According to a New America report titled ISIS in the West, jihadists exporting their distinct brand of militant Islam and wrangling with state powers for control of the region have drawn more than 4,000 Westerners to Iraq and Syria (1). Of the 4,000 who have either attempted to join or successfully joined the Islamic State, more than 500 of these individuals are women from Western countries (2). Although many Western countries do not have available data on the number of women leaving their respective communities, estimates indicate that nearly one in seven ISIL members from the West are female, with a trend toward rapid growth in female membership (3). When one imagines a disaffected jihadi who has abandoned the West for the promise of glory in the Mideast, the stereotypical image that comes to mind follows a set of characteristics, generally including ‘male’ and ‘young.’ However, the profile of the Western jihadi is changing. The rate at which Western women have joined ISIL’s campaign confounds popular assumption and prompts one to ask: Why do women from the West support and join the Islamic State?
Ostensibly, the reasons why women in the West support and join the Islamic State appear to be the same reasons why men in the West leave their homes for jihad: The Islamic State provides the disaffected with a sense of purpose and belonging, having suffered alienation in his or her Western community. However, how ISIL recruits women and the roles women assume once they have joined the group differ, compared to men. These differences indicate that efforts to combat the Islamic State should not treat terrorism as a monolith without respect to gender. If the international community, particularly the West, hopes to effectively combat the proliferation of global terrorism, it must begin to employ gender-specific methods that target women.
II. A Brief Case Study: The United Kingdom
For more than 150 years, Muslims––immigrants, the British-born, and converts––have constituted a growing and integral part of British society. Muslim migration to the United Kingdom suddenly boomed after the Second World War, as the state sought to rebuild its economy. Immigration acts in the 1970s steadied what was once a burgeoning flow of Muslim migrants; however, second and third generation British Muslims were already born, thus naturally increasing the population (4). Today, ethnic and religious Muslims comprise nearly 3 million of the UK population, with approximately 33 percent of the population aged 15 years or younger, according to The Muslim Council of Great Britain (5). Raised in a Western culture, second and third generation British Muslims have experienced a life quite unique, compared to their parents and grandparents. Young Muslims, in particular, feel the strain of multiculturalism, as they are forced to reconcile a Muslim identity and a British identity (6). Racial tensions, following domestic and international events concerning British Muslims, have exacerbated this internal dissonance, especially for women.
The national debate over the right of Muslim women to veil themselves in Islamic dress emerged in 2005 after the 7/7 London bombings when four Islamist suicide bombers killed 52 people and injured several hundred more (7). Following the attack, a 2007 directive announced that UK schools, courts, and other British institutions may decide their dress code and ban women and young girls from wearing certain forms of Islamic dress, including the niqab and headscarves. Then Prime Minister Tony Blair even described the veil as a “mark of separation” that conveyed a lack of integration into British society (8). Feminist legal scholar Katherine Brown describes the backlash against women wearing Islamic dress as an indication of eroding multiculturalism in the UK and a pretext for violence against Muslim women (9). A 2010 report from The European Research Centre titled Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: A London Case Study found that women were more often the victims of violent, anti-Muslim attacks (10). The erosion of multiculturalism and consequent violence against Muslim women represent one of many ‘push factors,’ contributing to the radicalization of not only more than 50 British women who have joined the Islamic State but also Western women, in general.
III. Push Factors
Traditionally, governments have viewed the issue of radicalization through a socioeconomic lens concerning inequality. To the contrary, researchers have found that the women who support and join the Islamic State “defy easy categorization on socioeconomic grounds” (11). Although nearly 50 percent of British Muslims, for example, live in the most deprived areas of the UK (12), the Institute for Strategic Dialogue discovered that the most salient push factors, encouraging women to leave their Western homes and emigrate to ISIL-controlled territories, are as follows: First, feelings of social and/or cultural isolation, including questioning their identity; second, perceived persecution of the international Muslim community, or the ummah; third, resentment toward the international community for its lack of response to this persecution (13). The first push factor indicates that the erosion of multiculturalism has engendered an ‘identity crisis’ of epidemic proportions. Psychologist Erik Erikson defines an ‘identity crisis’ as the period during adolescence when a young person feels an internal conflict between individual identity and purpose (14). Young Muslim women living in the West find themselves trapped between the traditional culture of their families and a secular society that violently rejects them. Concurrently, as the second and third push factors suggest, Western women driven to join the Islamic State have found a sense of belonging and identity in the ummah. The ummah refers to the global Muslim community, which Islamists believe is under attack. ISIL promises an escape from the degradation of secular society and the hope of a “pure” religious society in which the ummah’s unity will be restored (15). Although push factors, such as the promise of the ummah, are likely to make a person more vulnerable to Islamist propaganda, they, on their own, provide governments with an incomplete explanation of the radicalization and recruitment of Western women.
