As the prime focus while understanding global extremism is usually on the perpetrators and leaders of these extremist groups, women’s facilitative and supportive contributions are often poorly assessed and understood, owing to their underrepresentation in strategic positions within such radicalized movements.
Research suggests that hundreds of women and teenaged girls from all over the world travelled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the self-styled Islamic State (IS) since the proclamation of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014. These women were not only from Muslim countries but from westernized world and even non-Muslims also. It is estimated that more than80 women have travelled to IS-controlled territory from the Netherlands since 2012. From the United Kingdom and France, these numbers are even higher, respectively around 1452 and 2003 women and teenaged girls.
This phenomenon has prompted a renewed interest in women’s role in jihad. Studies focusing on predominantly Western women in IS so far show that these women mostly played supportive or facilitative roles as mothers, wives, propagandists or recruiters. Some women have been involved in educative, administrative, logistical, social, and medical positions also. Where only on a smaller scale, women in IS have been involved in operational positions. Otherwise, women have been mostly learnt to maintain and propagate jihadist ideology, or support their jihadist husbands, raising their children according to jihadist ideology, or aiding in recruiting for the cause, or helping create alliances through strategic marriages, raising funds or transporting messages, weapons and goods at the average.
Though all women in terror groups are sometimes not actual terrorists as many of them are kidnapped and used as suicide bomber against their will usually under the influence of drugs. But some young women do join these groups voluntarily, raising questions about the role of personal relationships and social networks. For most individuals travelling to the ISIS/Daesh territory, the internet and particularly social media played some part in their radicalization and they appear especially relevant in female terrorist recruitment. The extending role of cyber domain helps terror groups to project their ideologies garnering the attention and sympathies through romanticizing the idea of violence and jihad.
There seem a high level support within Al-Qaeda for a more active role for women over the years. Apart from the supportive roles, it is easier for women to transport weapons than men as they are less likely to be searched or suspected. They are often seen as less of a security threat. And even if they are caught, it provides jihadist movements with the advantage of increased media attention underscoring the seriousness of the cause when ‘even women’ are prepared to engage in violence.
There could be many reasons why women join radical groups like not fitting in a social thread, a lack of integration or inclusion, foreign policy grievances or may be a history of violence where either one or all of these reasons can amplify making an individual want to go and join a violent group. Surprisingly, the research suggests that the root cause for majority of such cases was the same, where the entrapped women blames the secular way of life not providing justice and support in their social or legal suits. Where, apparently, to go and work for a visionary state (IS) meant to most of them a way to get justice believing they would make the world a better place by implementing this superior way of life system. These terror groups have produced a highly-gendered narrative in which women are offered alternative concepts of freedom and empowerment thus tapping into the emotions that these young women and then enticing them saying you will have agency here that will turn you in a leader, a successful and inspirational figure. The approach for luring in females generally focuses on emotional trap, telling fake stories of Muslims sufferings and oppression by infidels in a generations old conflict. It is done through an intense Jihad literature starred with the stories of radicalization and indoctrination.
The large number of women lured in to join these radicalized groups actually show the important role women play in transmitting terrorist ideology. Women are deemed crucial in maintaining the morale of the fighters besides being used as a pull to enhance terror groups’ recruitment. Use of specific terms such as brides and wives actually entice men belonging to a specific mindset of gender stereotype at the same time creating the feeling of subordination among those subjugated women.
A former a recruiter for notorious radical Islamist group, who later turned her back on extremism Yasmin Mulbocus threw light on the deep psychology of young girls and women while describing what compels them to join these radicalized groups. She feels frustrated the way global media represents women that sign up to violent extremist group and she has a reason. The media seems to cherry pick the details of such women. These women are not merely the pictures you see on television nor the words upon a newspaper page, they are mindful, alive human beings. By using such provoking rather rousing titles like ‘Jihadis’ the media is actually empowering these young girls and Yasmin suggests that this is what they want, to feel empowered. By empowering these girls through relating them to such metaphoric titles, the media as a matter of fact pushing them more towards the extremist cause and of course they would want to fit this title because they want to foster fear in their erroneous melodramatic minds. One way to cater this problem is to take these rousing titles away and of course the governments’ will to empower these young minds socially and financially both.
Not only revoking such empowering titles but the world also needs to come up with some reworked referral names for these extremist groups which should not be relating to any religion. For instance, “Islamic State”, by itself, is such an empowering title that it must have radicalized many regular Muslims by convincing them that they were fighting for Islam. To curb the growth of terrorism in today’s world we must make an effort to take away the religious identity of these terrorist groups as it the gives the erroneous feeling of being a part of something bigger and divine. No religion teaches to annihilate the rest of the world and let alone Islam which is the religion of peace. While these terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war.
Women’s increasingly diverse roles within radical groups call for a more sophisticated approach to the problem with a better understanding of the factors driving the radicalization of these young women from around the globe. The women from a traditional, patriarchal society where their voices are not even heard get allured by the idea of having a lot of decision-making power and authority. They believe it to be a much better life than the other women of their community. Given the restrictions that they face in some highly conservative societies, this jihadi appeal may be very strong, not just for ideology reasons but to gain a sense of empowerment and virtual emancipation. While it is essential not to overplay the threat, still women across the world needs to be aware of the changing nature of threat. At the same time, some steps to empower them must be taken at global level to minimize the gender misconceptions and gender stereotypes that more so often affect their growth and space to contribute positively in their surroundings.
Turkey begins the return of ISIS fighters to Europe
Today, Turkey started sending ISIS fighters back to Europe, as it promised last week.
Europe needs to take responsibility for its ISIS fighters. US President Trump is right on that.
As Turkey’s minister of internal affairs said last week, Turkey is not a hotel for foreign terrorists. Europe’s jihadists are its own problem to deal with.
What is interesting however is that Turkey has been releasing ISIS fighters from the region that it held in custody. But not when it comes to European jihadists.
With this move, Turkey’s aim is to actually punish Europe. Erdogan is doing this out of spite because he knows that this is what Europeans fear the most. It is not Erdogan’s priority to try ISIS, as he has shown previously. To piss off the Europeans, yes, that’s a different story.
This recent development comes to remind us that Western Europe has a big problem to deal with. The evidence from conflict zones will not hold in European courts which means that authorities might have to let ISIS fighters that still have their citizenship walk free. That is a European nightmare.
This serves to remind French President Macron that France not Bosnia is the biggest jihadist force in Europe. Macron called Bosnia a jihadist ticking bomb in that unfortunate Economist interview but France is the real problem. No other European country has such a high number of jihadist fighters in the Middle East.
Today a Greek ISIS fighter whose citizenship had been stripped was not allowed in Greece upon return from Turkey. We will see that a lot in the coming weeks. The situation of no citizenship will create a legal question of statelessness which will make the return of ISIS fighters also a human rights question.
The Rise OF ISIS and its Aftermath in Afghanistan
“I will see you guys in Newyork”.Abu Du’a, the leader of ISIS, whose nom de guerre (war name) was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told his American captors as he was released from a brief detention during Iraq war. After American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al Baghdadi joined the Arms Resistance against the U.S led coalition troops in Iraq but he was captured and detained in a US. – run Iraqi prison in 2006. Following al Baghdadi’s release in the late 2000s, he joined the predecessor to ISIS: the Islamic State of Iraq(ISI). This group initially affiliated themselves with AL- Qaeda, but was later rejected by AL Qaeda due to their brutal acts and it became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). IN 2010, al Baghdadi became the leader of ISI and changed the name of the organization to Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013.
On 29 June 2014, ISIS declared the worldwide caliphate under the leadership of “caliph Ibrahim” with publishing a statement of supporting al Baghdadi’s designation as caliph. This concept of caliphate is mainly based on the universal religion and its ultimate goal is the establishment of Islamic state. This political idea of Islamic state is embodied in the concept of the ummah (community) which says that all the Muslims wherever they reside are bounded by a common faith which transcends all geographical, political or national boundaries.
Many other groups had pledged allegiance to ISIS like the Boko haram in Nigeria, the bait al Maqdis in Egypt, the Islamic movement in Uzbekistan, andthe previous leader of TTP Hafiz Saeed, also pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi in Oct, 2014 renaming themselves as the Islamic state of Khorasan (ISK) in Afghanistan. IS-K’s early membership included a contingent of Pakistani militants who emerged in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province around 2010, just across the border from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Many of these militants were estranged members of TTP and Lashkar-e Islam, who had fled from Pakistan to escape pressure from security forces.
ISK emerged in different provinces of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan but outnumbered in the eastern province of Ningarhar, Achin district, due to some specific reasons. Achin district is one of the backward, underdeveloped and illiterate regions of Afghanistan which makes its population vulnerable to recruitment as new militants. Moreover, peopled welling in this district joined and supported this new group not only for their Islamic ideology but also for the high salaries of $500 paid by this organization.In the beginning of their journey in the region, ISK dealt people in a soft manner and always refrained from offensive language to encourage and inspire the people to join this militant group.
