It has been well documented that ISIS has managed to mobilize women in unprecedented numbers over the past few years. Also well documented has been ISIS’ significant loss of ground in Syria and Iraq, with some estimating that the territory that the so-called Islamic State controls decreased in size by around a quarter last year. Analysts at IHS Markit reported in January that ISIS’ territorial losses totaled 23 percent for 2016, up from 14 percent in 2015. This means that since the group boldly declared in 2014 that it had “re-established the caliphate,” it has actually lost control of over 35 percent of that territory.
Since much of ISIS’ success in attracting foreign men and women lies in slick advertising of its physical “heartland” (complete with fast food, Wi-Fi and medical services), these territorial losses should matter – and in some respects, they do. The number of women leaving Western countries to join ISIS has dwindled significantly, and with U.S. officials claiming that 50,000 male ISIS fighters have now been killed, their populace is looking weak.
Despite these setbacks, ISIS is not struggling to assert its influence over the rest of the world. A strategic shift to encouraging followers to carry out small-scale, low-threshold attacks in their home countries has proven lucrative for ISIS, both in terms of lives lost and media attention reaped. From 2012 to 2015, there were 14 ISIS-affiliated attacks either committed or thwarted across Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia, which incurred a total of seven deaths and 10 injuries. There has been a sharp rise in such incidents since the start of 2015, with 36 attacks killing a total of 361 and injuring more than 1,232. What does this shift in strategy mean for the female members of ISIS?
Unlike other terror groups such as al-Shabab or Boko Haram, ISIS prohibits women from fighting or taking on front-line missions like suicide attacks. Girls and women who leave Western countries to join ISIS spend their time raising families and taking care of the home. This approach has been central to the group’s territorial consolidation project, and ISIS propaganda has remained transparent on the limitations placed on their female recruits.
Women in Europe and North America continue to be radicalized into ISIS ideology and are no less motivated than their predecessors. However, the significant loss of territory in conjunction with a significant improvement in border security has diminished the number of women willing and able to travel. This has triggered a substantial change in the methods through which women support ISIS as an organization.
Women who would usually be active in recruiting others to ISIS territory through online platforms have refocused their efforts toward other conflict zones in which ISIS affiliates are gaining prominence, such as Libya and Nigeria. Women are integral to the establishment and maintenance of stable territories in these regions, and the group’s continued ability to attract foreign recruits serves one of its key objectives – to sow division in Western societies.
While in the past ISIS focused on getting women to travel to its territory, the group didn’t expend much energy on involving women in lone-actor terror attacks. But over the past two years, in the U.S. alone, women have been involved in the planning and execution of such attacks. Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siqqidui were plotting to detonate an explosive device in New York City, and Tashfeen Malik perpetrated the San Bernardino attack alongside her husband. Another high-profile case is that of Hayat Boumeddiene, who is currently on the run after her alleged involvement in a string of attacks in Paris in November 2015, in which her husband Amedy Coulibaly killed five people.
While incidents like the above are becoming more common, women still rarely feature as protagonists in ISIS lone-actor attacks. Yet they continue to contribute valuable support to their cause. For example, there has been a wave of prosecutions across Europe involving individuals and groups of women sending money and military equipment to fighters, as well as those spreading propaganda online. It remains to be seen whether the arrest of six women during counterterrorism operations in Willesden, London, over recent days will be added to this list.
The natural question here is: What can be done? And there is no straightforward answer. However, simple steps can be taken to limit the opportunities for women to become involved in ISIS-inspired terrorism.
This is primarily a security issue, and one that has gone unresolved since the recognition in 2012 that girls and women were leaving from Western Europe to join ISIS – women are not new to terrorist endeavors, and they must be taken seriously. While female defectors and returnees are unlikely to have garnered significant military experience, their radicalization and exposure to violent conflict must be addressed adequately by both legal frameworks and deradicalization programs. These structures must be able to prove their flexibility in responding to ISIS’ shifting objectives.
Once deradicalized, defectors must be given a wider, more public platform to share the realities of the ISIS doctrine in order to discredit and undermine the group’s core recruitment narratives.
Lastly, news media outlets must be mindful of the manner in which they report on female terrorists, as this is critical to how the general public and policy circles perceive them. Often news stories are peppered with references to “grooming” and “brainwashing,” with little evidence that either has taken place. Especially common in tabloids is the treatment of female terrorists as something novel and surprising, often suggesting that women should still be regarded as naturally peaceful. This strips agency (and potential criminality) from girls and women who usually make a decision to involve themselves in an illegal movement.
If ISIS continues to lose swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, 2017 could yet witness the involvement of women in lone-actor and group terrorism at an unparalleled level. We must be prepared to confront this.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls.