be important to the resurgence and transformation of the Islamic State from
governance project to global terrorist insurgency.
State has expanded both the potential and the scope of the roles and functions
women can play, providing additional avenues for their participation in jihad
in both kinetic and non-kinetic roles.
of former caliphate members of mostly women and children now held in camps pose
a key challenge for counterterrorism efforts around the world. Assumptions
about women and violence can obstruct an accurate assessment of the threat
female IS supporters pose and an accurate understanding of their agency.
long played an important role in jihad, but the Islamic State has, since its
inception, expanded both the potential and scope of those female roles. The
caliphate may be no longer, but Islamic State's military defeats have not
dampened the appeal of jihad in many quarters. In fact, conditions are already
set for an IS resurgence. There is a global cohort of over 73 000 women and
children (10 000 of them foreigners) in Kurdish camps who surrendered after the
fall of Baghouz. The Islamic State considers this cohort, as well as other
female supporters, a key part of its future survival. As Islamic State shifts
from governance project to global terrorist movement, women will continue to
play an important part of that transformation. Greater female participation in
jihad will have a profound influence on the jihadist threat and
counterterrorism efforts. In future, national security efforts will need to
take this into account in counterterrorism, countering violent extremism as
well as rehabilitation programs.
Shoma is a 24-year-old woman from Bangladesh who came to Australia on a student
visa in early 2018. She was placed in a homestay with the family of Roger
Singaravelu. Two days into her stay, Singaravelu was awoken from a nap with his
young daughter by a sharp pain in his neck. He found Shoma standing over him
with a knife in her hand incanting praises to Allah. Singaravelu narrowly
escaped with his and his daughter’s life. Shoma was arrested and charged with
engaging in a terrorist attack and attempted murder. After her arrest, she
pleaded guilty, reportedly telling detectives she attacked Singaravelu because
of the “order of Islamic State [which was calling on]Islamic State everyone,
even the women. So I just felt obligated, and it was like a burden on me. Yeah,
I just had to do it … it could have been anyone, it’s not specifically him … I
just felt like if I don’t do it I will be sinful, I will be punished by
have been implicated in terrorist plots in Australia as supporters, financiers,
influencers and enablers, Shoma is the first woman in Australia to conduct a
jihadist terrorist attack as a direct violent actor. Yet Shoma is not unique
and not the only woman to conspire to commit violence in Australia on behalf of
Islamic State. She is among a growing number of women responding to IS calls
to attack its enemies wherever they may be, but particularly in the West.
long played an important role in jihad, even before the rise of Islamic State.
However, the organisation has expanded the roles of women and children in jihad
in significant ways. Since Islamic State
was founded, we have seen the first female-only terrorist cells in Europe, the
first female committing violence in the name of jihad in Australia, the first
would-be lone actor female suicide bomber in Indonesia, and the first
propaganda video featuring female jihadists fighting alongside men on the
battlefield. The first nuclear family to jointly conduct a suicide attack in
the name of jihad was in Indonesia in May 2018. Islamic State has also
become the first jihadist organisation to explicitly call women to the battlefield.
Instead of framing women’s participation in jihad in proscribed or defensive
terms as other ideologues have in the past, Islamic State has called on women
to engage in combat jihad on behalf of the cause, saying it is an
will outline how female IS supporters have become vital players across the
organisation, from birthing and indoctrinating the next generation of jihadists
and maintaining networks and ties among IS supporters, to committing ultimate
acts of violence in the name of their ideology. To appreciate just how much
Islamic State has shifted the benchmark on women’s involvement in jihad, it is
important to first review the previous roles women have played within jihadist
organisations and the ideological justifications for their role. It is also
important to examine how previous jihadist conflicts pushed the boundaries,
paving the way for Islamic State to fully embrace the participation of women in
direct combat operations both in battlefield insurgencies and as part of
terrorist operations conducted around the world.