But with the passage of time, ISK changed its behavior and started the forceful imposition of sharia law. People were prevented from the cultivation of opium which was the main source of revenue for the locals of that region, seized drugs and sentenced drug addicted people, however, majority of their own militants were drug addicts and sold drugs seized from the locals to meet their own financial needs. They introduced numerous fabricated laws that were neither in conformity to national, Islamic nor in conformity with the locals laws. The militants of the group were indoctrinated to such an extent that they were willing to sacrifice everything for the interest of the group. One of their militants, involved in a robbery case, accepted his crime in front of the group’s judicial committee. As per the Islamic rules, anyone involved in the robbery would have their hands cut off. Therefore, When the militants were cutting hands, he was chanting ‘’Allah ho Akbar’’-Allah is the greatest.
Taliban and Afghan forces have attacked the Achin district many times but no one of them succeeded in retaking the district from ISK. This region was completely monopolized by this group and they ruled the people according to their own so called sharia law. People started displacement from the region towards Jalalabad, the provincial capital because they were unable to abide by these brutal laws and tolerate the atrocities. Following is a short story which a person told in anonymity about the excessive brutalities perpetrated by ISK in Achin.
“We all flocked outside after Friday prayer, according to announcement in sermon. They brought seven detainees belong to Emirates a Taliban group, Afghan national Army member and spies. All were covered with black ski masks. Meanwhile, an ISIS militant rode on a trained horse, having sharp sword in hands and reached to the spot. He decapitated all of them and shouted “Allah ho Akbar”. With the sound of Allah ho Akbar, we all scattered like flies in the air and no one knows what happened. But later on it was realized by people who delivered us to hospital that the place was targeted by a US drone. Many people were injured, and the ISIS militant who was beheading the prisoners was burned by drone attack. I still have the scene in my mind which has really affected me mentally and can’t take out those thuds of the sword from my mind when he was beheading those innocent people”.
Furthermore, they knelt innocent elders of the Shenwari nation belong to the same district on the bombs accused of in affiliation to the Taliban. A gruesome video also uploaded by them to the YouTube. These kind of brutal acts were the routine of everyday in Daesh or ISK controlled areas.
Afghan Commando assisted by US special forces have been fighting with the ISK in Achin for the last few years and have made significant progress contributing to the liberation of some villages but there are speculations that united states itself is assisting this militant group and supplying food and weapons to them through helicopters which has put the Afghans in doubt. US dropped the ” mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal formally known as GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast on 13 April 2017 on ISIS Khorasan cave complex in Achin district, Ningarhar. According to a statement from the United States military in Afghanistan, the bomb hit a tunnel complex but they didn’t say how many militants were killed or whether the bombing caused any civilian casualties. The fact is that it was only an experience of their conventional bomb which is clear from the following statement of the Ex-president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai:
“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons”. This claim of Ex-president was further forged by the locals of Achin who stated that there was neither weapons depot nor any single ISIS fighter in the targeted region.
Currently Achin district has been cleared by Afghan Forces from this group but there are opportunities of their return to the region. Afghan Forces should show their strong presence, build the region and rehabilitate former militants. We are the veterans of many regions where US and Afghan forces have operated and lost hundreds of their soldiers for clearing the region but have left the region vulnerable to the insurgents return. Moreover, America should equip Afghan forces with sophisticated weapons to counter these threats. Afghan National Directorate can play a vital role in the dissolution of this group by infiltration of their own spies in disguise.
Moreover, in comparison to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have oil resources of about $2 billion and financed by different Arab states, this group is very much dependent on local revenues and neighboring state Pakistan. Pakistan may not be able to support two insurgent groups-Taliban and ISK-simultaneously for a single goal. And the so called jihad vacuum is also filled by Taliban which never want any rival jihadi group in Afghanistan.
Imprisoned ISIS Wives and Children Have Nowhere to Run To, Nowhere to Hide
The guards have said if the war comes close, then they will leave here,” a Western ISIS wife texted me today from Camp Roj in far northeastern Syria, a detention center that houses 500 ISIS wives and 1,200 of their children. “What to do if we are left alone?” she asks. “There’s nowhere to go and too risky to get caught by Bashar [al-Assad].”
As she writes, I’m in Belgium sitting next to an FBI agent. I ask him what she should do, but amid all of this chaos, he doesn’t have an immediate answer.
The ISIS wife continues: “I like how America thinks it’s too dangerous for them [the U.S. military] to be here but safe for us to remain with Assad.”
Over the past two years I’ve been in and out of the northeastern territory of Syria held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) six times with staff from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). We have conducted in-depth interviews with 217 ISIS men and women, 100 of them in SDF held territory, for our project countering the ISIS brand, which the SDF has supported fully.
The woman texting me today gave us an interview last year and has managed to stay in touch via illicit phones other detainees allow her to use.
