The Unlikeliest Members of the Islamic State
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is reported to be using social media to recruit new members from Europe, North America and Australia according to the International Business Times. The United States Department of State said it is aware of dozens of U.S. citizens fighting for ISIS, and the British government estimates that 500 British citizens are fighting with the Islamist group.
We are acutely aware that Western states are susceptible to terrorist attacks that originate from external sources. However, as people who seem to be invested in Western interests leave their homes and communities to join terrorist groups, the threat turns internal. This is not an easily predicted or immediately perceived threat. Among this unique group of ISIS members are the young women living in Western states who are recruited through social media. These women are often recruited through contact they have had with other women already living in the Isis communities.
According to the Guardian, women now make up about 10 percent of Western recruits. This percentage is as high as 25 in France, where 63 young women have joined ISIS and 60 are thought to be considering joining. Counter-terrorism experts estimate as many as 50 British girls have joined ISIS; ten of whom are intending to actively fight. These women, the majority of whom are between the ages of 16 and 24, leave their families and communities to move to areas under Islamic State control either as wives of the male fighters or as combatants themselves. The primary destination for these women is the city of Raqqa in Syria.
The phenomena of female ISIS recruits warrants an analysis of the conditions for young women, mostly Muslim, in Western countries as well as the tactics ISIS uses to convince these women to join the jihad community which, according to the Director of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, Rolf Tophoven, is still very much male dominated, as again reported by the Guardian. There are numerous reports of sexual abuse and other violent acts perpetrated against women. It is also suspected that the womens' social media accounts are confiscated by the men, depriving these women of any voice they may believe terrorism will give them. What would motivate women to leave Western states where women arguably have more rights than they would experience in a terrorist organization?
The recruiting of women into ISIS, or any terrorist group, is a form of violence towards women, though arguably less explicit since they appear to go willingly and in the name of their religious convictions. However, these women are manipulated into believing that if they move to Syria they will be joining a likeminded community. They are often contacted by other women over social media who have already moved to Syria. They may also be persuaded with financial incentives such as paid travel expenses and compensation for having children, again according to the Guardian. Perhaps these women believe they will gain respect as the wives and mothers of jihadists. Maybe they go looking for a religious camaraderie that is not achievable as a Muslim living in a predominantly Christian or secular society.
A smaller percentage of women are moving to Syria to become fighters themselves. According to Russia Today, 60 women have joined Al-Khansaa, an all women’s branch of ISIS also based on Raqqa. Some women have even joined the primary ranks of the ISIS military. Girls as young as 16 have posted photos to social media with their faces obscured, holding weapons and the flag of the Islamic State.
The American Psychological Association (APA) gives some possible reasons why people might join terrorist organizations. Among these are feeling alienated in one’s own community and believing “that [your] current political involvement does not give [you] the power to effect real change.” Psychologist Dr. Clark McCauley has referred to terrorism as “the warfare of the weak.”
If these young, Muslim women feel dissociated in their communities before they are contacted by ISIS recruiters, they will be more vulnerable to the life that ISIS seems to offer. It could be argued that western societies are also indirectly guilty of perpetuating feelings of alienation among these young women. These women have a unique experience in that they are both female and Muslim, two groups that at best, are underrepresented and at worst, experience intentional discrimination. For example, in 2011 there were 2.7 million people who identified as Muslim in England and Wales out of a population of 56.1 million, according to the Office for National Statistics. Western states are also increasingly diverse, which could lead some to turn to organizations that have a uniform ideology, such as ISIS or other terrorist organizations.
Even in Western states that have relatively progressive women’s rights, women have evidently less involvement in national and local politics. Perhaps the feelings of alienation and powerlessness recognized by the APA as contributing to a person participating in terrorism are accentuated in these women. They may expect to achieve status as a member of ISIS that they cannot as minorities in their Western communities. In Western societies, Muslim women are members of the ‘out-group’ which does not traditionally experience the same opportunities and visibility as the ‘in-group’.
Thus, violence towards these women is coming from the ISIS community as well as from Western states. What is problematic is that Western states are cast as the victims of terrorist organizations, when in fact the structure of Western societies may indirectly perpetuate and allow the terrorists to achieve their directives.
Do we assume that women have achieved equality within Western states when in fact have they have not? If so, assuming that the issue is resolved is dangerous because shortcomings in women’s rights will be largely invisible because society thinks they do not exist. Perhaps the intentional or unintentional discrimination still experienced by women in the West is even more pronounced for women of religious minority status. Moving to Syria to join ISIS might seem obviously unattractive to consumers of mainstream news, but what perspective is informing this judgement?
News often focuses on blatant violence against women, often in the form of brutal murders, but this is not the only violent implication of terrorism on women. Women, left vulnerable by their western societies, are exploited by established members of ISIS who, aware of what messages these women will be receptive to, recruit them into ISIS on false pretenses. Because these women apparently go willingly and often have their social media accounts controlled by men upon arriving in Syria, this particular abuse of women goes largely unreported.
Having investigated into the reasons why some women may join terrorist organizations, it would be worthwhile in the future to examine how a woman experiences jihadism differently from her male counterparts.