An undervalued threat?
There are three elements to consider when discussing the threat women who have travelled to join ISIS pose. The first is the immediate threat posed by those who have already made the journey and are unlikely to leave; the second concerns those who have made the journey and then later return to their home country; and the third is those women and girls who were unable to make the journey but still want to contribute to the ISIS cause.
Despite the clear statement on the role of women in the caliphate in ISIS’s recent manifesto, including that women have no role in the fighting, there is clearly a desire of many to take a more active role. This should be seen as a warning of a possible future trend. Past conflict experiences must be learned from, for example that of the Chechnyan ‘black widows,’ who enacted a devastating suicide bombing campaign in part to avenge the deaths of their husbands, brothers and fathers. For ISIS widows, it seems as if they are waiting and willing for the moment when they are allowed to fight. Those battling ISIS must be prepared for a potential change in strategy should ISIS’s male recruitment slow or their casualties begin to outweigh new male recruits.
Turning to those who have made the journey to ISIS territory and then for some reason chosen to return to their home country. Western governments cannot and should not underestimate the impact experiencing a warzone and being surrounded by radical religion can have on willingness to commit ‘home-soil’ atrocities. As noted previously, desensitisation to violence is one factor, coupled with indoctrination that espouses the death of Western ‘non-believers.’ Combined, they present both a threat and an opportunity for counter-narrative and intervention.
Lastly are those women and girls who are unable to travel to Syria or Iraq. Often these women are the target of further indoctrination and attention by female ISIS recruiters, who encourage them to commit ‘home-soil’ atrocities and often accuse them of using obstacles as ‘excuses.’ These women and girls present a different threat to those previously described as they do not need to travel to commit an attack, need limited preparation time and are often more difficult to trace.
Current policy and missing links
Until very recently the predominant focus has been on the counter-narrative needed for young men. However, it is severely lacking direction or nuance towards vulnerable women and girls.
The profile of those who travel or attempt to travel is by now reasonably well documented. Often well-educated and living comfortably, there have also been trends noted of isolation and depression that have appeared to make them vulnerable to ISIS’s social media machinery. However, this profiling has not been put to sufficient use, particularly in terms of community cooperation. Authorities, communities and families must work more closely together to understand, notice and highlight women and girls who are most vulnerable. A better and more trusting system must allow moves towards linking rather than working in parallel, a strategy that has proven unfruitful because of the lack of trust between all those involved.
A stronger counter-narrative directed at women is desperately needed. Given the importance of social media to ISIS’s female recruitment, the counter narrative must also utilise such platforms to the fullest. Empathy has been shown to be a key driver in female desire to travel to ISIS territory and the reality of ISIS’s severe repression of women, their brutality and the reality of life on the ground could provide starting points for such work. The timings and audience that these counter-narratives should target is furthermore crucial. Whilst there is a need for consistent countering, more targeted intervention is crucial and under-utilised at moments in these women’s lives when they may have become disillusioned with the reality of life under ISIS, or worried about potential travel to the region.
The role of the internet and social media in particular for female recruitment to ISIS from the West has been heavily emphasised. The counter-narrative described above must use this platform if it is to reach those most vulnerable. There is a role for restrictions and of course monitoring, however the prominence and ease of the so-called ‘dark web’ has been underplayed and more research must be done on how counter-narratives can reach these audiences.
On the international level, closer cooperation between security bodies is vital. Turkish authorities complained (although this has been disputed) that it took British security forces three days to notify them of the British girls’ journey to Turkey, which allegedly led to their journey into Syria only a few days later. Blame games aside – it is crucial that border agencies are better trained in detecting female ISIS recruits. This could take the form of tighter security checks internationally, alongside better cultural understanding regarding female travel, particularly those of Asian background where young girls are unlikely to have been allowed to travel without their families or male companions.
This mix of security, international and community measures is well versed when it comes to male recruitment to ISIS. However, its relation to women and girls has been particularly undervalued. Western governments in particular must wake up to the reality that radicalised Western women and girls are neither less likely to join ISIS, and nor do they pose a lesser threat because of their gender.
Emily Daglish is a Research Assistant at the Human Security Centre.
This article was supervised by Julie Lenarz, the Executive Director of the Human Security Centre. She tweets @MsIntervention.