IV. Pull Factors
Too often, Western analysis and responses to the radicalization and recruitment of Muslim women living in the West have lacked an understanding of related ‘pull factors.’ The most significant pull factors are the Islamic State’s adept use of technology, particularly social media, and a derivative of the ummah narrative known as the ‘Brand Caliphate’ (16). Using sophisticated media production techniques and social media––such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube––the Islamic State has gained access to young females living in the West. The Internet has become a conduit for recruitment, as ISIL social media campaigns include all of the necessary steps to successfully recruit Western Muslim women, including indoctrination, incentive for joining the ‘Caliphate,’ and information regarding travel, becoming ‘jihadi brides,’ and their future roles in ISIL-controlled territories (17). Like any advanced media operation, the Islamic State knows how to produce online material that is “relevant, localized, and targeted” to its intended audience (18). One of the most important strategies ISIL employs to create this tailored message is the use of female members as the group’s recruiters. Western women who the Islamic State has already recruited are responsible for selling the ‘Brand Caliphate’ to young and vulnerable women, like the British trio––Shamima Begum, then 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15––believed to have traveled to Syria last year (19). Various media outlets reported on August 11 that Sultana is believed to have died in an airstrike last June (20). For young girls, like Sultana, the ‘Brand Caliphate’ represents the creation of an ‘Islamic utopia’––a state-building project in which women are promised a sense of purpose. On social media, radicalized female propagandists, already living in ISIL-controlled territories, post pictures and write blogs, portraying their daily lives as “a sort of ‘Disneyland for Muslims’” (21). Female recruiters, through targeted social media campaigns, have essentially crafted a sisterhood promising everything Western Muslim women feel they have been denied––spiritual fulfillment, belonging, and adventure.
V. Female Roles in IS Territory
The social media output of female recruiters has provided governments and researchers with new insight into the roles Western women assume once they have arrived to ISIL territory. A common misconception about pro-jihadist groups is that women “play little to no role in their activities” (22). Although females in the Islamic State are typically confined to domestic roles (i.e., reproducing children to populate the ‘Caliphate’ and caring for their husbands), social media suggests that women may adopt activist roles. In addition to their role as recruiters, female ISIL members are known to run women’s organizations, produce Islamist magazines, and engage in fundraising (23). Women from the West often subvert traditional roles as mothers and wives, offering their skills as doctors, nurses, and engineers (24). Understanding how women are radicalized and the roles they embrace once they have joined the Islamic State is imperative, as Western states seek to improve prevention methods.
Moreover, recognizing women not only as victims, but also as the perpetrators of extremism, is the first step the international community must take in its effort to combat global jihadist groups, like the Islamic State. One should avoid the essentializing narrative that reductively paints women as the victims of extremism and denies that women can become the agents of violence. As the aforementioned roles these women assume reveal, women are among the most passionate supporters of ISIL, using social media to not only expand the ‘Caliphate sisterhood’ but also goad men into action (25). Indeed, there are thousands of women who the Islamic State has unjustly abused and victimized; however, evidence indicates that women who participate in political violence and who are recruited on the Internet are rarely coerced (26). Although the Islamic State currently does not allow women to occupy combatant roles, Western governments worry that lone female returnees or radicalized women who are unable to travel overseas to ISIL-controlled territories could engage in violent acts at home (27).
The case of Roshonara Choudry demonstrates several issues with popular conceptions of violent radicalization. In May 2010, Choudry, a British Muslim and female university student, stabbed Member of Parliament Stephen Timms. Choudry’s actions confound mainstream assumptions. First, she is a woman in a world where men monopolize jihadi violence, and second, her lone attack appeared to be the product of online radicalization, rather than the result of a “collective real-world phenomenon” (28). Choudry’s case confirms that addressing the radicalization of Western women begins with reevaluating one’s preconceptions about violence and gender. Traditional theories of radicalization do not account for the broader range of actors (i.e., women) participating in global politics (29). To effectively combat extremist groups, like the Islamic State, the international community must adopt a new security paradigm that recognizes women, not just men, as politically motivated actors capable of violence.
