Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism

“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services…– and one they may pay for in the near future.” – Abu Haniyah

I recently read two article about the roles of women in extremism (specifically, Islamic State), and how we need to change how we view them.

In Article A, the authors list four ways extremists manipulate gender norms. The first way is in the way recruiters customize their message for women. They promise a better life for the women, free from oppression. The second is that Islamic State (IS) uses sexual violence for bonding or intimidation among the fighters. Third, IS and other terror groups exploit the lack of women in security roles (i.e. police) when they execute operations. This is true, to a point. But more often are reports of women being used in places where their presence will not attract attention (such as markets), and knowing they cannot be searched. Finally, IS has developed a narrative about its attacks that highlights the targeting of women and girls. This is a bit skewed. The authors open the article specifically mentioning the targeting of girls at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. The problem with this message is that in the claim of responsibility, IS does not mention girls or children, but Crusaders. There have been instances in the past of messages from IS threatening revenge for the killing of Muslims, including women and children.

Women play MANY roles in & around IS. And women’s roles have evolved under IS. There are brides, recruiters, planners, fighters, and victim/slaves (as with the Yazidi women). The brides of jihadis often get passed around after their husbands are martyred. Fighters, in IS, is a newer development.

The article doesn’t give much as far as changing the way of thinking. The most important point in the article is tucked in at the end, almost as an afterthought, as a passage briefly mention of the role of women in countering extremism. In my opinion, this is important, not just in a professional capacity. Wives and mothers can play a role in dissuading their sons (and daughters) from joining IS. This is something that should be discussed more in countering extremism, along with how the roles of women in terror groups evolve. This leads me into the second article I read.

Article B is more articulate. It tells of women of IS being “trivialized” or “marginalized” by the media & public. (They’re victims or brainwashed). Societies have a hard time coming to terms with women being violent, and ACTUALLY believing in the IS cause. Because of these societal views, women who join IS or other terror groups usually get lighter sentences. The public just has a hard time believing women are joining these terror groups because they actually believe in the cause. This is true of many terror groups. One point I would like to counter is the statement in the article about al Qaeda relegating its female members to raising the next generation of jihadists. Al Qaeda has used women in support and operational roles, something I’ve written about before here.

Unfortunately, the authors mention, is that cultural attitudes in Muslim societies can make it difficult to conduct investigations. In more conservative societies, a man talking alone with women is not allowed. In some extreme cases, this is being exploited, as women can operate without the scrutiny that some Muslim men involved in terror face. The women are just harder to watch.

As the roles of women in these groups evolve, those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism need to shed the preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in the organizations, and doing so voluntarily. The terror groups will certainly use this to their advantage, whether we accept it or not. But the sooner we do, the sooner we can address these issues.

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The Roles Women Play: al Qaeda and Islamic State

“It’s not my role to set off bombs — that’s ridiculous. I have a weapon. It’s to write. It’s to speak out. That’s my jihad. You can do many things with words. Writing is also a bomb.”

 It has been over a month since the husband and wife team of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik committed an act of terrorism is San Bernardino, California. In the aftermath, as a way to determine a motive, investigators initially focused on a garbled message on Facebook left by Malik. The message purported to claim an allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. This led many in the media – and armchair analysts online – to confirm that the attack was at least inspired by IS. But digging deeper into the lives of Farook and Malik revealed a more al Qaeda-style ideology. The fact that Malik was involved in the shootings suggests more al Qaeda than Islamic State. Why? Because of the roles women play in each organization.

In 2008, al Qaeda’s then second-in-command Ayman Zawahiri issued a statement saying women are not to be suicide bombers, but should stay at home raising a family. Just a year later, Zawahiri’s own wife went online encouraging more women to be more active in jihad.

But the role of women as active participants in al Qaeda’s jihad goes back further. Long having been linked to terrorist through a marriage to a Jamaah Islamiyah leader Abdul Rahim Ayub, Australian Rabia (Robin) Hutchinson played an active role in supporting terrorism. While there is no proof, it is rumored that she engaged in some violent activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most of her activities involved teaching and training. After marrying her fourth husband in 2000, Osama bin laden confidant Abu al Walid al Masri, Hutchinson ran a hospital for mujahideen.