At the same time she is texting me, our Kurdish translator texts that they are living under the sound of bombs and troops advancing. Assad’s troops are marching eastward, while Turkey is barreling in from the north. Which soldiers will reach Camp Roj first and what the women should do if the Kurdish YPJ-Women’s Protection Units guarding them decide it’s too dangerous to remain in place, is something the guards have told the inmates to think about.
The female inmates of Camp Ain Issa, farther west, faced a similar dilemma earlier in the week when the Turks began shelling. Until Sunday, Ain Issa Camp housed a total of 12,000 women and children, but according to one Belgian woman, it descended into “complete chaos” as fires broke out, the guards left, and the women escaped in the hundreds.
Among the women housed there, 265 were wives of foreigner terrorist fighters, alongside 1,000 of their children. On the second day of the Turkish air assault, Belgian ISIS wives Bouchra Abouallal and Tatiana Wielandt decided it was better to go on the run with their small children than remain in place to learn what next disaster might befall them.
We interviewed Bouchra Abouallal in September 2019. Completely exhausted from her experience with ISIS, she said that life inside the Caliphate was “the best possible deradicalization program ever.” Already prosecuted in absentia and facing a five-year sentence in her home country of Belgium, she told ICSVE researchers she would prefer to return home even to serve a 20-year sentence rather than remain in the camp under the menace of the cruel ISIS-inmate enforcers who threatened all European women who no longer wanted anything to do with the ISIS Caliphate.
Now Bouchra Abouallal is on the run with her three small children. In audio messages punctuated in the background by shelling she told a Belgian journalist that she was headed toward the front lines in hopes she could make it to safety in Turkey, where she wishes to turn herself into the Belgian consulate and make her way home.
While European officials here in Brussels have stated that Turkey agrees to help any escaped ISIS cadres that end in their hands to be returned to their homelands, up until recently, Belgium was refusing to let her come back. Instead of seeing her as someone victimized by the Islamic State’s propaganda and lies, and fooled by the “Shariah for Belgium” group that had radicalized many in her native city of Antwerp, Belgian politicians see her as a threat.
But it is not difficult for Belgian authorities to turn past posts on her social media accounts against her.
“Your system has failed oh Belgian state,” Bouchra’s Facebook page read after she slipped out of Belgium to go live under the Islamic State. Referring to the way the Belgian police had hassled her upon her first return home from Syria, her posts taunted them, saying “You were watching us 24/7 and you still haven’t managed to stop us. Why? Because Allah is the best planner (…)” Her threats continued with, “We have left because we believe that it is a duty for every Muslim. To the policeman who threatened to take our children away, I can say that my children will turn yours into orphans, with the will of Allah.”
Bouchra claims that it wasn’t she, but one of her ISIS husbands, who authored these hate-filled posts. She says he used to lock her up at home and post on her Facebook page without her permission. Indeed, when we interviewed Bouchra in September she spoke gently as she denounced ISIS, giving us permission to use both her image and her name in a counter narrative video—this, while knowing the ISIS enforcers in the camp would likely punish her for it.
The woman texting me today from Camp Roj does so fearing that if it becomes known it was her texting she will be punished by her YPJ guards. Yet pure terror drives her to try to stay connected with the outside world as she makes wrenching decisions for herself and her young child.
Americans are also in this camp. We have interviewed two American passport holders—Canadian dual-citizen Kimberly Pullman and disputed American citizen Hoda Muthana.
When I ask today’s texter about Americans in the camps, she tells me there are five in all, two more in Camp Roj and another in Camp Hol. She states that there are also two American children in Camp Roj. We’ve met one of them, Adam, the two-year-old son of Hoda Muthana. Both times we interviewed his mother, Adam was struggling with chronic bronchitis. Today the woman texting me from Camp Roj tells me that the air is thick with fumes from the bombings, which is causing many of the children to have breathing difficulties.
“Going to jail right now won’t be great,” this woman writes as she imagines her future in the West—if she can ever manage to get home. Then she envisions another future: “I could get lost among all of this trouble.” Then again she realizes that fleeing the camp, if her guards do abandon their posts, might also prove disastrous.
“Please let the governments know that we are not happy with the escape of the women [who have left the camps]. We are actually scared and want to just be safe in our own embassies,” she texts. “We don’t want to keep running away. We want to be tried. I’ve already had the chance to run away before and I decided to be tried in my own country.”
Now the pressing question, amid all of this chaos unleashed by Trump greenlighting the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria: Is anyone going to do anything to get these former ISIS wives and their children back home where they can face justice and live in safety or do we just leave them to face whatever fate turns up as hostile armies converge?
Author’s note: first published in the Daily Beast
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