Why They Went
Over one thousand women left Western Europe to join Islamic State in Syria or Iraq. It is a common narrative that most of them were lured or even forced by their much more radical husbands. In the courts, it seems female returnees face less serious charges than males.
This article does not aim to present any conclusive proof on complex issues. But we do look at some statistics and cases from Belgium in order to explore how women ended up in the war zone, what they revealed about their motivations, and why it can be so difficult to judge whether they are victims or offenders.
Cassandra Bodart – Love and Jihad
“I was eighteen years old, in trouble with my family, but also in love.” That’s how Cassandra Bodart, the blond-haired convert from the Belgian town of Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, described the circumstances of her departure to Syria five years ago in an interview last summer with a Belgian journalist in al-Roj. Bodart has lived there in a detainee camp run by Kurdish forces since she surrendered late last year after the fall of Raqqah, Islamic State’s former capital city.
Cassandra Bodart in Kurdish custody.
Her husband was a senior member of the terrorist group, responsible for the production of vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), or car bombs for short. He was a Frenchman of Algerian descent and 26 years older than her. Bodart got to know him on Facebook. He left for Syria in October 2013 and she followed him the next month. Willingly.
She had rather fearful views about life in what had still not been declared a caliphate back then. But, as she said, she was in love, and after her arrival in freshly conquered Raqqah, everything went surprisingly well. “I had expected that there would be no food, and air strikes 24 hours a day. But we were well received, and things were organized in a very decent manner”, she stated in the interview. “It was only when the war intensified and atrocities had come to light, that I realized where I had landed. In a sect”, she continued.
Bodart insists that she tried to escape from early on. “After six months, I ran away and found Syrian citizens willing to hide me”, she has said. “But their neighbors worked for the Hisbah [Islamic State’s religious police] and I didn’t want to endanger these poor people. So I went back home, where I was beaten by my husband. Ever after, I was closely guarded.”
She may lack some sense of time. Her purported desire to leave was even cited in Belgian police reports dating back to February 2015. But in August 2014, she still supported Islamic State on her Facebook account in vivid terms. “Prepare yourself, Belgium, and all other lands of disbelievers. Takbir! Allahu akbar!”, she wrote beneath a picture of her torn up Belgian passport – not the most convincing sign that she wanted to return.
Cassandra Bodart posted a picture of her destroyed Belgian passport on her Facebook page on 5 August 2014.
Following The Man
Bodart was no exception in following the footsteps of her man, as our own investigation into 78 Belgian women who joined a jihadist group in Syria or Iraq shows. For 70.5% of them, the departure can be linked to their husbands.
In this group, 49 women, or 63% of the total, left in the company of their men or clearly followed them. Three were single when they left, but they married almost instantly with a Belgian foreign fighter already in place, suggesting that the marriage was arranged earlier. Two married shortly before their departure with a foreign fighter present in the war zone already, using electronic means such as Skype. One preceded her husband.
For 11.5% of the women, other relatives seem to have played a crucial role. Five of them were taken in tow by at least one of their parents. Two joined or followed a daughter on the initiative of the latter. One apparently followed her brothers. Another is a mother who departed on her own initiative with her children, leaving her husband behind.
Another 5% of the women, representing four cases, appeared to be single women who left in the company of female friends.
In ten cases, no relevant details could be found.
Motives and Initiative
It is extremely difficult to ascertain what the motives of these women were.
Marion van San is a criminologist who has studied several cases in Belgium and the Netherlands thoroughly, including interviewing women who have left, their relatives and other people close to them. She has found that religious or ideological commitment has rarely been the most important driver. She points to personal conditions such as a troubled youth and identity issues.
The same may be true for men, though. The Norwegian researcher Ester Strømmen writes: “Women join Da’esh for the same varied reasons as men: seeking a sense of belonging and community, adventure, an environment to safely practice their faith free from stigma and discrimination, and a wish to further the Islamic Caliphate.”
At the same time, Strømmen points out, Muslim women may be more exposed to discrimination “due to wearing the hijab, niqab or abaya”. This can make discrimination a stronger driver for women than for men.
It is even harder to judge who took the initiative in couples that left together. When they are caught, women may well say that they had to obey. The supposedly superior position of men is especially strong in radical currents of the Islam, so they are often believed. But, as some women may say, there are plenty of ways to make a husband do what you want while letting him think that it is he who decides.
It is likely that this also applies in ideology. There are clear examples of jihadist couples where the woman has been the catalyst of radicalization, rather than the other way around. Long before the Syrian war, that was already said about Malika El Aroud, the most notorious Belgian female jihadist ever.
