The opinions expressed in the following article are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Clarion Project’s.
Contrary to some societal assumptions that downplay the role of women as perpetrators of violence, women in ISIS frequently are agents of violence within the group.
Former members of hisbah told us themselves about flogging and biting other women with metal teeth as punishments. Similarly, reports from those on the ground in Syria state that women inside ISIS have been trained to throw grenades, use weapons and have been indoctrinated for “martyrdom” missions.
Indeed, the marriage certificate for ISIS wives was changed in recent years to state that a woman does not have to seek her husband’s permission to become a “martyr.” She only needs the permission of the ISIS “caliph,” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
Following in the paths of many conservative terrorist groups that do not encourage female fighter roles, ISIS is no different in pushing them into suicide missions when cornered, facts born out in the recent battle for Mosul.
Given that not all ISIS females were forced to join the group, nor lacking in agency with regards to the roles they played in it, we need to be cautious with both female and male returnees from the Islamic State.
While women who join ISIS are often portrayed as “brainwashed” by men, cultural biases that overlook the role of women as willing participants, including narratives that deny the role of political grievances that drive women to join ISIS, may be dangerous.
ISIS has relied on women for logistical, propaganda, recruitment and policing work. During the final battles for the recapture of Mosul, ISIS sent numerous females to blow themselves up in attacks on encroaching soldiers.
Independent of gender, anyone who joined the Islamic State likely had some psychological and social issues before leaving that made them vulnerable to recruitment, and once in, they often also have been weaponized and indoctrinated into a vicious ideology.
Men who went through sharia training told us of having to behead a prisoner before giving their bayat [pledge of allegiance] to the terrorist group while women in the hisbah told us of being turned into sadistic torturers. While women are less often weaponized, there is increasing evidence of weapons training for female cadres in the last year.
As ISIS increasingly calls for homegrown attacks in the West, it is unclear if they will reach back to females who have returned home.
For instance, one wife of an ISIS fighter in Kosovo was not prosecuted for joining and traveling to a terrorist group, while her husband was. He is serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence and still avows loyalty to ISIS, while his wife lives freely in society, although under police surveillance.
She is known to continue internet contacts with the group as well as communicate with her husband who expressed willingness to return to the group if released.
There are many other examples of foreign fighters who have returned from ISIS and other terrorist groups where the returnee continued on at home as a “sleeper” and reactivated over time.
The possibility that ISIS women would do the same is a factor we cannot afford to ignore.
In our experience, ISIS has contacted members who defected, insisting that they continue to serve the group even when they wish to sever ties. Similarly, returnees who may have had difficulties that led to their wish to travel to Syria and Iraq to join, are likely to face these same difficulties, if not worse stressors, upon their return. They have also witnessed extreme brutality that may leave them in a traumatized state.
Interviews in the past with others similarly traumatized revealed how easy it was to volunteer for a suicide mission if one already was psychologically numb as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As one interviewee said, “It’s a small step to take if we are already dead.”
Indeed, “martyrdom” ideology serves as a kind of psychological first aid when applied to people suffering PTSD. The individuals gain immediate relief from painful flashbacks and post-traumatic arousal states by escaping into a death they believe is simply a doorway to paradise and glory, and may even experience states of euphoria in contemplating taking their own life in this manner.
These same post traumatic vulnerabilities may be operating for ISIS female returnees who, in many cases are not prosecuted nor mandated into any kind of treatment, despite likely suffering stigma, personal and psycho-social problems, and difficulties reintegrating.
Public sympathies for ISIS female returnees, who are often handed down shorter sentences or pardoned, may only complicate the prospect of effectively dealing with female returnees who need special care and attention.
It is our view that anyone who joins a terrorist group like ISIS, by virtue of the likelihood that they are traumatized by what they experienced and may also be ideologically indoctrinated or weapons trained, should first be prosecuted and, if judged amenable to it, be allowed to receive a lightened prison sentence, or sidestep prison time altogether by voluntarily committing to engage in a psychological program.
A well carried-out rehabilitation program can help them to understand and address the personal reasons that resonated with ISIS calls to recruitment and their violent actions, as well as be moved to find other solutions to either their psycho-social problems and/or concerns about their grievances.
Some ISIS returnees may not voluntarily take part in rehabilitation. Others may only pretend to cooperate. That said, if carried out well and with careful assessments along the way, many can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society in a psychological state that makes it less likely that they would again be manipulated or once again answer the call to terrorism.
While we are preparing for the return of female foreign fighters, we also need to educate youth, including female youth, regarding the truth about ISIS and their virulent online and face-to-face recruitment. Despite rapidly losing its territory, ISIS has already produced innumerable propaganda materials that are likely to continue to circulate on the internet. The digital “caliphate” will likely continue to recruit.
Initiatives like our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project using insiders to denounce the group will continue to be useful to interfere with and disrupt ISIS recruitment. Through a combination of education, prevention and direct intervention measures, we can ensure the safety of our citizens while ISIS tries to reconstitute itself in the face of territorial loss and the eventual return home of most of its foreign fighters.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.- is the director of research and a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).