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The Mujahidat Dilemma: Female Combatants and the Islamic State – Part One

Charlie Winter

By Charlie Winter and Devorah Margolin

August 16, 2017

Abstract: There has been an apparent shift in the Islamic State’s position on whether or not women can participate in combat. While female suicide bombers were used extensively by the Islamic State’s predecessor group, al Qa`ida in Iraq, the Islamic State strictly mandated that women should be wives and mothers rather than fighters. With the group under pressure and facing recruitment challenges, two recent announcements suggest it has lifted its moratorium on women combatants, a shift that could have significant implications for regional and international security.

On July 8, 2017, an image emerged from Mosul in which a young woman was shown cradling a baby as she walked through the ruined streets of the old city, flanked by members of the Iraqi security forces.1 Moments after the image was captured, the woman—who remains, as of yet, unidentified—allegedly detonated an explosive device that had been concealed in the bag at her side. The explosion was reported to have killed the woman and her child, and injured a number of civilians in the vicinity, as well as two Iraqi soldiers. As the battle for Mosul drew to a close after more than nine months of intense urban warfare, reports such as this one have emerged with increasing regularity. Indeed, by mid-July, more than 30 women were alleged to have engaged in suicide operations.2 The Islamic State has not yet claimed any of these attacks, and it could be that it never will. Regardless, the surge of reports regarding alleged female suicide bombers in the Islamic State’s territories raises important questions regarding the organization’s position on women’s participation in war.

While, in recent years, most allegations regarding women bombers in Iraq and Syria have been dubious, there is reason to believe that at least some of these latest reports from Mosul are credible.  The Islamic State has not acknowledged responsibility for these reported female suicide bombings, but it has modified its ideological position on the permissibility of female combatants recently, adopting a stance distinctly reminiscent of its predecessor, al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI). Until now, this shift has gone largely unnoticed.

In the following pages, the authors examine the documents that marked this turnaround, as well as the policies that were antecedent to it. By analyzing the Islamic State’s Arabic- and English-language literature on the matter, the authors demonstrate that, notwithstanding a handful of unconfirmed reports about female suicide bombers, the group’s embargo on female fighters had been remarkably consistent until recently.b They show that, whether or not women are already being posted to the battlefield—and there are increasing numbers of reports that suggest they are—these announcements lay the theological foundations for a development that could have significant implications on the war against the Islamic State not just in Iraq or Syria, but the rest of the world, too.

The article proceeds in five parts. First, it sets out the shift in Islamic State rhetoric on the issue, before tracing the roots of the most commonly held Jihadi stance on women in war. Next, it sets out the position that was adopted by AQI, the Islamic State’s predecessor, in the 2000s. After that, it explores a range of official and semi-official discussions on female combatants released by the Islamic State between 2014 and 2017. The authors conclude by discussing what this shift actually means to those fighting against the organization or shaping policy to counter its terrorist endeavours abroad.

A New Era?

In July 2017, the Islamic State published the 11th edition of Rumiyah, its official magazine.3 Released each month in a number of languages—the issue in question was published in English, French, Bosnian, German, Indonesian, Kurdish, Pashtu, Russian, Turkish, Uyghur, and Urdu—Rumiyah is a repository for Islamic State news, speech transcripts, and infographics. However, it is perhaps most important for its role—alongside the Islamic State’s Arabic-language newspaper, al-Naba’—as an arbiter of organizational policy.

One of Rumiyah’s recurring features is ideological content tailored specifically to the interests of female supporters. In this regard, its essay, “Our Journey to Allah,” did not fail to deliver.4 The article was a four-page polemic encouraging women in the Islamic State to remain “steadfast and unshakable” in the face of adversity and support their husbands as they fought off the so-called caliphate’s encroaching enemies.5 Parroting the usual organizational line, it held that women are first and foremost “wives” and “mothers” who “must fulfil” their duties “attentively,” and refrain from complaining when their husbands “practice the Sunnah [Prophetic tradition] of polygamy.”6

The article would have been wholly unremarkable were it not for four sentences toward the end in which the author declared, by analogy, that women could now take up arms in combative jihad. It was stated that the time had come for them to “rise with courage and sacrifice in this war” and follow in the footsteps of Umm ‘Amarah, a female companion of the Prophet Muhammad who is said to have defended him at the Battle of Uhud along with four other women, one of whom is said to have been pregnant at the time.7 Female supporters of the Islamic State, the article held, were now encouraged to emulate Umm ‘Amarah’s example and take to the battlefield “not because of 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.”8

This call-to-arms compounded an assertion made in al-Naba’ in December 2016 that “jihad is not, as a rule, 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.”9 Taken together, these declarations—both of which reframed the Islamic State jihad as a defence—seemed to suggest that the caliphate had at least rhetorically lifted its moratorium on female combatants.

Before examining how and why this matters, it first serves to contextualize the issue within the wider ideology of Jihadism.

Jihadis and Women at War

In recent decades, Jihadis have tended to coalesce around the view that women—whom they revere as wives, mothers, and educators of the next generation—should not engage in combative jihad—unless, that is, extenuating circumstances demand otherwise.10 This position is based on a doctrine of military jihad that dates back to the early years of Islam and that has been revisited multiple times by Islamic scholars. The doctrine was developed in order to distinguish between times of war and peace as well as the relations not only between Muslim nations, but also between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours. While interpretations of it have fluctuated significantly over the last 1,400 years, the position on women in war has remained relatively consistent. Female Muslims were generally discouraged from ever participating in battle.

This changed when ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, building off the writings on defensive jihad by the Egyptian Islamist ‘Abd al-Salam al-Faraj, cleared the theological way for female combatants.11 In his most famous fatwa, which was popularized in the 1980s, ‘Azzam determined that defensive jihad was a fard ‘ayn (a personal duty) for all Muslims, men and women.12 While relatively revolutionary, this was not a blank check for women to participate in combat. ‘Azzam’s position was more nuanced than that. He ruled that female fighters, while in theory permissible, had to be confined to certain contexts and could only engage when the jihad was defensive.13 This contention was supported by senior Jihadis like the al-Qa`ida ideologue ‘Abd al-Qadir bin ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (Sayyid Imam al-Sharif), who argued that women should be given military training, but only insofar as it would equip them for self-defence against the enemies of Islam.14

In sum, the stance on women’s participation in combat most often adopted by Jihadis is distinctly ambivalent. Females are not meant to fight, but there are conditions whereby it theoretically becomes permissible. However, as scholar Nelly Lahoud found, even when conditions for permissibility arise, it is rare indeed for them to actually be conscripted.15

While it may not have been the first Jihadi outfit to militarize women, AQI was a trailblazer in taking this idea from theory to practice.

Al-Zarqawi’s Mujahidat

In the context of AQI, women combatants were destined to become commonplace. Indeed, during the second half of the 2000s, dozens were reported to have been dispatched on suicide missions for the group.16

The female bomber phenomenon first emerged in Iraq in 2005, a few months after AQI’s leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, released a 97-minute statement entitled “Will the Religion Wane While I Live.”17 In it, he specifically discussed the role of women in jihad, noting that the pressure Sunni Muslims were facing from the occupation in Iraq at the time required that they take a more proactive role. Referring to the precedent set by Umm ‘Amarah—the same female companion of the Prophet Muhammad discussed by the Islamic State of late—al-Zarqawi declared that “the Mujahidah woman is she who raises her child not to live, but to fight and then die so that he may live and be free. What a great endeavour and what a supreme intention.”18 Minutes later, al-Zarqawi can be heard speaking of “the many Mujahidah sisters in the Land of the Two Rivers [Iraq] who are requesting to perpetrate martyrdom-seeking operations.” While al-Zarqawi refrained from confirming whether or not these requests were granted, his words seemed to foreshadow the beginning of what would become AQI’s systematic militarization of women.19 Indeed, in the months and years that followed this speech, female bombers came to play an instrumental role in the Iraqi insurgency, in many ways proving to be more useful than male operatives as they were generally less conspicuous and thus able to slip into areas that were harder to target.