Aicha Umm Dounia is an extreme recent case. She is a Belgian woman of Moroccan descent in her thirties, married and a mother of two. She left her family behind in August 2015, telling her brother through WhatsApp that she wanted to fight for Islamic State.
She was soon followed by her husband Abu Ahmed Fouad and their children. All four stayed in the caliphate until December 2016. When they returned and were arrested, both declared that Abu Ahmed Fouad had followed his wife against her explicit demand, without any other aim than trying to get her back home.
Another Belgian woman who certainly wasn’t pushed by her husband is Fatima Aberkan. Once known as an associate of Malika El Aroud, she was already in her fifties when the Syrian conflict erupted. Aberkan coordinated travel for Khalid Zerkani, infamous for his recruitment of future terrorists such as Abdelhamid Abaaoud. She also encouraged her own sons to leave, urging them to hurry up on their path to martyrdom. Three of her sons did leave and at least one was subsequently killed.
Aberkan had sons by two different men and was in Syria herself with her two daughters for a few months in 2014, but neither of her husbands has ever been in the picture during her jihadist career. She clearly didn’t need a man to excel in radicalism. In Syria, Aberkan carried a rifle with her name engraved on it, and she was always giving orders – from “join us here” to “destroy you phone card, they are watching you”, intercepted conversations show.
Even if a woman has left on the initiative of her husband, one should not assume that she is an innocent victim.
Consider the case of Umm Mohamed al-Belgikiya, a good example of the malice that even a girl in her teens can develop once she has joined a jihadist group. She was only fourteen years old when a foreign fighter from Brussels took her as his bride to Syria, together with his three year old daughter from a previous marriage.
The mother of the toddler moved heaven and earth to get her daughter back. When it became clear that her former husband had joined Firqatul Ghuraba, an independent but al-Qaeda aligned brigade led by the notorious French recruiter Omar ‘Omsen’ Diaby, she transferred thousands of euros to that militia in order to set her child free. Time after time, however, she was told to pay a bit more.
It was Umm Mohamed who negotiated with her, promising to return with the toddler once the financial demands were met. “She may be only fourteen years old”, a source with intimate knowledge about the case said, “but she has tormented that mother with a viciousness that is hard to imagine”.
In the end, Umm Mohamed arrived back in Belgium without the child. She had become pregnant herself and left for Turkey to give birth. There, she was arrested and repatriated with her own baby.
Being pregnant has often been a motive to return, even for women who had lived willingly with a jihadist group before pregnancy.
For example, in December 2016, we learned about the fate of Candide Haerens, a young convert who had left from Belgium two years earlier with her boyfriend of Moroccan descent. They joined the Islamist militia Jabhat Ansar ad-Din and she became pregnant. Her husband was killed before the child was born.
In a clear sign of radicalism, in November 2015 Haerens tweeted a picture of her newborn son with the words: “May Allah guide my son in the footsteps of his father so he will become also shaheed one day.”
A picture of her son that Candide Haerens, aka Umm Sabir, tweeted on 20 November 2015.
Haerens remarried and became pregnant again, but this time she separated before giving birth. Through her mother, she appealed to the Belgian authorities for assistance to return, which was complicated by the fact that she had no identity papers for her Syrian-born son.
Among the most compelling cases of women who returned to give birth are those of Tatiana Wielandt and Bouchra Abouallal. Both were married with senior Shariah4Belgium members – Wielandt with a brother of Abouallal – and followed their husbands to Syria, each with a young child. In Syria both became pregnant again and in January 2014 Belgian authorities facilitated their return so they could safely deliver their babies.
Pictures of Tatiana Wielandt (left) and Bouchra Abouallal (right), from confidential police documents.
When they were interrogated, they minimized their radicalism. Asked why they had left, Wielandt said she wanted to know what was going on in Syria. “But the most important reason was my desire to be with my man.”
For her part, Abouallal stated: “Because we were missing our husbands, but also because we could not show ourselves completely as Muslims.” On her future plans, Abouallal said: “I would like to pick up life again, and I want to study. I’m interested in the job of beautician. I know that I’ll have to adapt, and I’m convinced that I can live in a democracy.”
Four months later, however, Wielandt lectured on her Facebook account: “My dear sisters, stop throwing yourselves in the hands of the kafir! If you cherish an intention, then put it into practice. But don’t shout it out on Facebook first. What’s the use of being a Facebook mujahida? As our beloved brother Abu Imran [the alias of Shariah4Belgium founder Fouad Belkacem] said: do not give them a stick to beat you.”
