. They released investigation reports revealing that jihadi terrorism indeed not only had local cells, but also youth bases in some student Islamic organisations in campuses in Indonesia. Examples, Salman in Bandung Technological Institute (ITB); Jamaah Salahuddin in Gajah Mada University (UGM); and usrah in Bogor Agricultural University (IPB). These educated radicals want an Islamic state of Indonesia. While they may not systematically engage in terrorism, they are sympathisers of jihadi terrorism. Further, the rise of radical Islamic groups such as Islamic Defender Front (FPI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, and Forum Komunikasi Ahlussunah Wal Jamaah, which many youth were affiliated to, also contributed to alerting the public. These groups tended to challenge moderate Islamic clerics and to be intolerant towards non-Muslims. In addition to this, the attendance of hundreds of sympathisers in Amrozi’s and Muklas’ funerals at the end of 2008 was another caution to the public. At this stage, the public had begun to see the potential for Islamic radicalism in some youth, but they were not yet sure whether these followers of radical ideology would really turn from being sypathisers to perpetrators of terror.


The third stage was of “discovery” that the youth were vulnerable to the persuasion jihadi terror. This stage was reached in the aftermath of the second Mariott Hotel bombing in 2009, when Indonesian television audiences watched the testimony of Dani Dwi Permana (18) and Nana Ihwa Maulana (28) before they blasted themselves. There was extra public attention on Dani who was a fresh high school graduate and a helper in the mosque near his house. Despite being from a broken family, Dani was a sociable person, active in sports and in a youth non-religious organisation (Karang Taruna). He was influenced by a radical young scholar, Saefudin Jaelani (32), who had offered to counsel Dani on the latter’s personal problems. Both Dani and Saefudin Jaelani went missing from their neighborhood one month before the second Mariott bombing. Soon after the media broadcasted this story, another perpetrator of the Mariott bombing, Air Setiawan, was killed in police raid. He was only 28 years old. In addition to this, more facts on youth terrorism were revealed this year when two groups of young terrorists from Klaten’s and Pepi’s networks, were arrested. Six of the seven members of Klaten’s network were still students of vocational high schools, while eight members out of 17 of Pepi’s network were at the age of 20s to 30s. In this latter network, the youngest member was Mugianto (18). The latest terrorist attack in Indonesia, at the time of writing of this essay, was launched in a suicide attack on 15 April 2011 by 27 year old Syarif in Cirebon.



Figure 1: Comparison of Ages of Terrorism Prisoners between those arrested from October 2002-March 2003 (n=67) and May 2005-January 2006 (n=54).

Following these developments, the Indonesian public paid more attention to the discourse on youth radicalisation. Indonesian president, Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, advised the public to protect the youth from falling prey to terrorism soon after the broadcasting of Dani’s testimonial video in July 2009. This was followed by the government exhorting deradicalisation and the establishment of a National Body for Counterterrorism (BAKN). The Indonesian media have also raised similar concerns in the form of increasing coverage of the potential of radicalism. In addition to these, nongovernmental groups such as International Crisis Group (ICG), Institute for Islam and Peace (LAKIP), Indonesian Ulama Forum (MUI) and Anshor Youth Movement (GP Anshor) launched deradicalisation campaigns and promoted research in identifying new potentials of youth terrorists cells and evaluating couterterrorism efforts.


The three stages above explain that it took almost a decade for the Indonesian public to be aware of their youth’s vulnerability to radical ideas. As we have now arrived at the “discovery” stage, this is the best time to work towards answering the challenge before the issue starts to decline and disappear. Quoting a public communications expert, Anthony Downs, wide audiences could be blind to the really urgent problem in society. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, once they arrive at the right sense of crisis, they tend to escape rather than solve the problem. Hopefully this is not the case for youth deradicalisation.


Indeed, the challenge in finding the right deradicalisation strategy is enormous. The recently released survey by LAKIP unfolds that 48 per cent of high school students in Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang, Bekasi, and Depok are willing to be involved in violence in the name of religion. The survey found that these potential radical students were being persuaded by radical websites on the internet. In addition to this survey, the ICG also released a report in April 2011 highlighting the transformation of Jihadi terrorism from being group-based into individual-based. This rings another alarm bell for Indonesia on how expansive, accessible and flexible is radical activism in persuading the youth. The Indonesian society should anticipate this and invest more resources immediately to protect future generations from such inhuman activism.


Indonesian Youth and Jihadi Terrorism: An Ontological Explanation of Insecurity

This part considers the question of what went wrong in the country to cause some Indonesian youths to become radicals. Some researchers have already shown that neither economic background, education levels, nor family lines could provide reliable explanations to this question. Youth terrorist members came from varied backgrounds. Many came from poor families, but some also came from middle class families. Some of them were elementary school graduates, but many were educated in the most prestigious universities in Indonesia. The familial connection may work in explaining some cases such as that of Pepi and his wife, but most youth terrorist members do not have this connection.


