More than a decade into the global war on terrorism, the academic and intelligence communities in the West have yet to agree on whether psychological or pathological profiles of radical Muslim women are a useful paradigm. To date, there is no agreement on the motivations that drive girls and women to join the group of fighters calling themselves the Islamic State. This unanswered question presents unique challenges to communities and countries seeking to minimize the risks and recruitment of their female populations into the terrorist movement.
So why do they join? Terrorism analysts seek the answer in a woman’s connections, direct or indirect, to a terrorist member. Academics, on the other hand, examine ideological, historical, socio-political, and where applicable, economic factors that might give rise to recruitment. In my experience, Western scholarship has often emphasized the structural, organizational and religious drivers of violence, with little attention paid to individual causes and pathways to terrorism.
Years of studying Muslim women supporting or actively participating in terrorist activities has led me to draw two simple conclusions. First, motivations are personal. No two Muslim women are alike. Personal experiences and events in life offer important clues about recruitment, even for those girls and women who do not seem predisposed to violence. Ideology, alone, is not a sufficient explanation for why girls choose the pathology of war. In fact, there can be multiple motivations. From “romanticized jihad” that compels girls to forsake family and friendship for an unknown future to religious zealotry that persuades some to live and die for the “cause,” no matter how violent and relentless the conflict may be. Media and terrorism experts have identified the desire for marriage and martyrdom based on Twitter feeds of female ISIS recruits.
Second, the slow stream of Muslim girls and women joining terrorist groups is not a new trend or a new threat. In Afghanistan, while men went to the battlefield, women provided logistics and other support. In 2000, when I joined the Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC), I identified and tracked the steady progression of Muslim women into male-dominated terrorist groups, many of whom provided an ideological and logistical role in conflicts across the Muslim world. Few were female fighters — a truth that remains today as the girls and women of ISIS stand beside and behind their men as dutiful wives, not ready-to-die soldiers.
In those early days, I compiled a list of women within al-Qaida. The Iraqi-born Sajida al-Rishawi and her terrorist husband were couched in files on my desk. In November 2005, the couple went to Jordan to bomb hotels. When Rishawi’s explosives belt failed to detonate, she was arrested and later sentenced to death by King Abdullah in early 2015 in retaliation for the burning of a Jordanian pilot by ISIS. As the first Muslim woman in the center, I drafted the first intelligence assessment titled “From Rocking the Cradle to Rocking the World: Why Muslim Women Kill,” which was declassified in 2005 and presented at conferences worldwide. At the time, few analysts and security agencies considered the causes or consequences of women in terrorist movements. The only attention came with infrequent attacks by largely unknown and unidentified female suicide bombers — they captured headlines, even if only for minutes.
One morning, a senior official called me in to discuss the impact of al-Qaida’s new female recruits and how to fight back. “Women are a riding wave of al-Qaida’s success,” I said. “They are expendable.” The same holds true for the girls of ISIS. Men prey on girls and women to foster a make-believe community. Few, if any, of the female recruits would be leaders, attain equal status or change the rigid belief that women — even those willing to die for their men — had no right to move and operate outside the home unless they opted to participate in an operation which in turn, served the men and ensured the survival of the terrorist organization.
Before 9/11, I also began to monitor Aafia Siddique, who was to become an icon for the Muslim world, a heroine for al-Qaida, and the most-wanted Muslim woman in America — on the list of targets for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In photographs, Siddique was an ordinary-looking woman from the country of my birth, Pakistan. She has hazel eyes, straight black hair and a gift for learning. In Vogue magazine, my journalist friend Deborah Scroggins gave the first public profile of al-Qaida’s celebrated woman, which she later detailed in her book, The Most Wanted Woman in the World. Unlike any other publicly known woman, Siddique called Muslim men into battle. As time passed and after I left the center, Siddique disappeared. In 2008, she was found in Afghanistan and arrested for allegedly shooting U.S. federal agents there. In 2012, she was sentenced to 86 years in a prison medical center in Texas.
By comparison, the girls who join ISIS are simpletons, using the Internet and social media sites to identify with other people equally vulnerable to the terrorist group’s powerful political and religious messages. Lacking religious knowledge, girls online are duped into believing they can emulate the early Muslim female warriors of Islam.
Modeling the Early Mujahidaat
A look at the pages of Islamic history make it clear that the early women who participated in legitimate jihad, known as defensive warfare, were highly respected and revered — it’s no wonder the girls of ISIS want the same glory. The early fighters were honored as the mujahidaat, an Arabic word that stems from the male word for fighters, mujahideen. But modern-day female radicals pale in comparison with the women of seventh-century Arabia.
The first Muslim women who supported and participated in battle to protect the faith and its Prophet redefined the role of Arab women. In the Prophet’s family, these women included his youngest wife, Ayesha, who led the Battle of the Camel against the Prophet’s cousin — a controversial event that divides Sunnis and Shias today. The Prophet’s granddaughter, Zaynab bint Ali, took up a sword in the Battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq. Safiya, the Prophet’s aunt and sister of his beloved uncle, was known for killing a spy. In the Battle of the Trench, she also beheaded a man and threw the head into the pagan Arab camp.