In July, Abouallal and Wielandt left again for Syria, with all of their children.
“Your system has failed, oh Belgian state,” Abouallal taunted on Facebook a few months later. “You were watching us 24/7 but still we managed to depart. The only reason why we have left to the lands of Islam, is the satisfaction of our Lord, glorious and exalted is He. We have left because we believe that it is a duty for every Muslim. To the policeman who threatened to take our children away, I can say that my children will turn yours into orphans, with the will of Allah.”
Return Rates and Punishments
At this point, Western European women seem to have returned at a higher rate than men. In France, where women made up 17% of those who went to jihad, their share among returnees is around 28%. In Belgium, 21% of the returnees are said to be women, while our own records on departures indicate a female share of 16%.
Statistics about prosecution split by gender are hard to find, but the impression exists that male returnees are more often and more severely prosecuted than their female counterparts.
In the United States, research has shown that terrorism-related offenders who are women are less likely to be arrested and convicted and generally receive more lenient sentences compared to men.
It is likely that this is true in Europe too. At the first trial of Shariah4Belgium members, which ended in February 2015, there were 43 men among the defendants and only three women, or a share of 6.5%. Yet a confidential list of 220 Shariah4Belgium members identified in 2012 named 54 women, or 19.7% of the total. Of these women, at least nine had left for Syria already when the trial started.
Most European countries now recognize that women can be just as important for a terrorist group as men. In fact, support for such a group in the forms of recruitment, propaganda, logistical assistance, or simply enlarging its size by joining themselves and offering their children as future members is as crucial for success as taking up arms. In Belgium, France the Netherlands, and Germany at least, the official policy now is that female returnees are as likely to be prosecuted as men.
However, as recently as June 2017, a Belgian court sentenced the man of a couple to seven years in prison while his wife got away with a suspended sentence of 40 months. Albin Mbesse and Nawel Zadi had both tried to leave for Syria and attempted to recruit a female minor for Islamic State. Basing the decision almost solely on the declarations of Zadi herself, the court decided that it was Mbesse who “had brought her to extremist views and had expressed the initial wish to join the Islamic State.”
If the chances of avoiding serious prosecution are still higher for women than men, that may be a consequence of the often problematic search for evidence. It is very hard for investigators to find out what exactly someone did in Syria or Iraq, regardless of gender. In Belgium, many returnees are therefore only charged with membership of a terrorist organization, which routinely leads to five years in prison. But proving such a membership is often easier with men because they had more visible roles, quite literally.
It helps, for instance, when you have a picture of the suspect carrying a weapon, or a Facebook post in which he or she explicitly condones a terrorist group. That kind of material was disseminated much more often by men, our own experience shows. Since the start of the Syrian war, we have monitored over a thousand social media accounts of Westerners in the battle zone. While we are not able to provide exact quantifications, we did find that, in general, women were significantly more reticent than men.
Notable exceptions do exist, however. Nora Verhoeven, the daughter of a Belgian father and a mother of Moroccan descent, is one of them. She went to Syria in May 2013, aged only nineteen, as the wife of Tarik Taketloune, one of the very first Belgian fighters known to have died in the war. He was later implicated by his own brother in abductions and beheadings and on social media his wife made little effort to hide her own radicalism.
Three months before her departure, she posted the logo of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, the Islamist militia for which her husband was fighting, and that later would become one of the founding components of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
In November 2013, a picture appeared on her Facebook page showing three completely veiled women. Their aliases – Nour, Khattab and Jarrah – were written on it and two of them, including Verhoeven, carried guns.
A picture of Nora Verhoeven, aka Umm Khattab, and two of her female friends in Syria. It was posted on her Facebook page on 27 November 2013.
A few days later, two videos were posted in which Verhoeven could be seen firing a Steyr assault rifle and a handgun.
She also used Facebook to rally supporters. In March 2014, she appealed to her friends at home to join her with these words: “Follow the Sunna and the Quran. Grab your weapon and come to Sham. Allahu akbar!” When a friend responded that she wanted to come but found it difficult, Verhoeven answered: “It was hard for me too, and the police tried to stop me at the airport already. But it was my fate to come to Sham, so I succeeded. Believe and trust in Allah.”
Verhoeven was one of the very few female defendants in the 2015 Shariah4Belgium trial. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail, but in absentia – she did not return from Syria.
