On October 3, ten women who were members of an Islamic State cell were arrested in several Moroccan cities. The intelligence services seized bomb-making material and announced that the cell was planning a suicide attack on October 7, during the kingdom’s legislative elections.
Shortly before then, on September 13, five women were arrested in Paris after a car loaded with gas cylinders was found near Notre-Dame Cathedral. The women, who were also connected to the Islamic State, intended to attack the busy Gare de Lyon train station. Otherwise, 59 women are being investigated in France for their connection with the Islamic State.
While in 2014 estimates were that one in seven people who traveled to Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq to fight with the group were women, today the figure is believed to be one in three. News of these Western and Arab female jihadists has been portrayed as exceptional. However, examples of female participation in militant Islamist groups are numerous. In Palestine, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even Hamas have used women. More recently Al-Qaeda has also employed women in suicide attacks in Iraq. Boko Haram has been recruiting women to perpetrate attacks against civilians and security forces in Nigeria—and since June 2014 over 100 women have participated in suicide operations. A study by scholar Mia Bloom has found that in conflicts in Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Chechnya since 2002 “women have represented over 50 percent of successful suicide terror operatives.”
Common stereotypes are that women who engage with jihadi groups are desperate, mentally ill, naïve, manipulated by their male counterparts, or want to be “jihadi brides.” These stereotypes are due to society’s perception of women as being nurturers, caring figures, or victims, but never purveyors of violence. However, women who join the Islamic State, both Westerners and Arabs, have a complex and multidimensional set of motivational factors for their actions. These may be religious, economic, political, psychological, or philosophical. Understanding what the reasons are can allow for a better response to jihadism and the introduction of effective preventative measures.
The Islamic State has called on the “sisters” to perform hijra—or as the group defines it, migration to the territories under its control—in order to participate in state-building activities and the war “against the unbelievers.” In Dabiq, the official magazine of the organization, Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah has written that hijra “is an obligation upon women just as it is upon men.”
Like their male counterparts, many women who sympathize with the Islamic State believe that they have a religious duty towards their fellow Muslims and towards God, and that living in un-Islamic societies is a sin. Not only do they encourage their male siblings to die in the name of the cause, but they are themselves ready to die for it. They praise martyrdom and believe that they will be reunited with their loved ones in Al-Firdaws, the higher level of Paradise, and that martyrdom guarantees passage to it.
Many women in the Islamic State view the organization as a state with real governance capabilities, but especially with a superior and noble cause, namely saving the community of believers and establishing the Caliphate. To them the Caliphate is a place where Islamic law prevails, where there is social justice and equity, the absence of corruption and discrimination, and where all engage in almsgiving (zakat) on behalf of the underprivileged.
These women perceive their lives before joining the group as characterized by “impiety,” devoid of meaning. Once they adhere to the Islamic State, they view their engagement as epic, a moral obligation involving a divine cause and heavenly conquest. In that way their lives take on meaning. They become recruiters, facilitators, and mothers of “today’s cubs and tomorrow’s lions,” to borrow from a pro-Islamic State Twitter account. They can work in a female brigade if they are in Islamic State territories, or they can be active abroad by spreading the word of God or by planning and even carrying out attacks in their homeland.
Social ties are crucial in facilitating and boosting the recruitment of many women. Family members or friends help in confronting the difficulties of life underground. Social networks are also important for solidifying relationships within the organization and very effective countermeasures against defections. Fear of retaliation against loved ones, like the reluctance to be seen as a coward, plays an important role in ensuring that members remain loyal to the organization.
Salma and Zahra Halane, two British girls who fled Manchester to join the Islamic State in Syria, were indoctrinated by their elderly sibling Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed. Nada Mouid al-Kahtani, from Saudi Arabia, was recruited through her brother’s ties with the Islamic State. Amira Abase, Shamima Begum, and Khadiza Sultana, who also decided to leave the United Kingdom for Islamic State territories, were classmates.
Women will continue to play an important role in jihadi organizations such as the Islamic State. They offer significant emotional and logistical support and are also more dangerous than men in the sense that they can access targets more easily. In addition, acts perpetrated by women have a more powerful psychological impact on the targeted communities and attract far more media attention than attacks carried out by men. This brings publicity to the Islamic State and helps galvanize its male followers by appealing to their manhood.
The trend of recruiting women is likely to continue and we will probably see more of them on the battlefield. This was evident recently in Sirte, Libya, where the Islamic State deployed female snipers in defense of its positions in the city. As the organization loses more ground, such behavior will become commonplace, as all come together in defense of the realm.