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Women and Jihad: Converts and Casualties of Violent Extremism

Next in our series, we take an in-depth look at the diverse ways in which women are affected by radicalization – as victims, perpetrators and peacemakers – while experts call for a gender shift in the way governments deal with women’s growing role in global terrorism.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Clothing that had been worn by a Yazidi girl enslaved by ISIS militants. AP/Maya Alleruzzo

Last year, on the first weekend in September, a car was found with its hazard lights flashing near Notre Dame Cathedral in the center of Paris. The Peugeot 607, which had no number plate, contained six full gas cylinders and several documents written in Arabic. A few days later, three women aged 19, 23 and 39 were arrested in a small town 18 miles (29km) southeast of Paris. Police say all three were radicalized by Islamic extremists and were known to anti-terrorism investigators. Officers later produced a letter they say was written by one of the women that pledged allegiance to ISIS. The letter said the planned attack on Notre Dame was revenge for an airstrike that had killed the group’s deputy leader.

Three days after the arrests in France, on the anniversary of 9/11, three young women aged between 19 and 25 walked into a police station in Mombasa, Kenya, one allegedly brandishing a knife and another throwing a petrol bomb. All three were killed by police, who claim sisters Maimuna and Ramla Abdulrahman and a school friend, Tasnim Yakubu, were wearing suicide vests under their black abayas. A letter allegedly written by the sisters pledging allegiance to ISIS has surfaced, but has not been independently verified.

Also on September 11, 2016, in Borno State in northern Nigeria, a woman whose name and age are not known was shot as she refused a command by army officers to stop at a security checkpoint. The woman was strapped with explosives that detonated when she was shot, killing her instantly. The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the failed attack, but it’s not known if the bomber was acting on her own or under duress.

A French police officer stands guards outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, after a car was found loaded with gas canisters in September 2016. Three women with suspected links to ISIS were arrested shortly afterward in connection to the case. (AP/Francois Mori)

While it’s hard to make any solid, direct links between the three incidents, together they highlight a growing trend of young women becoming involved in real, perceived or forced acts of terrorism in various global locations. Research suggests groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Islamic militant organization in Somalia, al-Shabaab, are now actively targeting women to join their ranks.

Experts say that if governments and the media are ever going to fully understand and respond to this trend, there needs to be a profound gender shift in the way policymakers deal with violent extremism.

It’s as if governments still think girls are sugar, spice and everything nice, and boys are snails, nails and puppy dog tails” says Erin Saltmen, senior counter-extremism researcher at the London-based think-tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London. “Women have been part of every single violent extremist movement since the dawn of time, more or less.

“What we are seeing with groups like Daesh [ISIS] is a change in focus – different women being recruited, and different roles being carved out for them.”

Finding a Voice in Violence

According to a recent ISD report, over 550 of the 4,000 Western fighters who are known to have migrated to ISIS territory between 2014 and 2015 are women, many of them in their early 20s. The report notes that feeling culturally or socially isolated, “including questioning one’s identity,” is a major factor pushing these women and teenage girls into the arms of extremists. Another is anger or sadness at the perceived lack of action by the West over what is happening in Syria and Iraq. Pull factors include the idea of belonging to a sisterhood and “romanticization of the experience” of being part of something bigger than themselves.

The number of women traveling to ISIS territory from across the Gulf and other countries with large Muslim populations – including Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo – is also said to have increased during the same time period, although nobody knows the exact numbers. While many women follow their husbands when they travel abroad to join militant groups, research suggests others are joining independently.

In Asia, Islamic insurgencies in Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan have all started placing a higher premium on female recruits, according to terrorism watchdogs, who say women are primarily being used as spies or to spread propaganda but are also in some cases being trained to fight. Boko Haram in particular has made a name for itself by using female suicide bombers.

While many of these women are kidnapped or coerced into supporting the cause, there is also increasing evidence that young women are being recruited and radicalized in their own right, often online.

“One of the key things that [unites these women] is they have not been engaged adequately in their communities,” says Fauziya Abdi, president of Women in International Security, Horn of Africa (WIIS). “Groups like Islamic State and al-Shabaab find ways to engage them better and give them a voice.”

In an upcoming story in our series, we hear from Aisha Mamman, the former wife of a Boko Haram commander, who says she willingly married the fighter because the group offered her more money, power and protection than she was getting within her own community.

“He was very good to me. I miss him … [he was] the love of my life,” she says.

