After the fall of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), an international debate on the repatriation of ISIS fighters took place in societies over the culpability of ISIS women and whether they should be considered as a serious threat to society.
Western media often depicts these women as “jihadist brides” who had been brainwashed by their husbands into joining ISIS. However, upon deeper analysis, and through the publication of reports and books written by experts on terrorism, it is evident that the debate is far more complex.
In an article titled “ISIS in Their Own Words” and co-authored by terrorism researchers Anne Speckhard and Molly D. Ellenberg, it was discovered that poverty, family conflict and prior trauma were the main drivers of women joining ISIS. The authors interviewed 38 jihadist women on the subject. They found that European recruits mostly cited family conflict as the main driver towards recruitment, whereas Arabs mostly cited poverty. Women from Europe also cited discriminatory practices that made life and employment difficult.
The authors found the biggest drivers to be:
- Spouse/Partner influence (55.3%)
- Internet recruiter influence (18.4%)
- Parent influence (15.8%)
- Friend influence (13.2%)
In Denmark, authorities arrested 13 people (among them five women) in February 2021 on suspicion of planning at least one terrorist attack. Another person linked to the suspected attack was arrested in Germany. During searches, authorities found ingredients for making bombs, detonators, pump guns and a hunting rifle with binoculars. It is believed that the women were an integral part of the planned attack, although their exact role has yet to be made public. Examples such as this one will be used throughout the article to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the growing phenomenon and to illustrate various drivers which pushed them towards radicalization.
The Power of Romantic Love
In November 2020, Swiss authorities arrested a 28-year-old female citizen after a suspected knife terrorist attack that injured two other women in a department store in the southern city of Lugano. She had tried to travel to Syria in 2017, but was blocked by Turkish authorities and was subsequently sent back to Switzerland. It was reported that she had mental health problems and was admitted to a psychiatric clinic upon return. Furthermore, she was a known jihadist by the authorities, and she fell in love with a mujahid (fighter) online, whom she attempted reach in Syria.
As author Kimberly Mehlman Orozco stressed in her book, “The Jihadi Next Door: How ISIS is Forcing, Defrauding, and Coercing Your Neighbor into Terrorism”, romantic love is one of the most powerful sensations a person can feel and can be an effective tool for conscripting terrorist recruits. So, the Swiss woman’s case is a prime example of how virtual romantic love can be a predominant factor in choosing to perform Hijrah (pilgrimage). Although there is no information on the motivation for the attack, the woman’s mental problems and her failure to reach her husband in Syria were important factors that plausibly led her to carry out the attack.
In Norway, a 34-year-old woman faced trial in March 2021, after living in Syria’s “Islamic State” for six years. The woman — born in Pakistan but raised in Oslo — left for war-torn Syria in 2013 after falling in love and marrying online. The man she married was the notorious Bastian Vasquez — a brutal terrorist of Chilean descent who appeared in some of the most violent ISIS propaganda videos. The woman reportedly said that she was so blinded by love for Vasquez that she believed everything he said. She said her husband was violent with her and that she felt “trapped” in the “Islamic State”. However, she lived for six years in the “caliphate” where she worked as an online recruiter trying to entice other women from around the world to come join. She even followed the strict ISIS customs of remarrying immediately after her husband was killed in battle. The woman got remarried to his friend — an Egyptian fighter. When he too was killed, she remarried again.
In Germany, authorities arrested three people in January 2021 responsible for channelling funds from all across Europe to the Syria-based terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). One of the arrested people was a German woman, Valdete M., who also held Serbian and Kosovan citizenship. She was accused of making two transactions in 2018. This case shows that women can be an integral part of the system that finances terrorist groups from Europe.
In Italy, 10 people, among them three women, were arrested in September 2019 for membership in a group led by Jameleddine Brahim Kharroubi — a business owner of Tunisian origin who funded the Jabhat Al Nusra terrorist group based in Syria. Kharroubi’s Italian convert wife served as a figurehead to a company owned by her husband. Another woman acted as an accountant and helped to manage a flow of money by issuing fake invoices. Finally, another Tunisian woman had bank accounts, in which checks were paid and transfers were made.
In Sweden, a woman who returned to the country from the “Islamic State” was convicted on March 8, 2021 for bringing her two-year-old son to Syria against her family’s will. Other inmates at al-Hol prison camp described her as dangerous and complicit in the recruitment system. Terrorism scholars Brune Descamps and Vera Mironova, in fact, highlight how women in al-Hol and other camps are part of an online fundraising system specifically for women detained in the camp, as well as being part of an online recruitment system. Social media users’ posts from women in al-Hol are similar to the following: “Donate [for the sake of Allah] to free your imprisoned sisters”. In March 2021, the non-governmental American SITE Intelligence Group discovered an ISIS-linked social media account that issues payment details to assist families in al-Hol camp. Journalist John Beck reported that with the money raised, many women try to escape, while others simply use it to meet their basic needs in the camp. It is possible, however, that some of the proceeds for these humanitarian campaigns have gone towards terrorism.
This above mentioned case demonstrates how families of muhajirat (travellers) are often clueless of their recruitment and radicalization. In fact, the husband was reportedly unaware of his wife’s plans, which proves that women can take independent actions and not all of them are simply duped victims. Moreover, this case shows the active role of women in the online recruitment system based in the al-Hol camp.
The Swedish case is very similar to the story of Valbona Berisha — an Albanian living in Italy, who went to Syria in 2014 with the youngest of her three children. Her husband had never noticed his wife’s radicalization and was not aware of her plan to travel and to marry in the “Islamic State”. After five years of living in Syria, the Italian ROS forces were able to help the father bring his son back to Italy. The mother, meanwhile, died in Syria.
In Germany, Stefanie A. was arrested in March 2021 upon her return to Berlin on charges of taking her young son to Syria in 2016 to join her husband — an ISIS fighter. In Syria, the couple sent the boy — alleged to be under the age of 15 — to a firearms training camp. The boy later went on to participate in military operations until he was killed in March 2018. This case proves that women are not merely ISIS housewives, but active participants — willing to send their sons off to die in battle.
In another telling case, Moroccan foreign fighter Ahmad Taskour and his wife Sbai El Hamel Nadia left their home in Italy to join the “caliphate” in December 2014. They took their 13-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son to Iraq. When the terrorist attacks happened in Paris a year later, Taskour appeared in an ISIS propaganda video praising the attacks and threatening France and other “crusader” countries. His son then appears on camera, repeating the threats, saying in Arabic. “I wish all our Muslim brothers and soldiers of the caliphate in France well for this blessed operation, and this is the beginning of the rain for you crusaders, and it is our soldiers who will win.”
It is clear that the mother was aware of her son’s military training and complicit in the indoctrination of her children. Here she represents what researcher Charlie Winter calls the mother of “ashbal al-khilafa” which translates to “cubs of the caliphate”. These “cubs” represent the next generation of ISIS jihadists. To this date, the family’s whereabouts are unknown, however, there is an open court case against Taskour in Milan.
In France, police arrested a mother and her four daughters on April 4, 2021 in the city of Beziers. Investigators focused one one of the daughters — an 18 year old radicalized through online ISIS propaganda videos — who they suspected to have plotted an attack on a religious site near Montpellier. When police searched her home they found a sharp sword and chemicals that could be used for explosives.
Growing Prominence in Asia
Elsewhere in the world, there are growing instances of women actively participating in terrorism. In Southeast Asia, one of the most dramatic acts of terror was a motorbike suicide attack that was carried out on police headquarters in Surabaya, Indonesia in May 2018. The culprits — a family of five — belonged to the Indonesian ISIS-inspired network, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Only a day before, a family of six carried out a terrorist attack in the same Indonesian city, which left dozens of people injured. The father had driven his bomb-laden car into the grounds of the Surabaya Center Pentecostal Church, while his 16 and 18-year-old sons drove their motorcycles into the Santa Maria Catholic Church where they detonated explosives. Meanwhile, the mother, along with her 9 and 12-year-old daughters, blew themselves up at Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church.
In the Philippines, a woman by the name of Rezky Fantasya Rulie and two other women married to members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) — a pro-ISIS group based in the country’s south — were arrested in October 2020 on suspicion of planning a suicide attack. When police raided the house where the women were staying, they found a suicide vest and materials to build an Improvised Explosive Device (IED). It is reported that Rullie’s parents had forced her to join ISIS and marry Andi Baso — a suspected Indonesian suicide bomber in training who was likely killed in a clash by the Philippines army in August 2020. Furthermore, Rullie’s parents, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, killed themselves in a twin-bomb attack at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel church in Jolo during a Sunday Mass service in January 2019.
Rullie had been on the radar of the Joint Task Force (JTF) after they received intelligence reports that she was tasked to take her husband’s role as suicide bomber after he was killed. It is likely that she became more radicalized after her husband was killed and more determined to carry out a suicide attack. Often, the death of a family member or close friend can trigger the final phase of the radicalization process called “jihadization”, in which the individual is willing to die for the “cause”. While some women believe it is their duty to remarry, others, like Rullie, decide to commit a suicide attack as a “last gesture”.
Although women have joined terrorist organizations in the past, it is with the advent of the “Islamic State” that more women have joined the ranks of terrorist cells — ISIS in particular. This article clearly demonstrates that women have played an active role in recruitment, financing, training and carrying out actual attacks. The cases mentioned in this report serve as a warning to countries around the world facing the question of whether or not to repatriate their citizens. States must also be prepared for possible clandestine returns of these women, who could slip off the radar of authorities or be perceived as victims rather than active participants of terrorism.
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.
 Speckhard, Anne and Ellenberg D., Molly, ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time – Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors – Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners and Prisoner, Journal of Strategic Security 13, no. 1, article 5, 2020
 The video And Verily Our Soldiers Will be Victorious was published in November 2015 by the Wilayat al-Furat.