The role of
women in Islamic State has important ramifications for both the future of the
organisation and jihad writ large. Islamic State may be stripped of territory
and the caliphate defeated, but the organisation is not finished. It has
money, and it has people. There are over 73 000 former caliphate members
(mostly women and children, and 10 000 of them foreigners) who are currently in
Kurdish refugee camps. Islamic State considers this cohort of women and
children, as well as other female supporters, a key part of their future
survival. The 2019 Sri Lanka attacks were a potent signal of how women will
contribute to the global terrorism operations of a resurgent Islamic State,
both as violent actors in their own right and as part of familial support
networks in plotting and carrying out attacks on behalf of the jihadist
Notions of Jihad Vs Battlefield Reality
the jihadist landscape has been dominated by the imagery and savagery of men,
women have long played important roles in jihadist organisations, and have been
critical to the jihadist enterprise. The participation of women and families
legitimises the entire project, portraying it not just as a violent male
adventure but as a purposeful social revolution, a return to the true Islamic
way of life and a means to a complete society.
women’s roles in jihad were narrowly circumscribed. The Salafi jihadist world
view has always been strictly patriarchal, a function both of its particular
interpretation of Islam and the societal norms from which many jihadist
ideologues emerged. Jihadist groups were reluctant to mobilise women to fight
and, according to previous jihadist ideological debates, women were only
permitted to participate in combat jihad under very limited conditions, if at
duties in jihad were primarily supportive and domestic. Their role was to give
birth to, raise and indoctrinate future generations of jihadists. They were
expected to be religiously knowledgeable and fierce guardians of their home.
They were also expected to facilitate their husband’s work, raise his children,
keep his house and be encouragers and nurturers. If a woman did venture into
other activities aside from supporting her husband, it was to educate herself
and her children in jihadist ideology and perhaps to raise money for the cause.
It was not a woman’s role to participate in combat. In fact, they were
prohibited from taking on combat roles – including recruiting, plotting, or
participating in violent attacks.
this prohibition of women in combat was never absolute. There have been
numerous instances of women involved in the kinetic side of jihad, most notably
as suicide bombers.
female Palestinian suicide bombers in the early 2000s were Palestinian
nationalists rather than jihadists. However, noting the popularity of these
female bombers, by 2003 groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had
reached the decision to use female suicide bombers as well, and began a public
campaign to recruit women. Hamas, although initially reluctant, followed a year
later. This helped them override intense Israeli security measures against
conflict produced female suicide bombers, known as ‘Black Widows’, who sought
vengeance for the deaths of their male relatives at the hands of Russian
military forces. Some also wanted to restore the honour stripped from them by
routine Russian brutality during the conflict such as rape.
to becoming suicide bombers, women have also been involved in militancy in
Kashmir and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a
Pakistan-based extremist organisation, has long had a very active women’s wing
with their own regular meetings, publications and girls schools. LeT
mothers served an important function in indoctrinating and providing consent
for their sons to fight and die for the cause. While LeT has not used
female suicide bombers, other Pakistani groups such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba
Pakistan (SSP) have recruited and deployed female suicide bombers.
especially young girls, have been used to devastating effect as suicide bombers
by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Skirting jihadist norms, Boko Haram favoured women
suicide bombers because they were cheap, more expendable than male leaders, and
a useful means of evading security measures following counterterrorism
crackdowns and a declared state of emergency in Nigeria from 2014. This use
of women and girls was unprecedented in the world of jihad at the time and did
more to normalise the role of women as suicide bombers than arguably any other
group. In the six years between April 2011 and June 2017, Boko Haram deployed
434 bombers, of which at least 56 per cent were women – a higher proportion of
women than any other terrorist group in history. Boko Haram eventually
became an IS affiliate in 2015.
precursor to Islamic State, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), also conducted dozens of
female suicide bombings under the leadership of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. An arm of
its Diyala Province branch was tasked specifically with recruiting female
bombers. AQI’s infrastructure had become weakened and fractured as Coalition
forces became adept and efficient at picking off mid-level AQI operatives. With
fewer men left to fight, using women was a logical response. This was in
defiance of the ideology of their central organisation, however, and was one of
the factors that led to the split between AQI and al-Qaeda central and the
eventual formation of Islamic State.
women are prohibited from fighting in jihad altogether, or whether they are
permitted to fight under specific circumstances, has been a subject of debate
since the times of the Prophet Mohamed. There is no clear consensus in the
religious literature on the acceptability of Muslim women taking up arms.
example, historically women fought alongside the Prophet Muhammad in his
battles. Nusayba, also known as Umm ’Umara, fought in the Battle of Uhud in 626
AD. The Prophet’s aunt, Safiya, took up a sword in the Battle of Khandaq in 627
AD. Safiya reportedly cut off the head of an enemy fighter trying to scale the
city walls and threw it back over to his fellow soldiers. And early in
Islam’s history, Muhammad’s widowed young wife, Aisha, led an army of 3000 in
the Battle of the Camel in the religion’s first civil war. Despite these accounts
of women fighting during the Prophet’s time, many Muslim jurists advised
against it in later periods, recommending alternative jihads for women, such as
the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca.
there was no firm consensus on when and how women were to participate in jihad.
