Maria Nizzero, a law PhD Candidate at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona
In February 2019, newspapers in the United Kingdom and nearby countries were surprised by the news of Shamima Begum, an English girl of Bangladeshi descent, who was found by The Times newspaper correspondent Anthony Loyd at the Al-Hawl refugee camp, in northern Syria. Begum, who nine-months pregnant at the time, had travelled from the United Kingdom to Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh). The organisation was falling back, and Begum declared herself ready to go home.
Thousands of women from all over the world have travelled to Iraq and Syria to help the extremist group. Some were already married with extremists and took their children with them; some others fell in love with a jihadist and, once they arrived in the country, got married and gave birth there. Now, with ISIS losing territorial control, they are stranded in refugee camps, their husbands dead or absconding, and their children knowing no other reality than the jihadi world.
The problem of “ISIS brides” begins with the name; a moniker decided on by media outlets that rather undersells what was involved in the (often young) women travelling to a warzone to join a terrorist organisation and yet could be said to oversell their actions at the same time. It is worth noting that there is little proof in most cases that “ISIS brides” participated in combat, let alone terrorism, and with a few significant exceptions they do not seem to have held any crucial position in the ISIS “caliphate”. Still, it can also be argued that by their membership of ISIS, these women enabled acts of terrorism and brutality, even if they did not directly participate. So how should the law treat “jihadist brides” once they return to their countries of origin? Should they be allowed back at all?
Whatever the current state of ISIS—and it is far from defeated even in a military sense—the group’s ideology remains strong, and whatever territorial losses it has suffered at the “centre” in Syria and Iraq, it holds pockets of territory from the Hindu Kush to the Sahara, as do dozens of other jihadist groups. The ISIS returnees, therefore, are more likely to become a reality as a security matter over the next decade; it is simply too soon to tell right now. The implications of this are many.
The criminalisation issue has yet to be worked out properly at the legislative level of each country in relation to the EU Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism and the EU Directive 2017/541. And while the importance of the preventing violent extremism (PVE) and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs could not be more obvious, so as to avoid that something of the same scale of what happened with ISIS being repeated, the intricacies of how these programs should work is an open question, as is how they should be applied to the returnee ISIS brides in such a way as to prevent a relapse into jihadist behaviour and renewed threats to national security.
Starting from a previous analysis of different narratives regarding the pathway taken toward radicalism by several European female fighters, who were interviewed at different stages of their experience within ISIS and after of the fall of the caliphate, the following report proposes different actions that could be implemented by European governments to prevent a future foreign fighter flow, both by preventing new fighters and promoting de-radicalisation among former foreign fighters so they are not remobilised.
Analysis of life stories of European ISIS brides shows that, while factors at the micro, meso, and macro level play a combined role in their journey towards radicalisation, there are some common factors that could be addressed in order to counter the effects of the ISIS narrative and hopefully prevent radicalisation in the first place. The aim of de-radicalisation programs should, on the other hand, be the reintegration of the extremists within society, not forcing the individual to renounce their faith or political beliefs, but rather having them understand that political violence is never the answer to attain such goals.
When dealing with de-radicalisation of ISIS brides, before presenting either PVE or CVE actions that could be implemented, it must first be underlined that a preceding issue stood out in many of the interviews with the women found in refugees camps at the Iraqi-Syrian border: are the ISIS brides actually radicalised extremists? In the words of Lisa Smith, an Irish former soldier who joined ISIS, “I don’t understand what ‘radical’ is. In terms of being a Muslim and wanting to live in a Muslim state, I don’t understand how that is ‘radical’.”
Many of the women wanting to return to the West argue that their role of wife and mother to ISIS fighters, without involvement in political violence, means they do not represent a threat if they come back home. In assessing whether they have a point, one must remember Sinai’s definition of radicalisation as a “process by which individuals — on their own or as part of a group — begin to be exposed to, and then accept, extremist ideologies”.
On this basis, whether ISIS brides who did not engage in violent activity can legally be considered “terrorists”, acceptance of ISIS ideology, such as support for illegal acts in service of their political theology, would indicate of extremism. Those who are “okay with beheadings”, as Shamima Begum put it, should be considered radicalised extremists and will require entry into CVE programs upon their return home.
