By Lydia Khalil
25 June 2019
Women will be important to the resurgence and transformation of the Islamic State from governance project to global terrorist insurgency.
Islamic 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.
The cohort 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.
Women have 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.
Momena 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 Allah.”
While women 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.
Women have 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 “obligation”.
This Analysis 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 group.
Traditional Notions of Jihad Vs Battlefield Reality
Although 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.
Traditionally, 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 all.
Women’s 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.
However, 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.
The first 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 Palestinian males.
The Chechen 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.
In addition 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.
Women, 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.
The 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.
The Ideological Debate
Whether 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.
For 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
While Azzam 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.
The debate 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.
Scholar 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.”
The 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.
Reviewing 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.
Women’s 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.
However, it 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.
The Islamic State Difference
The popular 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 Islamic State.
Islamic 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.
In its 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.
Using 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.”
Yet even 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 rules.
Women were 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.
While 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.
In one 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.
One example 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’.
Shadi Jabar 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 2015.
Jabar and 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.
The 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.
But women 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.
The Decline Of The Caliphate And The Call On Women Fighters
As Islamic 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”.
Other IS 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 least defensively.
However, IS 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)”.
In October 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.
Seven 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 caliphate.
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.”
Around the 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.
Yet 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.
Even before 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.
The 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 Libya.
Source: Lowy Institute