Terrorism, a man’s business? Throughout history, women have long been oppressed, left to the side, and looked down upon. They are also considered harmless — one reason why women in ISIS have long been underestimated. They are considered to have a secondary and passive role within the organization.
However, recent data shows an unprecedented rise of Western women joining the Islamic State. Nowadays, almost one fifth of total ISIS fighters (around 6,200) are women. Western foreign fighters account for another fifth of the total, of which 20% of those are women. And in the last few years, there has been a significant increase in women recruitment. According to the French intelligence services, only 10% of 2014 French recruitments were women— which rose to 35% in 2016 (Mediterranean Affairs, 2016).
The increase in Western women recruited by the Islamic State is concerning to a Europe that is becoming a prime target for terrorism. What moves these women to join ISIS? A general explanation would be what Oliver Roy called “stateless Muslims.” The fact is that second and third generations of Muslims in Europe often feel discontent and isolated and do not have the sense of belonging to the country where they have grown up (Bitterbengali, 2017). On the other hand, Dr. Erin Marie Saltman, a senior extremism researcher for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, talks about three pull factors. First, the religious duty toward building a caliphate. Second, the sense of belonging and sisterhood. And finally, the promise of empowerment (Smith, 2016). All of these contribute to what’s a complex explanation of how women are mobilized. All of this — together with the fact that a profile of a muhajirat (the name given a Western woman who has been recruited) has not yet been identified by European authorities, making those women very difficult to track.
Until now, a woman in the Islamic State was considered to be merely what is commonly known as a “jihadist bride.” This may still be the case with local women, but Westerners have been shown to want a more active role within the organization. While under Sharia law, women must be excluded from engaging in military and combatant roles, muhajirats — even if rejecting Western values — are willing to be actively involved in the organization’s cause (Gaub and Lisiecka, 2016). Is it because of their origins? We do not know, but the fact is that women in ISIS take on increasingly complex tasks. They are state-builders, recruiters, propagandists, ideational supporters, suicide bombers, and who knows what else.
A woman’s most common role within the Islamic State has been as wife, mother and homemaker. Women are considered the guardians of the caliphate. ISIS is not just a violent force, but has the political objective of establishment of a caliphate. Women are a fundamental pillar in achieving that, as they are the ones producing the next generation. They are in charge of raising the “lion cubs of the caliphate,” and educating children in the “correct” version of Islam (Bitterbengali, 2017). Therefore, they have a crucial but invisible role: building the caliphate.
Besides being a “jihadist bride,” a woman in ISIS is also likely to be a recruiter. Social media and propaganda are the main tools used by the Islamic State to radicalize men and women of all ages, backgrounds and religions. Social media platforms, offering free advertising through the internet, are the biggest weapons the organization has. Women are the “cheerleaders of ISIS,” as they are the ones spreading the spirit of the Islamic State, making it attractive to potential recruits. For instance, Hayat Boumeddiene, wife of one of the jihadists involved in the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack, created her own blog called “The Diary of the Mujahirat.” In it, she wrote about what it is like to be a women in ISIS, encouraging other girls to make the hijrah (Bitterbengali, 2017).
“Within strict Sharia law rhetoric, there is the message that women’s roles are not naturally in combat or the military. They would only take up jihad if male forces were depleted to the point that jihad could not be carried out,” states Dr. Saltman (Smith, 2016). Recent events indicate that ISIS is losing fighters and territory. Under those circumstances, and for strategic reasons, women are taking on more responsibilities within the organization. In 2015, two training camps for women were opened in Raqqa. One year before that, the Al-Khansaa brigade was created. This is an all-female “moral police force” that enforces social and religious norms on women living in Raqqa. It is one of the only institutions of the Islamic State where muhajirat have an active role, an intensive military training, and are authorized to carry arms.
The role of women in ISIS is becoming much more complex. Increasingly, there are reported cases of women militants and suicide bombers. Muhajirat have been encouraged to stay in their European home countries, to carry out terrorist attacks where terrorists are expected to be male (The Carter Center, 2017).
Women have not taken an operative role in the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. However, this is likely to change because of the increasing importance of women within ISIS, along with the fact that they are somewhat “invisible” in Europe. For the most part, women are ignored as possible terrorists. It is much easier for a Western woman than for a Western man to travel to the Islamic State’s territory. Women go through more relaxed security checks. They have the ability to go unnoticed when carrying weapons and other materials under loose clothing. And the fact that women are seen just as “jihadist brides” implies that counterterrorist measures do not need to take them into consideration.
In the eyes of a European, women are unlikely to carry out a terrorist attack. This is just what ISIS wants people to believe, which allows ISIS to keep installing more and more instruments of fear around the Western world.
Women are the strategic reserve of the Islamic State, the ace up their sleeve.
Maria Vergés Redón (Barcelona, Spain)
Bitterbengali, 2017, Contextualising the role of women in Daesh: more than “jihadi brides”, Biterbengali, August 27. Available from: https://bitterbengali.wordpress.com/2017/08/27/contextualising-the-role-of- women-in-daesh-more-than-jihadi-brides/ [October 29, 2017]
GAUB, F. and LISIECKA, J., 2016, Women in Daesh: Jihadist “cheerleaders”, active operatives?, European Union Institute for Security Studies, October 2016. Available from: https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief_27_Women_in_Daesh.pdf [October 29, 2017]
The Carter Center, 2017, The Women in Daesh: Deconstructing Complex Gender Dynamics in Daesh Recruitment Propaganda, The Carter Center, May 2017. Available from: https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/countering-isis/women-in- daesh.pdf [October 29, 2017]