The women of IS

By Vincent Bongers

Terrorism expert Seran de Leede is studying the role of women in extremist organisations. “Some of the women of IS are not afraid to use violence.”

“The call to jihad applies to everyone, but men and women have different roles in this war. Women are only allowed to join in on the battlefield if the Ummah, the Islamic community, is in such extreme danger there is no other option”, says Seran de Leede, who works for the International Centre for Counterterrorism in The Hague and is studying the role of women in extremist organisations.
“It could certainly still happen. Some of the women of IS are not afraid to use violence. In fact, they’d like nothing better than to join in. If there have been some executions, girls share the images on the media and encourage the killing. I’ve seen pictures of women next to the bodies of executed men. When the American journalist James Foley was murdered, Khadijah Dare, a British woman married to an IS fighter, tweeted ‘Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up ha ha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorrist!’”
Women who join IS are mainly involved in recruiting new supporters and propagating the caliphate’s ideology. “And, of course, raising their children to be future warriors.”
There is, however, a special brigade for women: Al Khansaa. “A sort of moral police force who patrol the streets and make sure that the women who are wandering along them obey the rules. The patrols make sure that the fabric of the niqab is thick enough and that no bare ankles can be seen. Breaking the rules means a whipping. And there’s no age discrimination – even if you are 65, you could be punished.”
But why do extremist movements appeal to women? “It’s very hard to put your finger on it”, explains De Leede. “Sophie Kasiki’s tale shows how hard it is to judge who will radicalize and leave for Syria to join IS. Originally, Kasiki was from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Catholic from a loving family. When she was eleven, her mother died. She went to live with her sister in Paris, where she eventually married an atheist and had a child.”
There was nothing to indicate a switch to extremist ideology. “She had a job as a social worker in one of the banlieus where she met three Islamic kids. She regarded them as her younger brothers – the death of her mother had left a hole in her heart. She was looking for something to fill the hole and Kasiki thought that Islam might have the answer, so she converted to that faith without telling her husband. The boys radicalized and went off to Syria. Kasiki stayed in touch with them and tried to persuade them to come home. Eventually, though, the boys manage to persuade her to go out there. According to Kasiki, the boys knew her weaknesses and used them. Anyway, she left her husband and travelled to Raqqa, the caliphate capital, with her four-and-a-half-year-old son.”
Once she was there, a man from IS wanted to send her son to the mosque for Qur’an lessons. “She refused to let him and he struck her. At that point, Kasiki realised that she’d made a terrible mistake. With the help of the local population, she escaped to Turkey where she was picked up by her husband. Now she is dedicating all her efforts to preventing others from making the same mistake.”
Some forty Dutch women have joined IS in Syria, according to De Leede. Some of them have taken their children with them. One or two have returned – Aïcha is a well-known example. Aged 19, she left the Netherlands in 2014 to go to Syria and marry a Turkish-Dutch jihad fighter. In the end, she managed to get away and was picked up at the Turkish-Syrian border by her mother.
De Leede does not advocate “extremely harsh measures” against people who return after repenting. “Unless they’ve committed a crime, obviously. And of course they need to be monitored. But everyone makes mistakes and, although this is a huge one, we shouldn’t punish them for the rest of their lives because of it. In fact, there are other people who once have joined extremist movements, repented and have now dedicated their lives to helping others avoid the same mistake. Various programmes such as Exit Deutschland have been working with this method for years and have been very successful in reintegrating former right-wing extremists into German society.”

Sophie Kasiki and Aïcha are not their real names

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The women of IS

Terrorism expert Seran de Leede is studying the role of women in extremist organisations. …