The Women of Islamic State
No longer simply “state builders,” they are now being recruited for bigger roles, including suicide bombers.
French police on Wednesday conducted a raid in the St. Denis suburb of Paris in pursuit of terrorists suspected of involvement in last Friday’s attacks. One of the two people to die in the dawn raid was a woman who blew herself up with a suicide vest as police closed in.
It’s not yet clear what role, if any, she may have played in the Friday attack or any other plot, but clearly a substantial amount of operational training, trust and conditioning had been invested in her. Since police have focused in recent days on suspects with links to Islamic State, it’s therefore probable that this woman is the first female suicide bomber in Europe, and the first female suicide bomber to be deployed by Islamic State anywhere.
That fact has profound implications that shouldn’t be overlooked amid the broader shock over the St. Denis raid and the terrorist attacks that precipitated it. Other terrorist groups, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Hamas, Chechen organizations and some al Qaeda affiliates, have made extensive use of women. But Islamic State, which is a far more capable and dangerous threat than the other groups, so far hasn’t done so.
It’s of concern if Islamic State is doing so now, because the group has shown it has a surprising appeal to women. The group views them as vital participants in its construction of a “proto state,” and women have been willing to participate to the extent that more than 10% of the foreigners who have left for Syria from Europe are women and young girls.
Photo: Metropolitan Police/Associated Press To reverse that trend, and to reduce the opportunities for Islamic State to turn these women into suicide bombers, it’s necessary to understand Islamic State’s appeal. Why do these young women and girls go? Surely they can see that life is far more just and liberated in the West? The short answer is that Islamic State is highly effective at analyzing its target audience and tailoring its propaganda to them, as we show in a report released Thursday by the Quilliam Foundation, “Caliphettes: Women and the Appeal of Islamic State.”
The group is especially adept at exploiting Muslim women who feel isolated, perhaps as a result of anti-Muslim hatred, domestic turbulence, gender inequality or the lack of representation in society. As an alternative, they are offered a strong narrative of Islamist ideology, with suggestions that by joining Islamic State they can reverse the ills of life outside the caliphate. They are enticed by the idea that they will find a tight-knit collective sisterhood there that will provide them with support and friendship. This new Islamic life, in turn, is eventually used as a means to justify their radicalization and sacrifice.
It’s this recruitment strategy that’s fast gaining traction among disenfranchised Muslim women. The idea of forging a new state, a new beginning, and mothering a warrior class has a deep, almost Spartan appeal. Through social media and its own propaganda, Islamic State actively engages with female audiences and has been encouraging them to participate in a noncombatant capacity to consolidate the new caliphate.
Now with the advent of the female suicide bomber Wednesday morning, we are potentially seeing Islamic State synthesize the idea of women as state builders into the idea of them as operational spearheads too—another luring and dangerous appeal to idealistic young women. We may now see women actively targeted and recruited by Islamic State for specific terrorist violence rather than just “state building.” History shows that the allure of physically taking up arms is not limited to men. Recall that the core operatives of Germany’s Baader-Meinhoff gang in the 1970s were women.
Recruiting women in such roles holds a tactical appeal for Islamic State and raises new security challenges for Western officials. Female terrorists can sometimes avoid detection more easily than men, and are less likely to be stopped and searched. Concealing weaponry or physical signs of trepidation before an attack—warning signs that security forces look for—can be achieved by wearing appropriate clothing.
Strategically, Islamic State wants to polarize the debate on counterterrorism, and hopes that as more Muslim women are stopped or profiled, the resulting contempt and sense of victimization will make even more of them susceptible to radicalization. And the sheer novelty of a female suicide bomber in Paris garners substantial attention, too, allowing Islamic State to cultivate a sense of encroaching menace.
We must do better at offering these women a viable counternarrative to Islamic State. We can begin by emphasizing the democratic and human-rights based values that can be found here, and empower women to play a more active role against extremism. But more than that, we must address the Islamic State ideology head on and prove it to be false.
It’s clear that more must be done to understand why women are being drawn to Islamic State. Working with at-risk women through outreach, gender-equality initiatives and empowering their voices will be a crucial step in this. When we talk of “full-spectrum” responses to terrorism and extremism, we must not neglect this vital field.
—Ms. Malik is a senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation.