Last month the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) estimated that as many as 15% of ISIS’ foreign recruits could be female, with up to 200 women from at least 14 different countries known to have made the journey to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Other estimates suggest that up to 10% of those leaving Europe, the US and Australia to link up with various jihadi groups are women and girls, some as young as 14 or 15.
The involvement of females in jihadist conflicts isn’t new. Nor is participation by Western women. The ‘White Widow’, for example, the British wife of one the perpetrators of the 2005 London bombings, is currently regarded by authorities as the most wanted female terror suspect in the world. ‘Lady Al-Qaeda’, a US-educated Pakistani woman linked to al-Qaeda, was convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill US personnel in Afghanistan.
But it’s the sheer number of Western women and girls who are travelling to the Middle East to be an active part of violent jihadist movements, seemingly of their own volition, that’s striking.
The largest number of female jihadi recruits in Syria and Iraq hail from France, with around 63 French women known to have joined jihadi groups in those countries. The UK follows with around 50, then Germany with at least 40, and Austria with around 14. Although there are no concrete numbers at present regarding the number of females travelling from other Western nations, with foreigners from 74 countries involved in the conflict, it can be assumed that other countries are losing female citizens to the jihadi call.
It’s unknown how many of the 150–200 Australians thought to be currently involved with jihadi groups in Iraq and Syria are female. There has been at least one, with reports in January of the death of 22-year-old Queenslander Amira Karroum, who was killed alongside her dual-US–Australian-citizen husband soon after the couple arrived in Syria to join the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. There’s no reason to think that Australian women are any less involved in jihadi movements in the Middle East than their European contemporaries. At the least, there’s strong reason to suspect that Australian women, like other women across the globe, are the target of sophisticated and directed recruitment campaigns.
Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, writes that groups like ISIS are wooing women and girls via social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Bloom explains that women such as British national Aqsa Mahmood, a 20-year-old Glasgow resident who travelled to Syria in November last year, have also become spokeswomen for the ISIS movement, using social media to entice vulnerable Muslim women with tales of a utopian existence and spiritual reward. According to Bloom, Mahmood—also known as Umm Layth—regularly posts about ‘the rewards young women will receive in exchange for their ‘hijrah’ (emigration)’ and tells her readers that in the Islamic State, ‘girls will be taken care of, and they won’t be mocked for their faith’.
So what exactly are those women doing once they arrive in Syria and Iraq? Reports suggest that the majority marry jihadi fighters shortly after their arrival and take up domestic roles—cooking, cleaning, raising children. In an article for Foreign Policy Today, Amy Stoller reports that groups such as ISIS see women as a crucial part of the ‘state-building’ exercise. That’s particularly relevant when it comes to child raising, with women being viewed as responsible for raising the next generation of Islamic fighters and committed Islamic followers.
But not all women travelling to the Middle East take up purely domestic roles. In an unusual step for the fundamentalist ISIS, an all-female armed brigade has been established in the stronghold city of Raqqa. The ‘al-Khanssaa’ brigade is made up of single women aged between 18 and 25 and is thought to include a high number of Western women in its ranks. The brigade’s role is to enforce sharia law dress codes and perform searches on women at ISIS checkpoints. The brigade also conducts patrols on the streets of Raqqa, looking out for inappropriate mixing of men and women or any engagement with Western culture.
The number of women travelling to the Middle East to join groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra may not be as high as the number of men (the gender gap in Syria and Iraq is around 10:1). But thanks to sophisticated social media recruitment efforts, women are travelling in numbers significant enough to warrant the concern and awareness of authorities. Even in Australia.
As part of the Australian Government’s $630 million counterterrorism package announced in August, $64 million has been directed to support and establish measures to counter violent extremism and radicalisation in Australia. Funding is being directed towards initiatives that include the strengthening of community-engagement programs aimed at preventing young Australians from becoming involved with extremist groups ($13.4 million), and the establishment of an Australian Federal Police Community Diversion and Monitoring Team ($6.2 million).
It’s vital that those and future initiatives recognise that women are the target of jihadist recruitment campaigns, and more needs to be done to understand what attracts women, not only men, to the ideology of groups such as ISIS.