Empowering Women to Break the Jihadi Cycle

Indonesia has long been a pioneer of counterextremism and rehabilitation aimed at male jihadists. Recent instances of recidivism show that these efforts are imperfect. Nevertheless, two fascinating, small-scale programs are taking a different tack: empowering jihadists’ wives through work and education to set them up for life outside the extremist fray.

Since 2015, the University of Indonesia’s Police Research Center has run the Entrepreneurship and Proselytization Empowerment Program to help the wives of jailed extremists through counseling and business training. It was created by Prof. Sarlito Sarwono, a psychologist with an abiding interest in extremism and terrorism who died last November. The program, continuing without him, has just wrapped up its first cycle of workshops for jihadists’ wives and has reported highly positive results from its 18 participants.

Another nongovernmental agency, the Institute for International Peace Building, also gives loans and business training to extremists’ wives, focusing on those whose husbands have been released from jail. It has now helped three such families get back on their feet despite the stigma that follows former extremists.

A key member of the 16-person Police Research Center’s team, who has taken a greater role since Sarwono’s death, is Nasir Abas, a former terrorist. Abas fought against Russian forces with the Afghan Mujahedeen in the 1980s, and then was prominent in Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, until he served a prison term from 2003 to 2006 and effectively switched sides. Now he advises the Indonesian government on counterterrorism. He has been instrumental in locating and speaking with imprisoned male extremists and persuading them to allow their wives to work with the Police Research Center’s program.

Three people visit every jihadist’s wife who enrolls in the program: a psychologist, a Muslim religious teacher known as…

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