What is widely regarded to have been the first operation by AQI involving a woman came on September 28, 2005, when a female bomber “dressed like a man” detonated an explosive device outside a U.S. military base near Tal Afar.20 In a statement commemorating the attack, AQI’s spokesman at the time, Abu Maysarah al-‘Iraqi, declared the bomber to be “a noble sister” who was acting “heroically in the name of her religion.”21

A few days later, al-Maysara commemorated another attack, this time in Mosul, in which a pair of bombers descended upon a U.S. convoy. His statement read:

“The brother assaulted a convoy of the Cross worshippers in the Baladiyyat district of East Mosul, destroying, by the will of Allah, an armoured vehicle and killing all those within it, thanks be to Allah and His Grace. Then, [the brother’s] wife—and what a wife she was—plunged into another Crusader convoy in the Hadba’ district, crying ‘By the Lord, I succeeded.’ By the will of Allah, she destroyed an armoured vehicle, killing everyone within it, thanks be to Allah and His Grace.”22

To be sure, these operations and others like them—including one that involved the Belgian convert Muriel Degauque—were controversial.23 However, according to al-Zarqawi’s reading of Jihadi doctrine, they were justified both tactically, as a way to strike the adversary, and strategically, as a way to shame men into taking up arms’ As such, they continued unabated even after al-Zarqawi died and AQI began operating under the guise of the Islamic State of Iraq.24 Indeed, with the onset of the 2007 surge, the rate of female suicide bombings actually increased, peaking in 2008 as an apparent result of the unprecedented pressure on the organization at the time.25

An Uneasy Moratorium

For reasons that remain unclear, at around the turn of the decade, the Islamic State of Iraq determined that female participation in combat was no longer permissible. While the organization never specified why, this was perhaps due to the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, who had served to justify its ‘extreme’ measures. However, even though reports about women bombers unequivocally dried up, the group never fully shut the door on its former position.

As such, even though its stance regarding the impermissibility of female combatants was, until recently at least, unambiguous, the Islamic State never refrained from revering the female fighters that had taken up arms as part of its forebears. Take, for example, Sajida al-Rishawi, who was arrested in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 after she failed to detonate an explosive device at a wedding in the Radisson Hotel. In February 2015, years after she had faded from the public eye, al-Rishawi’s name returned to the headlines when the Islamic State demanded that she be released from death row in exchange for the lives of Kenji Goto, the Japanese photojournalist it had taken hostage the year before, and Mu’adh al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot that had crash-landed near Raqqa at the end of 2014. After weeks of negotiations and the deaths of both Goto, who was beheaded by Mohammed Emwazi (aka ‘Jihadi John’), and al-Kasasbeh, who was burned alive in a cage, al-Rishawi was hanged by the Jordanian government.

Among other things, this episode drew attention to an implicit contradiction within the Islamic State’s ideology. When it came to honouring the life of al-Rishawi, the group’s support for her as a would-be AQI bomber was unambiguous. However, at the same time, the Islamic State was, and for a number of years has been, an ardent opponent of female combatants, let alone bombers. Indeed, over the course of the Islamic State’s short tenure as caliphate, its propaganda had been replete with theological, emotional, and political arguments against the appearance of women on the battlefield, a stance that contradicted that of the organization to which it owed its existence.

Until recently, this had continued to be the case. Indeed, the Islamic State had not had to meaningfully engage with the dilemma of female combatants until it started haemorrhaging territory. After all, after it declared itself a caliphate in 2014, the group not only enjoyed the presence of tens of thousands of fighters from abroad—and hence was not suffering from any manpower shortages—it had unambiguously framed its jihad as offensive, not defensive. However, now that its caliphate has been pushed to the brink of territorial collapse, the nature of its jihad has seemingly changed back to a defensive stance. As such, so too has it had to revisit its position on the issue of female combatants.