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Last September in Paris, four people filled an abandoned car with cooking gas canisters near the Notre Dame Cathedral, with the intention of setting off an explosion. Two of these perpetrators were teenagers, one was a married 29-year-old, and the final individual was nearly 40 years old. All of them were ISIS recruits, and all of them were women.

Terrorists are generally imagined to be young and male, which is why this attempted bombing seems so anomalous. In reality, this was one of multiple terrorist attacks in 2016 planned or carried out by women. On September 11th, three women wearing bulletproof vests under their hijabs attacked a police station in Kenya. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and the women noted that they wanted to take revenge for the treatment of Muslims in Mombasa. Last October, Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation arrested 10 females who possessed bomb-making materials and intended to carry out suicide attacks. The following month, Indonesian authorities discovered a plot by Dian Yulia Novi and Ika Puspitasari—two women who had planned, respectively, to bomb the presidential palace and attack the island of Bali.

Most of these operations have garnered little attention because of the relatively small number of casualties, but they point to a rise in female radicalization and recruitment. The French Interior Ministry noted that 40% of French recruits for ISIS were female, and other French authorities documented that at least 220 women left France to join ISIS in 2015. British experts noted in 2016 that at least 60 women left the United Kingdom to join ISIS, joining dozens of other female recruits from places like Sweden, Belgium, Canada, and America.

These female recruits come from incredibly diverse age groups and backgrounds. Two reports, one from George Washington University, and another from The Belgrade Centre for Security and Policy, show that female jihadists in America and Europe range from as young as 15 to over 40 years old. Complementary studies from Kenya show that one pull factor for a well-educated woman is the romanticized idea of being married to a terrorist. Other sources show that Muslim women in Europe feel isolated due to difficult childhoods and rising anti-Muslim sentiment, and may be drawn to ISIS by the sense of sisterhood and community conveyed in social media posts by other female recruits.

ISIS has deviated from previous jihadi groups by supporting what French journalist Matthieu Suc calls a “family jihad”: women are encouraged to travel to Syria, marry jihadist fighters, and raise children to support ISIS in the future. ISIS has also created an all-female security brigade called al-Khansaa, whose task is to ensure that women in the Syrian city of Raqqa comply with ISIS interpretations of Islamic law. Sasha Havlicek of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue says that the existence of this brigade allows ISIS to lure in young women by characterizing recruits as strong and independent with “jihadi girl power,” in opposition to the oppressed Muslim women stereotype.  

Unfortunately, counterterrorism measures are often constructed around profiles of a typical male jihadi. Since women are not seen as terrorists, it is easier for them to gather and transfer the intelligence necessary to plan terrorist operations. Women who wear burqas or niqabs—like the three Kenyan women who attacked a police station—also have a greater ability to conceal weapons. Female recruits may not always use violence, but they are just as dangerous when they act as facilitators or supporters of ISIS attacks.

Taking down the social media accounts of female recruiters, who perpetuate the myth that joining ISIS will empower women or allow them to enter happy marriages with jihadi men, would help hinder recruitment efforts. However, programs to combat terrorism need to include more female caseworkers, and community leaders and families need to be better-informed about the factors that draw women towards ISIS. Only then can the pernicious growth in female jihadists begin to be halted.

Image Credit: United States Army/Wikimedia Commons

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