public diplomacy, Women

The Next Challenge for Countering Violent Extremism: Connecting with Women


Photo Credit: New America

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.



9 thoughts on “The Next Challenge for Countering Violent Extremism: Connecting with Women

  1. It is sad to think how left out woman are from the equation when it comes to countering violent extremism. ISIS’s messaging towards women emphasizes their importance in the survival and legitimacy of the entire organization. It makes them feel like they have a large role to play. I wrote an article suggesting entrepreneurship as a way of combatting this message because it gives those that would otherwise have nothing a chance. You can check out the link here:

    Posted by kirstenzee | April 30, 2017, 11:46 pm
  2. Super interesting! Nice job in identifying something that hasn’t been covered and digging into it. When you read the article, it’s hard to think that women would be left out of the equation in the first place. But as you mention, there are a lot of stereotypes that we’ve developed towards these issues that are incomplete in describing the problem, which lead to less effective counter strategies.

    Posted by LeninHernandez | April 30, 2017, 1:04 pm
  3. As women are overlooked in nearly every occupation, it is not surprising to hear there are few to no targeted programs addressing women and CVE. Your blog mentions many of the aspects used in CVE when targeting men, which is an important step, but it is also pertinent to note the different ways women should be targeted as you and the Global Counterterrorism Forum mention! Would have enjoyed learning more about those specifically, or potentially for a future article. For now, take a look at these other articles for potential inspiration in that next article. This blog mentions the importance of education in protecting our women around the world from violent extremism ( that may be an essential aspect of looking at the whole picture when discussing women and CVE.

    Posted by Amanda Menas (@amanda_menas) | April 30, 2017, 12:12 pm
  4. Because countering violent extremism is all about reaching out to each niche group that may be effected, you bring up an important point in saying women should not be left out of the conversation. This article by the NY times details some of the reasons women are drawn towards terrorist groups, as well as the effect they have on the group’s image and the group itself upon joining.

    Posted by jennacampolieto | April 30, 2017, 11:00 am
  5. This is a very a important and a somewhat hidden issue, which needs a lot more exposure. In order to effectively combat ISIS tailored recruitment, we need to tailor our messaging as well. By making anti-ISIS messaging more effective, we will be able to reach certain groups (single women, or children) easier. This article by the Brookings Institution talks about multifaceted content and other ways to improve CVE:

    Posted by egorpelevkin | April 30, 2017, 12:06 am
  6. It’s very interesting to think about CVE from a female-based perspective. However, I think it’s also important to consider the fact that often times, ISIS is targeting young girls. A large part of a female-based CVE should be about figuring out how to reach a 15 year old girl, who may not be able to articulate that she’s looking for equality, even if she is. This article does a good job of breaking down some of the cultural conflicts and motivations that some of these young Muslim girls may have:

    Posted by brettm17 | April 29, 2017, 1:57 pm
  7. This is an important and often-overlooked aspect of CVE, and a good argument for the U.S. commitment to ending gender inequality and promoting education worldwide. Messaging is an important piece of the strategy, but looking at the roots of why recruitment could be salient to women – primarily their absence of alternate opportunities, education, etc. – is important to fighting off extremism in the long term. A recent Brookings report explained that “women and girls bear a greater burden of poverty,” making them increasingly susceptible to ISIS recruitment, and indicating that economic empowerment and multidimensional poverty alleviation (health, education, safety) should be priorities:

    Posted by Alexa Smith-Rommel | April 29, 2017, 11:26 am
  8. This article brought a unique perspective on a way to counter violent extremism. Focusing on the women is a great idea for both messaging and an effective way to combat the issue.

    Posted by sarinakaplan | April 26, 2017, 10:10 pm
  9. This is so important and a great read! Great depiction of ISIS, and the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s outline really offers interesting insight into what types of CVE programs can be implemented to work with women along with men who are considered vulnerable in international communities. I would recommend giving this blog a read to take a look at some CVE programs that are already in place for youth that are vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, and maybe share some insight as to whether these programs fulfill their gender inclusivity needs:

    Posted by morgan0717 | April 26, 2017, 10:32 am

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