‘Till Martyrdom Do Us Part’ – Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon

By Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith

The following is the introduction to the latest Women and Extremism report from ISD. A link to the full report can be found here. Launched 28 May 2015

Although often assumed to be passive agents, women have played significant roles in a number of contemporary terrorist organizations. Violent extremist groups across the political and ideological spectrum have utilised female forces for a range of activities including logistics, recruitment, political safeguarding, operations, suicide bombing and combat. However, the recent unprecedented surge in female recruits to the terrorist organization Islamic State (ISIS) has brought this phenomenon into sharp focus. For many there remain misperceptions and misunderstandings concerning the role women play within these violent networks, often paired with engendered responses to the radicalisation of women. By analysing how terrorist organisations choose to utilise women, we are able to better understand the decision-making processes of terrorists and the inner-workings of the organization itself.

The number of Western foreign fighters and migrants to ISIS is estimated to be up to 4,000, with over 550 women within this figure. This unprecedented number of Western male foreign terrorist fighters is paralleled by an equally unprecedented number of women traveling to support ISIS. Questions are now being posed as to how and why females are being recruited en masse, what role they play for ISIS, and what tools will best work to counter this new threat. Yet very little work has been done to not only answer these questions but to build sustainable preventative measures. This report attempts to shed light on these questions as the second publication within ISD’s Women and Extremism (WaE) programme. The first WaE report, Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS, addressed some of the reasons for Western females traveling to ISIS-territory and exposed key elements of the reality for females upon arrival ISIS-controlled territory.

This report aims to expand upon previous research by giving depth to understanding who is being radicalized, why these women decide to depart for Syria and how we can better stop these processes. There are three primary sections to this report. The first maps the primary push and pull factors which prime women and lead them down a path of violent radicalisation to the point at which they decide they must make hijra (migrate) to join ISIS. These factors disprove the one-dimensional label for these women, who are often referred to simply as ‘jihadi brides’. The second section of this report gives indepth profiles of 7 English-speaking females who have successfully journeyed to join ISIS and are now resident in the so-called Islamic State. These profiles show the diversity among female recruits and expose everything from their driving motivations, worldviews and subsequent roles under ISIS control. The final section of this report looks at counter-extremism work in the space of prevention and de-radicalisation, showing how various Western governments are operating within this space and analysing where better infrastructure is needed to address the topic of gender within processes of radicalisation.

1.1 Key findings of this report:

• There is a significant amount of diversity within the profiles of women becoming radicalised and migrating to ISIS territory. It is not possible to create a broad profile of females at risk of radicalisation based on age, location, ethnicity, family relations or religious background.

• The assumption that females join ISIS primarily to become ‘jihadi brides’ is reductionist and above all, incorrect. Reasons for females travelling are multi-causal and include a broad range push and pull factors, different in their influential weight for each case.

• The responsibility of Western women under ISIS-controlled territory is first and foremost to be a good wife to the jihadist husband they are betrothed to and to become a mother to the next generation of jihadism. However, these women are also playing crucial roles in propaganda dissemination and recruitment of other women through online platforms, both directly and indirectly.

• Data retrieved through social media accounts of FTF and Western female migrants primarily serves as propaganda. However, there are also insights into the complaints of daily life for females, often domestically isolated in severe conditions, and the realities of living within a war zone in a terrorist-led territory. These realities make powerful counter-narratives to the original extremist propaganda.

1.2 Key Recommendations

• There is a great need for counter-narratives and counter-extremism messaging that is targeted at females. Currently there are very few initiatives that consider the gender dynamics within the CVE and counterterrorism sectors. Targeted messaging to counter the appeal of violent extremist propaganda needs to be up-scaled.

• Increasing critical consumption skills among young people is necessary in order to create youth awareness about extremist propaganda to allow for the development of a more natural resilience towards this type of content. This needs to address both offline and online content and should be incorporated within existing Western education programmes.

• There is a need for better infrastructure and capacity building within de-radicalisation programmes that handle returnees from Syria and Iraq. There is a particular lack of infrastructure and understanding around gender dynamics within de-radicalisation that would benefit from careful analysis and development.

• This issue of adequate representation of women within the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) sectors is rapidly growing in importance, and with this, the role of these women is diversifying. This significant role must be better publicized and infrastructure developed in accordance with the involvement of women in this sector.

1.3 Methodology

The research data used for this analysis comes largely from an extensive female migrant database run between the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). This database has been expanding in breadth and depth since May 2014 and is considered the largest database on Western females joining ISIS. The database tracks and archives social media material on over 100 female profiles across online platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Ask. fm, Kik and blog accounts. These profiles are all deemed to be Western female migrants disseminating messages, giving a unique lens into the daily lives of foreign women living in the so-called Islamic State.

In order to grow and retain this sample of females within the database, researchers used a ‘snowball’ technique, where female ISIS migrants are identified among the networks of other known ISIS members. The women have been designated as ISIS migrants if they self-identify as such and appear to reside in ISIS-controlled territory. The ISD-ICSR database has also grown using evidence from photographs, online interactions with other ISIS accounts, and reports to help determine the probability that the person is geographically in Syria or Iraq. Women within this database are identified as coming from fifteen different countries, operating online primarily in English to disseminate propaganda.

Research for this report also included interviews with two former Islamist extremists now working as mentors to women convicted of extremist and/or terrorist related offences. These individuals will remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of their work with young individuals in sensitive positions, often convicted and/or flagged by authorities for violent extremist and/or terrorist beliefs.

A note on our terminology; we refer to the Western females traveling to join ISIS as ‘migrants’ rather than other common terms such as ‘foreign terrorist fighter’, ‘female foreign fighter’ or ‘jihadi bride’. This is because these women, once in ISIS territory, are not being used in combat and are currently prohibited from combative activities by the strict interpretations of Shariah Law. Additionally, they give a diverse range of reasons for travel that go far beyond the reductionist role of ‘bride’. These women self-identify as migrants in ISIS-controlled territory, often referring to themselves online as muhajirat (female migrants) on their social media accounts.




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