Participation depended on a specific fatwa, or ruling, being issued by a
recognised religious authority, which set out the conditions of that
participation.. The modern jihadist ideological position generally hewed to the
view that women were an impediment to men in their quest for jihad,
representing the ties that bind, but left room for adjustment.
One of the
foundational documents of modern jihad, Abdullah Azzam’s Defense of the Muslim
Lands, argued that women should be allowed to participate in combat in
particular circumstances. In 1979 Azzam famously wrote that “if a piece of
Muslim land the size of a hand span is infringed upon, then jihad becomes fard
ayn (global obligation) on every Muslim male and female, where the child shall
march forward without the permission of its parents and the wife without the
permission of the husband”. In Azzam’s framing, Muslims were waging a
defensive jihad and therefore it was fard ayn (obligatory) for every member of
the community to participate, women and children included.
was a key influence on al-Qaeda and subsequent jihadist organisations, the
dominant Salafi jihadist view was that women were to continue to follow their
traditional segregated gender role. Participating in ‘male jihad’ by
participating in combat or conducting a suicide operation was a contravention
of the ideology.
about women in combat roles was resuscitated in the 1990s with Muhammad Khayr
Haykal’s mammoth treatise, Jihad and Fighting According to Sharia. His writings
reopened the question of whether women were actually forbidden from fighting.
He used the same ideological construction as Azzam and concluded that when it
was fard ayn, women were not forbidden from fighting but in fact should do so
under defensive circumstances.
David Cook identified six subsequent fatwas issued by religious leaders after
Azzam which made the argument that women be allowed to participate in combat
operations under certain circumstances. The most well known was by Yusuf
al-Qaradawi, who was not a jihadist ideologue but a popular sheikh famous
throughout the Islamic world from his television appearances. In response to a
2004 suicide bombing carried out by a Palestinian mother working for Hamas,
Qaradawi, echoing Azzam, stated: “When jihad becomes an individual duty, as
when the enemy seizes the Muslim territory, a woman becomes entitled to take
part in it alongside men … a woman should go out even without the consent of
her husband, a son can go too without the permission of his parent.”
prohibition of women in combat jihad – either tactically or ideologically – has
therefore never been rigid but instead has been adjusted, challenged and
debated within jihadist circles since the earliest days of Islam.
the recent conflicts and groups in Syria and Iraq, the extent of women’s roles
has mostly been dictated by the particular circumstances of the jihadist group.
When suffering heavy losses or operating under a prohibitive counterterrorism
regime, jihadist groups eased the prohibition on women fighting. Decisions to
deploy women in combat were a response to restrictions and losses. Women’s
participation in combat operations was also a means of shoring up flagging
recruitment: not just to replenish the ranks with women, but to shame available
men into rejoining the fight.
combat participation in jihad has been justified based on such operational
realities. What had been tactical considerations became strategic choice.
Strategic choice then often led to ideological rationalisation.
was not until the advent of Islamic State that women’s involvement in combat
evolved from being permissible in certain circumstances, to becoming
obligatory. Islamic State not only rationalised its tactical choices but went a
step further by stating they were in fact obligated to do so. That small
semantic shift has important potential consequences for the future of the
jihadist movement and the nature of the threat it poses.
Islamic State Difference
perception of Islamic State is of an organisation that has placed brutal
restrictions on women. ISIS female adherents, particularly its foreign
recruits, were labelled as ‘jihadi brides’, women attracted to, or groomed by,
bad boy Muslim extremists. These women were presented as cloistered or
oppressed, confined at home bearing and rearing children, with little
constructive role in the organisation. However, the experience of women in
Islamic State went far beyond these assumptions. Despite its many
well-documented atrocities against women, Islamic State gave its female
adherents in jihad a sense of agency and empowerment. The group provided an
ideology that allowed Muslim women to challenge both the state and the
patriarchy through writing such as that of Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirah, who
argues that a woman can defy both her society and husband in joining the
State understood and effectively harnessed the power of women’s roles as wives,
mothers, influencers and recruiters for the long-term survival of the
organisation, but also expanded their role outside the home as enforcers,
spies, and attackers. The caliphate attracted a significant number of women,
more so than other jihadist theatres. Since its establishment, 15 per cent of
voluntary migrants to the caliphate have been women. Like other
organisations in modern society, Islamic State has not been immune from
feminist movements. The wide variety of its adherents’ backgrounds, together
with the ubiquity of the internet and the evolving social media landscape, have
contributed to a greatly expanded role for women in jihad.