After the Prophet’s death, Muslim women continued to take part in warfare to defend their faith and identity. The story of a Bedouin woman, Khawlah bint al-Azwar al-Kindiyyah, is less known, but she is perhaps one of the first female martyrs in Islam. The Prophet’s cousin, Ali, discovered Khawlah after she fought against the Byzantine army. Dressed like a knight, she entered the battle with her female companions and fought the Greeks, a turning point in the war. Impressed, Ali married Khawlah, a woman extolled in Islamic literature as one of the most honorable of women.
With numerous examples of heroic women in Islam, how do the girls of ISIS compare? They don’t. Sadly, the female recruits are neither heroic nor honorable. Instead, they are misled by the example of Nusayba bint Kab, who converted to Islam and urged her four sons to fight for the Prophet. When Nusayba received the news of her sons’ death, she wailed: “Praise be to Allah, who honored me with their martyrdom. I pray to Allah to let me join them in heaven.” Named after Nusayba, the ISIS magazine teaches women to encourage Muslim men to fight but fails to consider the context or the role and responsibilities held by the early mujahidaat who practiced and preached defensive jihad rather than a misguided interpretation of Islamic warfare.
The “Crazy Other”
The oft-repeated question remains: Why did they do it? To better understand the push and pull drivers of terrorism, it might be useful to humanize the girls and women of ISIS, to admit that they are not all crazy, deluded, disturbed, depressed and/or disillusioned with their present lives. More terrorism scholars are beginning to accept that the Other can have attributes like empathy, compassion and wanting to help people rather than hurt. This emerging (and relatively new) approach to studying motivations is being pursued by a man I met at a terrorism conference in 2009, anthropologist Scott Atran, who is talking to terrorists. This research methodology can help analysts and government agencies understand how seemingly normal, healthy and rational people can become irrational and abnormal in their support for violence.
Talking to terrorists offers insights into the experiences and events that lead to recruitment. In interviews with prisoners in Lebanon, social worker Maya Yamout has found that the “absent father syndrome” contributes greatly to recruitment. While other motivations exist, such as marriage, money, adventure or revenge, Maya’s work reveals that ISIS recruits lack a healthy parent-child relationship, resulting in behavioral problems and possibly trauma. In the case of a female prisoner and an ISIS recruit, Maya learned that the woman’s father abused her and that her brother was brutally killed by Syrian forces. “Revenge, money and the absent father syndrome likely motivated her,” Yamout told me. On the subject, Dr. Anne Speckhard titled her seminal work, Talking to Terrorists, which includes hundreds of interviews with radical men and women in various conflicts worldwide, including the Palestinian territories.
Still, other scholars explain recruitment by examining deep-seated grievances, such as perceived injustice or humiliation and shame of the Muslim world by the West and its Arab allies. But grievances alone do not explain why men seek girls and women who are seemingly agile, adept and attractive. For ISIS men, sex, marriage and martyrdom are intrinsic values even when male fighters and husbands cannot guarantee the long-term security and well-being of their women — a point recognized by Scottish-born Aqsa Mahmood. Under the moniker Umm Layth, she addressed the men: “You are responsible for your wife,” warning them to teach women about the mourning period and learn about iddah, the waiting period for a widow before she can remarry.
For other women, marriage to an ISIS fighter offers a way inside the conflict. Consider a 19-year-old American girl, Shannon Conley, who was arrested in Colorado as she attempted travel to Syria in July 2014. After converting to Islam, she began to look for a Muslim husband and showed support to conflicts in the Muslim world. On her Facebook page, she wrote: “No one says anything when Israel occupies Palestine for forty years, but the whole world goes crazy when Russia occupies Crimea for two days.” Radicalized on the Internet, Shannon found her lover, a 32-year-old Tunisian man and an ISIS fighter, who likely persuaded her to join him in Syria. For Conley, marriage and support for the victims of Syria were meaningful motivators.
My own interviews and studies of radical Muslim women suggest that they are drawn to terror groups for the same reasons as men: to give purpose to a meaningless existence; to protect family and community; to believe women are empowered and equal in conflict; to honor men by being supportive wives and mothers; to experience a selfless expression of love and so on. The list is endless and remains inconclusive.
As research continues, reframing questions and answers for recruitment methods may become necessary. Why girls join ISIS is as important as examining the intervention and prevention strategies to help potential recruits from slipping into the allure of extremism disguised as an equal opportunity organization with a legitimate religious and political platform. To deter more female recruits, a robust communication strategy must convey the message online and within Muslim communities of the failures of ISIS. That the Islamic utopia and friendship these men offer is nothing short of death, danger and a dream unfulfilled.