The role of women in Islamic State-led terrorism
15 Sep 2017|

In August, a Jakarta court jailed 28-year-old Dian Yulia Novi for seven-and-a-half years for plotting to carry out a suicide attack outside the Presidential Palace during the changing of the guard, an event that is popular with tourists and locals. Novi, who is currently pregnant, admitted to the plot so the three judges did not heed the prosecution call for a 10 year sentence.

Novi’s conviction highlighted the increasing number of women carrying out terrorist attacks for the Islamic State terror group. In 2016, a cell of radicalised French women planned an attack outside Notre Dame Cathedral. In September 2016, Kenyan police shot dead three women wearing burqas after they launched a knife attack at a police station in Mombasa. In August 2017, three British women were charged with involvement in ‘an active terror plot’, believed to involve a planned knife attack in Westminster. More recently, in the fight for Mosul, 38 women carried out suicide missions against Iraqi forces and civilian targets. With the fall of the city, 16 women were arrested. They are not Iraqis and could face prosecution for being members of IS.

Islamic scholars and terrorist groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and al-Qaeda have debated the use of female suicide bombers. Historically, the discussion was tied to the permissibility of suicide attacks and whether individuals, as opposed to Caliphs, were entitled to declare war. When the first intifada broke out, Palestinian women sought to join Hamas to participate in the resistance. Sheikh Yassin, the group’s spiritual leader, didn’t permit them to carry out suicide missions, as he took a classical Islamist view that tended to reject women’s participation in jihadist operations. That resistance may explain why it was the secular PLO that used the first Palestinian female suicide bomber, Wafa Idris. In January 2002, Idris carried out her attack in Jerusalem, where she killed herself and one other person and injured around 100 others. Within a month of that operation, Sheikh Yassin reversed his position and said that women could carry out suicide operations provided that men were not available. Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, the chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, declared ‘women’s participation in the martyrdom operations … is one of the most praised acts of worship’.

In 2014, IS established the Al-Khansa Brigade, with its own manifesto aimed at clarifying ‘the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them’ and ‘the realities of life and the hallowed existence of women in the Islamic State’. This force included at least 60 British women who often saw it as a form of female empowerment—‘jihadi girl power’—with four key themes.

The first is empowerment. IS claims that women in its caliphate have the possibility of becoming professionals such as doctors and nurses without fear of discrimination. A second theme is deliverance from the sin-filled western society that prevents women from living as true Muslims, and which discriminates against them when they want to live as Muslims. Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh, the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, stated that staying in a non-IS land was a sin because one was not living as a Muslim. The final two elements are participation and piety. IS claims that women play a crucial role in building the caliphate as, not only are they free to practice Islam, they can support their husbands and rear ‘lion cubs’.

The role of the brigade was as moral police able to punish women who didn’t abide by IS’s strict interpretation of Sharia law and to ensure that men in Raqqa joined IS. Those developments are important, as it appears that IS has changed its position on women, who were initially only permitted to marry IS fighters. IS’s vision had very defined roles for women and, when they did join the fight, they were often referred to as ‘supporters’. The theological basis for IS changing its position on  women as combatants remains a mystery. One explanation is that it has become necessary because of casualties incurred in the fighting.

An important issue is that counter-terrorism policies are largely geared towards addressing male terrorists rather than women. That begins with the popular assumption noted by Dr Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer in the department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, who was injured when a Palestinian woman carried out a suicide attack on a bus he was travelling on. Women are not meant to blow themselves up, Dr Kedar said. They’re supposed to stay at home and give birth—‘preferably to boys’. Such thinking may explain why the US, after 9/11, adopted a special program under which extra scrutiny was applied to the visa applications of males between the ages of 16 and 45 who sought to enter the US.

With the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq, IS is adapting. That’s what terrorist groups do. The fact that around 20% of the 930 people who left Germany to join IS have been women, and that one-third of the French female recruits were converts, compared to one sixth of French males, highlights the depth of the problem. It’s important that, as our counterterrorism policies and CVE programs develop, we move away from stereotyping, as women are becoming important actors in the IS campaign. That demands that we rethink key elements of our tailored-for-men CVE programs.