By Kate Harveston
When we hear of terrorist groups in the news, we often only see the people directly responsible for the latest atrocity. These people, often men, have their own reasons and motives for joining these organizations. Despite what we may think, women also play a substantial role in terrorist organizations. But how are women recruited, and what part of the ideology attracts them?
We tend to see women involved with terrorist groups portrayed as victims — coerced, threatened or kidnapped and forced to join. And that’s not to say that those situations don’t happen. However, just like their male counterparts, quite a number of women join of their own free will, and their reasons are often multifaceted.
There is no exact figure on how many women are members of ISIS, though an estimated 10 percent of their Western recruits are women. As recruits, these women play many roles. Some play key roles in planning attacks, while others take a more direct approach as members of the all-female ISIS police force Khansaa Brigade.
Many women are motivated — internally or by recruiters — to join ISIS by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to protect themselves from Syria and Iran. Some of them adhere strictly to Sharia law, and feel that legislation imposed by some nations interferes with it.
Simply put, while there are undoubtedly women forced into terrorism, many join for the same reason men do — because the group’s ideology resonates with them. A higher level of danger can often accompany these situations, as women are less likely to be suspected of criminal activity due to gendered stereotypes, so they may find it easier to “fly under the radar.”
The issue of women’s secretive presence in crime is not unique to terroristic groups. Time and time again, we see women used as bait in robbery, kidnapping and murder schemes all over the world. The roles of women in terroristic groups are often even more involved and hands-on than the “baiting” setup.
Historically, women have always played an active role in terrorism — as leaders, recruiters, followers, symbolic wives and even suicide bombers. Their roles within ISIS are similar. Take, for example, several terror attacks from 2016. In one instance, police apprehended four women affiliated with ISIS who intended to set off makeshift bombs near Notre Dame Cathedral. In Kenya, women hiding explosives under their hijabs attacked a police station.
It’s becoming evident that more and more women are willingly drawn by ISIS’s message. Some come because female recruiters have perpetuated the message that they’ll be empowered. Others join because they want to protect their family and home.
Some women even join from the UK and beyond, showing that serious change needs to happen to counterterrorism programs. These programs are usually modeled from male profiles. As a result, women have the advantage of semi-invisibility. Officials don’t see women as capable of carrying off an attack, and thus overlook a potential threat.
As the threat of ISIS grows more apparent, it’s important that we understand how the group operates and functions. Although the general consensus is that terrorist groups are dominated by males, women play an active role in nearly every aspect of operations. By understanding their roles and motivations, we will be better able to rehabilitate endangered women and weaken the organization.