Women associated with al Qaeda have done more than teach and work in hospitals. Many have been involved in operational support and have even conducted operations themselves. Malika el Aroud, also known as Oum Obeyda online, was a Belgian of Moroccan decent who was thought to be a recruiter. She began her online propaganda in 2001, after her husband was killed in a suicide attack in Afghanistan. A marriage to a second husband led her to Switzerland, where she and her husband were charged in 2007 with running pro-al Qaeda websites. After serving a six month sentence, she returned to Belgium. Again, she was detained, this time for allegedly plotting with other women to free a convicted terrorist, and for conducting surveillance for a forthcoming attack.

Another Belgian, Murielle Degauque, is said to be the first Western woman suicide bomber for al Qaeda. It was after marrying her second husband that she went down the path of jihad. Her husband, Issam Goris, was known to Belgian authorities as an Islamist. After their marriage, he was recruited into Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Iraq network. Degauque followed. Six months later, 6 November 2005, Degauque strapped on a suicide belt and detonated herself near a US Army patrol in Buquba.

That same November, Sajida al Rishawi’s suicide belt failed to detonate when her and her husband attempted to bomb the Amman Radisson Hotel. Her husband was successful, but al Rishawi was able to escape. She was eventually caught, becoming the first woman of al Qaeda arrested. She has since been executed by Jordan.

Fast forward to 2014. Tashfeen Malik marries Syed Farook, entering into a marriage that included copies of Inspire magazine (official magazine of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and sermons by Anwar al Awlaki. After having attended conservative madrassas in Pakistan, as well as having exposure to more radicalization through her husband, Malik would have been easily influenced. She may have pledged an allegiance to al Baghdadi in a Facebook message, but Tashfeen Malik was more al Qaeda than Islamic State.

So what of women’s roles in Islamic State?

In a manifesto released early 2015 by supporters of Islamic State, it was written that the main role of women shall be in the home. It is only in certain circumstances that women would be allowed outside the home. The first is the study of religion. Female doctors and teachers may be allowed out if they follow Sharia. And finally, via fatwa and only if there not enough men, may a woman engage in jihad.

Another role women play in IS is that of propagandists. As in the manifesto, women from IS flood social media with messages of the paradise that awaits new recruits in the caliphate. Their message, mostly directed toward young women and girls, is one of freedom, freedom from the perceived constraints placed on them by the Western world. The women on Facebook and Twitter proudly pose, fully veiled, with shopping or eating fast food, saying their lives are normal. They brag about the free apartments and televisions they are given by IS, all in exchange for supporting and marrying the fighters. Women, they say, are needed to support the men fighting the infidels, and to raise the next generation of fighters. Their job as wives and mothers, they say, is important to the Caliphate. And if they are lucky, their husbands and sons will become martyrs.

It is not just propaganda, either. Some women in Islamic State are part of what has been called ‘morality police.’ Based in Raqqa and Mosul, al Khansaa Brigades are in charge of making sure women are complying with Islamic State’s form of Sharia. They make sure the women are dressed appropriately and are accompanied by men. They arrest non-compliant women and issue lashings – or worse –  as punishment. Members of al Khansaa Brigades are the few women in IS that are allowed to drive and carry weapons.

Despite the propaganda, the reality is that most women in Islamic State are captives. Whether they join as al Khansaa Brigade members or travel to Syria to become brides, they can never leave. Some, once widowed, are married off to others, sometimes becoming slaves. Once the reality of living under IS sets in, some women try to leave. Those women are beaten and sometimes killed, such as the case of Samra Kesinovic.  Samra was a 17 year old Bosniak from Austria who left her family because she thought she could be free to practice her religion and “serve Allah.” She tried to escape Raqqa after saying she was sickened by the IS brutality, only to be beaten to death by supporters.

A few have managed to escape, but continue to live in fear that IS members will find them. The brutality of the Islam State is widely reported yet girls still make their way to Syria.

In the case of what roles women play in terror groups, female members of al Qaeda have the upper hand, so to speak, over Islamic State. Women in al Qaeda have a sort of operational equality that isn’t afforded to those in IS, up to and including conducting attacks. The have a part to play, something women in IS do not. The lucky ones get to be wives and mothers, for the alternatives are much worse.

 

I previously wrote about women and Islamic State here.