early days, Islamic State shared and promoted the prevailing jihadist stance on
the role of women and their prohibition from combat. In an article published in
Dabiq magazine, “A Jihad Without Fighting”, its female author laid out the
critical role of women in building the Ummah (worldwide Muslim community) as
wife, mother, and bearer of the next generation of jihadists.
potent language she evoked the strong protective imagery of a lion and her
cubs: “As for you, O mother of lion cubs … what will make you know what the
mother of lion cubs is? She is the teacher of generations.”
while encouraging women to confine themselves to their home and extolling their
domestic role, IS women were called on to perform security and recruitment
functions for the organisation. The notorious al-Khansaa Brigade, purportedly
led by a Moroccan woman, was made up of mostly French-speaking women
who acted as a hisba, a morality policy force. Members of the al-Khansaa
Brigade ventured out in full niqab, rifles over shoulders, patrolling the
streets for women who violated Islamic State’s strict decency codes and meted
out hudud or punishment when necessary. While they did not participate in
combat operations, they were given weapons and weapons training. The female
hisba forces were often the most brutal enforcers of the draconian community
also given leadership roles. Syrian woman Nisreen Assad Ibrahim Bahar (also
known as Umm Sayyaf) advised IS senior leadership and was personally
appointed by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to supervise hostages
including American aid worker Kayla Mueller.
al-Khansaa enforced morality or hisba rules, other female battalions extended
their responsibility beyond hisba. There are reports of female IS supporters
accompanying male fighters on house raids so they can search women, and
running brothels of Yazidi sex slaves.
study examining the profiles of female IS supporters, the most common
self-identified role, surpassing even the number of women who identified as
‘wife/mother’, was as recruiter for the organisation. IS women recruited on
the ground among local populations in Iraq and Syria as well as online. They
urged people to come to the caliphate in general pronouncements, but also
specifically identified would-be recruits online and facilitated their travel
to Syria. In the online space, women acted as propagandists, facilitators of
travel, and influencers, as well as recruiters for the caliphate.
of such an IS actor is Australian Zehra Duman, who at 19 left Australia to join
Islamic State and is currently in a Kurdish-run detention camp. Duman
maintained an active online presence where she promoted Islamic State,
celebrated martyrdom, threatened Australia, and attempted to recruit for the
caliphate. IS promoters such as Duman posed with weapons and new cars,
illustrating what some have termed ‘jihadi girl power’.
was another young Australian who was an active online recruiter and promoter of
Islamic State. According to US Pentagon officials, she contributed to the planning
of IS external attacks, and was “active in recruiting foreign fighters in
efforts to inspire attacks against Western interests”. Jabar was also
instrumental in radicalising her younger brother, 15-year-old Farhad Jabar, who
shot police accountant Curtis Cheung at the Parramata police station in
Duman’s social media accounts depict life in Islamic State as normal, even
glamorous. Like other female IS supporters in the online space, they played a
role in normalising the atrocities and the radicalism of the group and
presenting it as a lifestyle choice and an initiation into a sisterhood.
Their social media posts talk about “five star jihad”, show them posing in
pictures with luxury cars, and depict the perks of life as a foreign fighter of
the caliphate. Duman posted a picture of herself with her girl squad,
tagged “Can’t mess with my clique. From the land down under, to the land of
Khilafah. That’s the Aussie spirit.” IS widows have claimed to be more
content than ever after their husbands’ deaths. Others have depicted
Islamic State and jihadism as a “cool” or “alternative” lifestyle.
examples of Duman, Jabar and others illustrate how IS women online have been
able to engage in jihad beyond their traditional support roles and with fewer
gender constraints. Because Islamic State considers its virtual caliphate just
as important as the physical caliphate, women’s independent and assertive
activity online unlocked an alternative space for them and provided a cognitive
opening for the acceptance of greater roles for women in jihad.
also had more ‘direct’ roles online, comparable with kinetic or operational
roles in the physical realm. American Kim Anh Vo, for example, was arrested by
the FBI for her involvement in the United Cyber Caliphate (UCC), an online
group pledging allegiance to Islamic State that carried out online attacks and
published “kill lists” of US personnel. While UCC’s cyber capabilities are
and were very limited, Vo’s arrest shows that women were not excluded from
Islamic State’s fledgling cyberterrorism efforts.