Stories like Mamman’s, say experts, show extremist groups are seeing the opportunities they can offer women and using increasingly sophisticated and targeted techniques to bring them into the fold. Often it is women who are key to recruiting other women to join.

“U will never want for money again u live a good life here,” tweeted British ISIS convert Sally Jones, who traveled to Syria with her son in 2013. “U need to get married to get a house im just being honest with u but there are loads of men.” [sic]

Tweets allegedly from the British convert to ISIS Sally Jones. (Screen Grab/Twitter)

Known to security services for her regular presence on social media, taunting “non-believers” in Britain and warning of fresh terror attacks on U.K. soil, Jones is thought to be one of the key Westerners recruiting women to ISIS.

Other Western female migrants to ISIS have tweeted pictures of themselves holding guns, eating takeaways and dressing their children as militant fighters. The tweets offer a mix of banality and combat glamour, which analysts say is intended to entice other women by normalizing the violence they endorse.

Get the Message to Fight the Threat

Perversely, it is the same groups scrambling to recruit more female converts who also routinely commit brutal acts of abuse against women. Testimony from Yazidi minority women who have escaped ISIS in Iraq describe “unimaginable horrors” including gang rape, forced marriage and torture. Other militant groups, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Taliban, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, have also used rape to terrorize and control women. Organizations working with survivors of such assaults say psychological support for women and girls who have experienced extreme violence should be a major consideration in future counter-extremism programs.

“We have seen many women who feel they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them. They think the only way to escape is through killing themselves,” says psychotherapist Salah Ahmad, who set up the Jiyan Clinic for traumatized Yazidi women and children in Kurdistan-Iraq. She says simple changes such as providing victims of sexual abuse with female counselors can have a significant impact on their chances of healing from the trauma.

That these abuses on women don’t deter female recruits and may even contribute to the radicalization of women and girls further complicates the picture, say experts.

“In a world where young people might feel they are not really making a difference, violence can mobilize them,” says Nikita Malik, senior researcher at the think-tank Quilliam Foundation and head of Fempower, a U.K.-based initiative aimed at empowering young women and girls to stand up to extremism.

Malik says there’s evidence that violence plays a bigger role than previously thought in radicalizing women. While exposure to violent images in the media – such as the aftermath of a drone attack on children in Yemen – is known to play a part in radicalizing young people, women who experience violence at home or who regularly witness violence may also be more open to extremism.

“Extreme violence can become normalized for women and children who experience domestic abuse or are forced to watch or commit acts of violence in a conflict zone,” she says. “In some cases, it makes them unable to see any other way of dealing with a situation.”

As a result, researchers and human rights organizations may not yet fully know the repercussions for women and young people caught up in the fighting in places like Syria, Somalia and Nigeria.

Schoolgirls abducted from the northeastern town of Chibok in Nigeria in 2014 by militant Islamists Boko Haram. Researchers warn that women and children exposed to extremism in conflict situations are at risk of future radicalization because extreme violence has been normalized for them. (AP/File)

Understanding the many complex ways in which extremist groups manipulate and exert control over those under their influence is a first step in countering the problem, says Malik. The Quilliam Foundation has analyzed ISIS propaganda specifically targeting women in Arabic and English, and Malik says grasping the differences in their approaches is essential to designing effective counter-messaging strategies.

Arabic-language propaganda relies on attacking Western notions of feminism and offering women the chance to reverse the damage done by the blurring of lines between the sexes, says Malik. In English propaganda, recruitment plays much more heavily on promises of empowerment, offering women deliverance from the grievances they suffer in the West, such as racism and a lack of respect.

“Many of these girls are from good, well-educated backgrounds and they come across this material because they are searching for answers to the meaning of life or searching for their role in the world,” she says. “We have not yet mastered how to protect them from extremist material when they are doing this search.”

Over the course of this series, we’ll further explore the issue of women and violent extremism, which increasingly forms a major part of security and foreign policy discussions dealing with the global threat of terrorism. We have dispatches from countries such as Kosovo, Nigeria, Kenya and Pakistan, looking at various factors that can lead women to become the perpetrators and the victims of violence. And we have contributions from leading academics and innovative thinkers on ways to combat the problem, including clear indications that women – both in leadership positions and at a community level – will be central to the solution.

With reporting by Odharnait Ansbro and Alexandra Bradford.

Read more stories in our series “Women & Jihad”:

This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”

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