A “conservative stay-at-home mom” doesn’t sound like the description of a typical terrorist, least of all one who took up arms and helped murder fourteen people at a holiday party. But that is how 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik was described by a family lawyer after she and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, perpetrated the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015. According to news reports, the Pakistani-born woman wasn’t coerced or even pressured by her family or faith – instead, the process by which she went from a fairly secular pharmacy student to a jihadi and ISIS supporter was described by law enforcement as “self-radicalization”.
Examples like Malik’s underscore the flaws in our typical – and often gendered – understanding of terrorism. For most Americans, the word “terrorist” conjures images of young, bearded men with big guns and angry faces. At least, that’s what a Google Images search for the term will show. But contrary to popular belief, the evidence suggests that terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are happy to welcome women into their ranks. In fact, the Daily Beast reports a supposed ISIS strategy to “turn women into cannon fodder” by recruiting them as terrorists alongside men.
Of course, anyone who is well-versed in ISIS’s beliefs and goals understands that women are essential to their project of establishing an Islamist caliphate. Unlike al-Qaeda, which is international and decentralized, the Islamic State is closely tied to the physical territory it controls. As Graeme Wood explains in “What ISIS Really Wants,” the organization has recruited “tens of thousands” of Muslims from all over the world, who have physically moved to Iraq and Syria. Supporters of ISIS see emigration to the Caliphate as an obligation, and the failure to do so if given the opportunity as a mortal sin. And this mandate includes women as much as men. The ultimate goal of ISIS is control of its territory and the people residing within – to function, in other words, as a state, with the aim of restoring what it sees as true sharia law.
In order to survive, then, ISIS needs all the trappings of statehood – it needs food, clothing, healthcare, schools, and mosques for its people, which necessitates doctors and nurses, farmers, merchants, teachers, and mothers. For ISIS, women are not just a tool who might be able to carry out the occasional terrorist attack without arousing suspicion – they are absolutely essential to its very survival.
Meanwhile, ISIS’s ever-ballooning digital footprint can reach women as easily as men. According to Wood, isolated women in conservative Muslim communities often turn to the Internet, where recruiters are ready and willing to entice them to make the journey.
“ISIS has a policy to bring brilliant women from around the world,” UN Special Representative Zainab Hawa Bangura told the US Institute of Peace at a 2015 panel. “They will spend six hours a day online to recruit a woman. They understand how critical it is to have women. They have deployed smart women, and we are still talking.”
Indeed, compared to ISIS’s concerted online efforts to target women and bring them to the caliphate – or inspire them to commit acts of terror – the US seems to be failing in its efforts to counter violent extremism in women. Organizations like the USIP, the Department of State, and American allies around the world seem blindsided by the threat posed by radical women. Rather than seeking to understand and counter these efforts and thus undermine ISIS’s attempt to build a caliphate, the US has taken a dangerously gendered approach to CVE that casts women as benevolent side players, rather than potentially dangerous main actors. The discussion surrounding CVE and women still revolves around men. Women are often discussed as allies who can influence the men in their lives to reject terrorism, but the conversation continues to overlook women’s own potential to be radicalized and become willing pawn’s in ISIS’s plan.
Of course, men are still make up the majority of terrorists, and as always, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women – like men – reject ISIS’s message out of hand. But if the US hopes to stay ahead in the fight against ISIS, it’s time we start crafting a CVE message that truly includes women.
What would such an approach look like? The Global Counterterrorism Forum outlines twenty-two “Good Practices” for countering violent extremism in a way that includes women across every dimension of their lives – countering women’s involvement in terrorism but also building their capacity to contribute to the CVE effort, engaging them as influencers within their communities, increasing their participation in public life and uplifting women and girls who are victims of terrorism. Critically, the report emphasizes how gender inequality in many countries can contribute to the sense of marginalization that leads young women to terrorism, and argue for the use of evidence-based approaches to identify and address the factors that lead women to terrorism.
The examples of San Bernardino, Paris, and other terrorist attacks that involve women show that the US can’t afford to wait when it comes to developing effective CVE strategies that target women. ISIS is happy to welcome disaffected women and girls into their ranks, giving them roles in the caliphate and in some cases encouraging them to join in the fight against Western civilization. The US desperately needs an inclusive approach to CVE that appreciates the unique gender dynamics of women in terrorist organizations, recognizes the power women have both to support ISIS and to resist it, and effectively identifies these women and helps them reject ISIS propaganda. Until we do so, our efforts to prevent extremism from furthering its reach in the Middle East will remain mere half-measures.
Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.