Decline Of The Caliphate And The Call On Women Fighters
State suffered increasing military and territorial losses in its fight to
maintain the physical caliphate, it became more important to shore up
participants in battle – including women. In January 2015, the al-Khansaa
Brigade published a manifesto on the role of women, articulating a combat role
for women in specific defensive circumstances. Although the manifesto focused
on the traditional role of wife and mother and rebutted “Western” notions of
human rights and gender equality, it stated that women could venture
outside their homes and engage in jihad “as the women of Iraq and Chechnya did”.
documents echoed this. IS Arabic-language newspaper al-Naba published an
article in 2016 stating: “Jihad as a rule is not an obligation for women, but
let the female Muslim know as well that if the enemy enters her abode, jihad is
just as necessary for her as it is for the man and she should repel him by
whatever means possible.” As in past jihadist conflicts when losses were
mounting, IS pronouncements evolved to allow women to take on combat roles, at
online magazine Rumiya went further in July 2017, going beyond the defensive
jihad justification in issuing a call to arms. Recalling the history of Umm
Umara, IS women were urged to the battlefield on the basis that jihad was now
fard ayn, an individual obligation. The Rumiya article explicitly urged women
to take up arms “not [to compensate for] the small number of men but rather due
to their love for jihad, their desire to sacrifice for the sake of Allah and
their desire for Jannah (paradise)”.
2017, in an essay in al-Naba, IS stated that women were not only permitted but
now obligated to fight on behalf of the caliphate, calling on women to follow
the examples of other women who fought alongside the prophet Muhammad.
months after the fall of Raqqa and their declaration that women’s jihad was
obligatory, Islamic State released an official propaganda video in January 2018
featuring female combatants. Women had rarely been seen in official
propaganda material or pictured engaging in combat operations. Part of the
“Inside the Caliphate” series, the video showed niqab-clad women fighting
alongside men in Deir Ezzor, the narrator noting: “The chaste mujahid woman
journeying to her lord with garments of purity and faith, seeking revenge for
her religion and for the honor of her sisters imprisoned by the apostate
Kurds”. The narrator noted the “beginning of the new era” in the
It could be
argued that Islamic State is merely following the same trajectory as other
jihadist groups and conflicts before it, overriding established ideology for tactical
reasons in arguing that combat jihad was now permissible for women. As the
Washington Post bluntly put it: “How do we know the Islamic State is losing?
Now it’s asking women to fight.”
time of these releases, Islamic State was indeed collapsing, with fighting in
Mosul and Raqqa at its peak and Coalition forces closing in. There were reports
of multiple female suicide attacks in Mosul. By the time women’s
participation in jihad had been declared obligatory in October 2017, the caliphate
had lost 60 per cent of its territory and its last major stronghold, the IS
capital Raqqa, was liberated from IS control.
regardless of battlefield losses, Islamic State did not frame a women’s
obligation to conduct jihad through a lens of loss. In its publications and
propaganda, Islamic State did not frame women’s participation as a means to
shame men into fighting and did not justify it based on losses or pressure from
their adversaries, as other groups before it had. It was presented as a natural
extension of a women’s duty to defend the caliphate.
Islamic State declared it obligatory for women to fight on the battlefield,
women had already begun fighting in its other branches. The first confirmed
report of a female IS suicide bomber was from an affiliate organisation in
Libya. There were several female suicide bombings there (both attempted and
successful) throughout 2016, and in an evacuation of women and children
from an IS holdout in Sirte, women bombers used children as decoys.
al-Khansaa Brigade leader, Umm Rayan al Tunisi, had significant success in
involving women in Islamic State after establishing a women’s unit in
Libya, and their usefulness was not confined to suicide bombings. Female
fighters also reportedly handled logistics, were given weapons training and
explosive belts, and fought alongside men. They were sent out as recruiters
and paid as much as $3000 per recruit. By the end of 2016, an estimated
1000 women, 300 of them Tunisian, were fighting with Islamic State in
Source: Lowy Institute