In seeking a more convincing explanation, this essay chose to use a constructivist explanation, particularly employing the concept of “ontological insecurity.” Katarina Kinnvall argues that in the globalisation age, the issue of identity has become more important than before. “Modernity and inequality” could cause unbearable emotional and psychological pressures. At this point, people will seek security at “ontological and existential dimension.” Kinnvall elaborates the importance of the comfort zone for every individual. This place serves personal needs of solid narrations about self, truth, and the world in order “to sustain hope” and move on. Once an individual faced this, he/she tended to redefine the meaning of self by approaching the most approachable “collective that is perceived as being able to reduce insecurity and existential anxiety.”


To put this into context, the above concept suggests that the current world carries certain risks for the identity of Indonesia’s youth. There are at least three reasons to support this position. Firstly, the prolonged competing discourse between religion and nationalism. Since the fall of Soeharto’s government in 1999, Indonesia has been working on democratisation through reforming law, order and governance. This was a new hope for civil society to establish a more accountable Indonesian government with greater respect for human rights. Yet, at the weak side, this transition was done in exchange to states’ excessive controls on radicalism and subversive groups. Some analysts argue that the early post-Soeharto era was quite problematic because the old order was considered illegitimate, and the new one was not there yet. One of the negative sides of this was that the religious radicals finally found their way back to the Indonesian public discourse after more than three decades of being underground, under the restrictions of Soeharto’s regime. Some of the Islamic radical movements during the Soeharto era were: H. Ismail Pranoto’ Komando Jihad in 1976; Front Pembebasan Muslim Indonesia in 1977; Abdul Qadir Djaelani in 1978; Warman’s Group in 1978-1980; and Imran’s Revolusi Islam Indonesia in 1980-1981. Many followers of these radical groups keep reproducing narratives to glorify their ideologies, seeking supporting channels, and trying to find new recruits.


Secondly, the availability of multiple information channels to multiple discourses. We live in the age of rapid communication, with less bariers and controls than before. The Internet, particularly, has the ability to connect people in the most sophisticated ways. However, this could be a double-edged sword for most of those Indonesian youths who have not received the benefit of parental guidance and other “firewalls” to filter the massive amount of information they are faced with. The Indonesian Ministry of Telecommunications and Information claims that 75 per cent of Internet users in Indonesia are teenagers. Other statistics released by the Norton Cybercrime Report suggests that 86 per cent of Indonesian Internet users have been cyber crime victims. This lack of protection, particularly for young internet users, provides room for purveyors of radical discourses to maneuver and find potential audiences seeking alternative ontological security. Radical websites are designed attractively usually posing critical questions, broaching sensitive topics, or displaying heartbreaking images that invite curious youths to browse.


Thirdly, there is deteriorating trust in the current national and international order. The post-Soeharto era was launched at the time of the economic crisis. In fact, this country is still in the process of recovery. There are at least 31 million people living under the poverty line, while Indonesia still scores low (2.8 out of 10) in the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. This gives room for radicals to claim that all this social political degradation came about due to the refusal to implement an Islamic state, and due to the alliance with Western countries.


The three elaborations above suggest to us that youths may turn into radicals when they do not see alternative ways to reduce their ontological insecurity. Therefore, youth deradicalisation should pay attention to some of the following points:

1. There should be accessible and open sources for youth to obtain healthy counsel and accurate information;

2. There should be wide campaigns revealing the negative impacts of radicalism;

3. There should be better protection by the law, social sevices and forums for youth development;

4. There should be more counselling support for parents in providing warm and healthy family environments that could provide reliable counsel for 


5. There should be an appropriate rehabilitation program for convicted terrorists; and

6. There shoud be more research to improve understanding of youth and terrorism and better frameworks of youth deradicalisation should be 



Concluding Remarks

This essay has explained how the Indonesian public finally became aware of youth’s vulnerability against jihadi terrorism. After almost a decade of witnessing numbers of young adults and even teenagers turning into radicals, Indonesia finally reached this “discovery” stage. Beginning last year, a range of efforts were launched by different actors to promote youth deradicalisation. It is now considered as one of the most essential approaches in counterterrorism in Indonesia.


Yet, recent facts reveal that this youth deradicalisation project will be complex and challenging. As elaborated in the second part of this essay, an alternative explanation of why youths turn to jihadi terrorism is the problem of ontological crisis – a situation in which youths try to find the most reasonable explanation of their identity in the midst of competing discourses. Jihadi terrorism could be compelling for some youths who could not find adequate healthy counsel in their closest communities. Thus, constructing a framework of youth deradicalisation requires transformations in Indonesian policies, societies and families. Further research on this issue is certainly recommended.



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