PREVENTING VIOLENT EXTREMISM EFFORTS
Regarding PVE efforts, the CIDOB’s 10-point charter elaborated by Puigsech et al. represents a good starting point. PVE policies specifically targeting potential jihadist brides should:
Focus on “risk factors” instead of “risk groups”: in many cases, being of Muslim origins plays little or no role in the radicalisation of ISIS brides. Even the ones that had a Muslim background practiced little or no Islam before beginning their pathway towards radicalisation. PVE policies should therefore focus more on other risk factors specific to jihadist brides, including isolation, depression, family breakdown, and search for identity.
Focus on youth: it appears that there is a pattern related to ISIS brides and a prior conversion to Islam. Many brides with no Muslim background converted to Islam when they were particularly young and became extremists in the span of ten years after their conversion. While it is important to reiterate that conversion to Islam should not be identified as a risk factor, particular attention should be given to teenage converts, and programs should be implemented so that these subjects learn the difference between Islam and jihadism.
Focus on inclusion: brides from Italy and France often underline in interviews the perceived discrimination from their community, especially in relation to their decision to wear the niqab. Such discrimination, whether real or perceived, led to an increased isolation, anger, and affiliation to extremist groups. PVE policies should therefore aim at teaching and promoting socio-cultural inclusion from early childhood. At the same time, it is particularly important to set up programmes that would teach families how to deal with their children’s conversion to another religion, so as to be able to initiate a dialogue, avoid making the child feeling isolated and misunderstood, and prevent the infiltration of extremist ideas.
Identify a solution within the social framework: analysis of the brides’ narratives often highlights the necessity of finding them a place to belong. Analysis on the radicalisation processes of the German Linda Wenzel and the Frenchwoman Emilie König underlined the absence of social groups and activities promoted at the local level that would have kept these girls socially engaged and away from online propaganda. The failure of the local community to provide an alternative to the ISIS utopia should be addressed by programs directly aiming at social engagement.
Look for coordination among institutions: despite families being the first barrier against violent extremism, there should be a coordination among institutions at different levels. As Linda Wenzel’s radicalisation story showed, while the different social institutions in her life, from family to school to primary group of friends, were aware of her progressive radicalisation, the lack of coordination among them left her vulnerable to recruitment. Communication and interaction between the school, families, and government institutions would represent a good method to detect early signs of radicalisation towards violent extremism.
Increase monitoring of Internet jihadist propaganda: in the era of the Internet and globalisation, terrorist organisations use their presence on social media to spread their propaganda and reach a wider audience. A bride’s contact with ISIS propaganda should be detected earlier, and websites with jihadist-related content should be promptly deleted by law enforcement authorities.
Remember the international politics dimension: in the case of female foreign fighters, it appears that political grievances played little or no role in their radicalisation process. Indeed, the women’s discourse became more politicised after they got to Syria, raising potential issues about the authorship of such statements. Nonetheless, many young brides highlighted that, at the time of their radicalisation, the ISIS issue was “all over the news” (Shamima Begum), and “Islam was quite ‘in’” (Leonora Lemke), contributing to their interest in the caliphate. Authorities and media outlets should therefore be aware of the importance of their portrayal of the international politics dimension, as well as their depiction of terrorist organisation. At the same time, knowing the power they wield, both authorities and the media should be extremely careful when dealing with jihadist issues, aiming at a neutral, less sensationalistic, and unbiased language.
COUNTERING VIOLENT EXTREMISM EFFORTS
The aim of programs designed to counter violent extremism should be first and foremost the reintroduction of the individual in the society without this meaning a rejection of their Islamic faith, even in their most radical form. Recent studies even show that ideological and theological re-education, especially if conducted in a Western society, may reinforce cultural stereotypes and stigmatisation.
According to Dalgaard-Nielsen, individuals who start a journey towards de-radicalisation present different “clusters of doubts”, such as the loss of faith in the militant ideology, the failure of the group or its leadership, and finally personal and practical circumstances. In the case of female foreign fighters, these clusters appear to be reinforced as most of the women interviewed showed their first signs of doubt of the Islamic State’s militant ideology at the sight of the extreme violence of the group.
At the same time, many women described ISIS’s caliphate as a failed experiment of an Islamic state, which was, as Shamima Begum regarded it by the end, “not sufficiently pure”. The very image of family life and sense of belonging that had attracted many of the girls in the first place was revealed to be far from the truth, leading the brides to question their choices and, finally, many of the brides showed a willingness to renounce their extremist belief in exchange for safety for themselves and, most importantly, their children. In many cases, the birth of a child and the subsequent attempt by ISIS militants to make a soldier out of that baby planted the first seed of doubt in the brides.
Bearing this in mind, counter-extremism efforts should be aimed at practical actions that would consider that (i) many of the brides left their home country when they were teenagers or in their early youth, therefore may not even have finished secondary education; (ii) the vast majority have children, who are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Therefore, CVE policies specifically targeting jihadist returnee brides should:
Focus on education at different levels: Rather than ideological and theological re-education, CVE programs should provide both girls and their children an education that would highlight democratic values, the importance of the protection of human rights, and the rule of law. At the same time, these programs should grant them practical skills that would allow a reinsertion of the brides in the society and the world of work, so that they could provide independently for their children’s well-being. The CVE programs should also aim at the education of the families and social circles of the jihadist brides. As explained in the PVE section, it becomes fundamental that families are provided with the right tools to facilitate their daughter’s reintroduction in the society, to accept her views and her jihadist past without condoning it, and also to prevent and detect possible relapses in the extremist ideology.
Focus on inclusion: CVE initiatives should be aimed at providing activities that would include the Muslim community, facilitate and promote dialogue, and make the bride believe that reintegration is actually possible. Considering some of the brides’ past of emotional vulnerabilities, depressive tendencies, and search for an identity, the programs should also include: building resilience; provide psychological and relationship counselling; and ensuring that the bride understands and owns her decision to join a terrorist organisation, without condoning it or justifying it, and why it was a bad decision.
Aim at making the bride a proactive member of society: a good de-radicalisation example is Laura Passoni, a Belgian former foreign fighter who served time in prison for joining a terrorist organisation and is now using her experience to warn other people of the dangers of extremism. Allowing the brides to talk about their experience and why it was wrong would help them internalising their mistake, promote dialogue, and make them proactive members of the society, facilitating re-integration.
Of course, these are not a one-size-fits-all effective CVE proposals. For some brides who appear to have strongly internalised ISIS propaganda and have shown no cluster of doubt, stronger actions, possibly with the help of law-enforcement authorities, would be advisable. However, it appears that de-radicalisation for the majority of jihadist brides is possible.
The threat posed by ISIS brides should not be regarded as one of “silent agents” or “ticking bombs” waiting for a signal to unleash the terrorist hell in their European homelands. They should, instead, be regarded as possible disseminators of extremist ideologies which, differently from radicalised views which are not an issue per se, may lead to fanaticism, intolerance, the rejection of democratic values, and the rule of law. In order to avoid this, and to allow a proper re-integration of the brides into the society, a series of actions, as outlined above, should be implemented.
To reiterate, policymakers, analysts, and researchers must avoid falling into gender stereotypes that see the brides as “groomed”, “vulnerable”, or “naïve”. However young or troubled these women were when they travelled to a warzone, it was a conscious and deliberate choice to defect from their comfortable lives and enter an area occupied by a terrorist organisation that had advertised its cruelty. De-radicalisation have to include these women accepting what they did and understanding why it was wrong. Those who deny they were radicalised at all, or made a mistake, or who seek to “normalise” what was done, should be regarded as an ongoing threat.
Admitting mistakes does not mean the ISIS brides have to renounce their faith or even much of their ideology. It means them accepting non-violence and working within the laws of society. Once again, education, in democratic values and the practical skills of a democratic society, play a crucial role. CVE programs should aim at providing tools to the brides and their children that would allow them to find recognition, acceptance, and a role in the society. This should also be pursued with the participation of the women’s families, despite how hard it must be for some of them to understand their daughter’s actions.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 El Difraoui, A., & Uhlmann, M. (2015). Prévention de la radicalisation et déradicalisation : les modèles allemand, britannique et danois. Politique étrangère 4, 171-182. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286490471_Prevention_de_la_radicalisation_et_deradicalisation_Les_modeles_allemand_britannique_et_danois
 Quoted in Cottee, S. (2019). The Western Jihadi Subculture and Subterranean Values. The British Journal of Criminology. https://academic.oup.com/bjc/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/bjc/azz081/5670743
 Amat i Puigsech, D., Bourekba, M. and Mascareñas, B.G. (2018). Decálogo Para Una Política Local De Prevención Del Extremismo Violento. https://www.cidob.org/publicaciones/serie_de_publicacion/notes_internacionals/n1_206/decalogo_para_una_politica_local_de_prevencion_del_extremismo_violento
 Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2013). Promoting Exit from Violent Extremism: Themes and Approaches. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 36(2). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263405937_Promoting_Exit_from_Violent_Extremism_Themes_and_Approaches