A picture of Nora Verhoeven posted on her Facebook page on 2 March 2014.
Take Nothing For Granted
Are all the cases that we have mentioned exceptions, gaining attention precisely because they stand out? Perhaps, and, as already noted, we do not claim to prove anything definitively.
That said, at the very least, these cases show that nothing should be taken for granted while trying to distinguish between victims and offenders. For women too, one single truth does not exist. Most of them did join or follow men, but that does not mean that they cannot be dangerously radical themselves. While evidence is often harder to gather for women than men, the authorities should not walk too easily into the trap of radical women playing innocents.
 The exact estimate is 1,023 women (17% of 5,904 all individuals who left), according to Cook Joanna and Gina Vale, ‘From Daesh to Diaspora: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State’, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, July 2018, page 14. See https://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ICSR-Report-From-Daesh-to-%E2%80%98Diaspora%E2%80%99-Tracing-the-Women-and-Minors-of-Islamic-State.pdf.
 Some of these details are taken from an interview by the Kurdish news agency Rudaw (http://www.rudaw.net/mobile/english/interview/26092018), while others are mentioned in Belgian security documents in the possession of the author.
 According to confidential documents in the possession of the author.
 Facebook post from August 5, 2014 archived by the author.
 Data derived from the ‘Belgian Foreign Fighters Database’ (BFFD), an inventory managed by the author and historian Pieter Van Ostaeyen. For more information about the BFFD, please see https://icct.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ICCT-Van-Ostaeyen-Van-Vlierden-Belgian-Foreign-Fighters-June2018.pdf.
 Van San Marion, ‘Dochters van de jihad. Hoe familieleden betekenis geven aan het vertrek van Belgische en Nederlandse vrouwen die zich aansloten bij IS’, Tijdschrift voor Criminologie, March 2018. See https://www.bjutijdschriften.nl/tijdschrift/tijdschriftcriminologie/2018/1/TvC_0165-182X_2018_060_001_003.
 Da’esh is an acronym for the Arabic name of the Islamic State.
 Strømmen Ester, ‘Jihadi Brides or Female Foreign Fighters? Women in Da’esh – from Recruitment to Sentencing’, GPS Policy Brief, PRIO Centre on Gender, Peace and Security, January 2017. See https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=10546
 While her true identity is known to us, we only use her alias in order to respect the confidentiality offered to her by the Washington Post, which was our main source about the case, although not the only one. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/he-says-he-went-to-syria-to-rescue-his-wife-from-isis-now-he-sits-in-prison/2017/05/06/8127e2ac-29e2-11e7-a616-d7c8a68c1a66_story.html?utm_term=.56b739f5714d.
 Full identity known, but not named due to her age.
 ‘Shaheed’ is the Arabic word for martyr.
 According to interrogation reports in the possession of the author.
 ‘Kafir’ is the Arabic word for disbelievers.
 ‘Mujahida’ is the female form of mujahid, Arabic for fighter.
 Posted on the 21st of May 2014 as ‘Zawjaat Ash Shuhadaa’, an alias confirmed to be Wielandt’s in official documents.
 Posted on the 16th of October 2014 as ‘Umm Almuthana’, an alias confirmed to be Abouallal’s in official documents.
 Francesco Ragazzi and Josh Walmsley, ‘The return of foreign fighters to EU soil – Part II. Member States’ approach’, European Parliamentary Research Service, May 2018, page 33. See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/621811/EPRS_STU(2018)621811_EN.pdf.
 Alexander Audrey and Rebecca Turkington, ‘Treatment of Terrorists: How Does Gender Affect Justice?’, CTC Sentinel, September 2018. See https://ctc.usma.edu/treatment-terrorists-gender-affect-justice/.
 Shariah4Belgium was a radical Islamist group that according to our records can be linked with more than 100 departures to Syria, making it Belgium’s main recruiter.
 Internal police document in the possession of the author.
 Francesco Ragazzi and Josh Walmsley, ‘The return of foreign fighters to EU soil – Part II. Member States’ approach’, European Parliamentary Research Service, May 2018, page 45-46. See http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/621811/EPRS_STU(2018)621811_EN.pdf.
 Written judgment of the trial of Mbesse and Zadi before the ‘Tribunal de première instance du Hainaut, division Charlerloi’, in the possession of the author.
 ‘Sham’ is the Arabic word for the Levant, often used by jihadists and also translated as ‘Greater Syria’.
 All the quotes were posted on Facebook as ‘Oum Khattab’, an alias confirmed to be Verhoeven’s in official documents.