Once this shift has occurred, governments can begin to address the radicalization of Western women in ways that are not only strategic but also gender-specific. This effort first requires a proportional soft power strategy that can match the Islamic State’s sophisticated, well-resourced, and global propaganda campaign that drives its recruitment success (30). In the battle of ideas, where hearts and minds are won and lost, Western states cannot content themselves with a single Twitter campaign delivered through a government counter-messaging center. Rather, these states––like the UK, which spent £40 million on ‘prevention’ in 2014––must employ a soft power strategy that combines their aid budgets with diplomacy. Put simply, countering extremism must become a coordinated, international effort. Moreover, on a strategic level, Western states must undermine the ‘Brand Caliphate’ that has so gainfully drawn women to ISIL. Providing financial support to local individuals and organizations that “speak authoritatively about the heresy and inauthenticity” of the ‘Brand Caliphate’ is one step toward disrupting ISIL’s monolithic vision of Islam (31).
Next, Western states must focus on promoting credible counter-narratives to the Islamic State’s ideology. This campaign to reach would-be recruits should focus on highlighting credible voices––like those who have escaped and defected from the Islamic State––and should specifically target the girls and young women most vulnerable to recruitment. The participation of female survivors and defectors would be invaluable in the promotion of this counter-narrative. In order to effectively facilitate this counter-narrative, governments must improve their intelligence gathering, providing the comprehensive data about potential female ISIL recruits, which these survivors and defectors need (32).
Finally, Western states should promote the participation of women in counter-extremism networks. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that there are so few female practitioners in countering-violent-extremism (CVE) sectors, while female-directed counter-narratives are noticeably absent from the CVE space. Increasing the number of female practitioners in CVE is imperative for cultivating a gender perspective and human rights approach. Currently, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue is working together with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to create a more robust network of women from around the world working in CVE. Through its One2One Initiative and Extreme Dialogue program, the Institute has connected young people expressing extremist sentiments on social media networks with former extremists, and developed online critical thinking programs to aid teachers and social workers in their efforts to reach young people sensitive to extremist propaganda (33). Western governments must cooperate with such efforts by distributing these programs in their schools and communities (34). Ultimately, government coordination with civil society and the private sector will be critical to effectually contest ISIL’s cyber exploitation of social media sites, and carry this gender-specific counter-messaging campaign to vulnerable young women and girls.
No single prevention method is more important than the other. Each method represents an integral part of an overall strategy to defeat the Islamic State’s influence in the West. If protecting not only national security but also global security is a priority for Western governments, they must, as the aforementioned strategy suggests, begin this initiative by considering first the individual. In the case of radicalized Western women, these states must prioritize this concern for the individual by employing gender-specific methods in response to the Islamic State’s campaign. Until the West collectively understands how gender affects radicalization and consequently adopts a new human security paradigm, the growing phenomenon of women joining and supporting the Islamic State will persist.
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(34) Reding, Randal G. Terror's Tangled Web: Assessing the Islamic State's Cyber Recruiting Strategies in Western Countries. Diss. Utica College, 2016. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016. Web. 09 Aug. 2016.
Image: © Garudeya | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/editorial-photo-five-hundred-indonesians-join-isis-official-erasing-islamic-state-iraq-syria-flag-graffiti-solo-java-indonesia-image51873681#res14972580">FIVE HUNDRED INDONESIANS JOIN ISIS</a>
Bailee Ahern has been the Director of Human Security for Global Intelligence since the summer of 2016. In this position, she strives to find the nexus of international affairs and human-interest stories. Outside of GIT, Bailee is a student at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and international relations. Her research interests are varied. Bailee has spent time in Washington, D.C., studying nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction; at the University of Oxford, researching humanitarian action and peacemaking; and on campus, assisting a professor with political-risk analysis of inter-state conflicts. Both the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review and the USC Journal of Law & Society have published her research. The one through line in all of Bailee's work is a passion for writing. Her column for the Daily Trojan––USC's only student-run newspaper––has become an invaluable outlet to engage her campus and a confluence of all her greatest passions––writing, politics, and social justice.