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Explaining extremism: Western women in Daesh

  • Meredith Loken (a1) and Anna Zelenz (a1)

Women participate extensively in armed, Islamist struggle. In recent years, foreign women have travelled from the West to join Daesh. Their participation perplexes policymakers, government officials, and researchers who call attention to the group’s gendered regulation, violence, and widespread use of rape. Consequently, observers often argue that women are deceived by the organisation or seduced by the promise of romance. This suggests that women would not, under rational circumstances, choose to join the group. In this article, we address two resultant questions: why do Western women join Daesh? Are their motivations distinct from other Islamist recruits? Using an original dataset of social media activity from 17 Western female recruits between 2011–15, we conclude that women are primarily driven by religious ideology that adopts an expressly gendered frame. We find that feelings of isolation and disaffection also drive migration. We suggest that female foreign recruits are not unique in their motivations and share many similarities with male fighters and women in other Islamist organisations. This research has valuable implications for security studies and counterterrorism, which tend to treat extremist women as unique. Female recruits should be taken seriously as insurgents intent on establishing an Islamic caliphate.

Corresponding author
*Meredith Loken, Department of Political Science, The University of Washington, 101 Gowen Hall, Box 353530, Seattle, WA 98195-3530. Author’s email:
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1 We use the term ‘Islamist’ to describe groups that follow extremist strands of Islamic fundamentalism and seek to change the political status quo through use of violence.

2 Katherine Zoepf and Riyadh Mohammed, ‘Amnesty plan in Iraq draws 18 insurgents’, New York Times (27 November 2008), available at: {}; ‘Iraq’s “female bomber recruiter”’, The BBC (4 February 2009), available at: {}.

3 Davis, Jessica, ‘Evolution of the global jihad: Female suicide bombers in Iraq’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 36:4 (2013), pp. 279291 . Note: Not all bombers were part of explicitly ‘Islamist’ movements.

4 Rosalie Arcala Hall and Joanna Pares Hoare, ‘Philippines’, in Jenny Hedstrom and Thiyumi Senarathna, ‘Women in Conflict and Peace’, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2015).

5 Parashar, Swati, ‘Gender, jihad, and jingoism: Women as perpetrators, planners, and patrons of militancy in Kashmir’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34:4 (2011), pp. 295317 .

6 Ibid.

7 Seran de Leede, ‘Afghan Women and the Taliban: An Exploratory Assessment’, The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) (2014).

8 Soufan Group, Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq (December 2015).

9 Ibid.

10 Alyssa J. Rubin and Aurelein Breeden, ‘Women’s emergence as terrorists in France points to shift in ISIS gender roles’, The New York Times (1 October 2016), available at: {}.

11 Danielle Paquette, ‘Why young American women are joining ISIS’, The Washington Post (17 November 2015), available at: {}.

12 Mona Mahmood, ‘Double-layered veils and despair … women describe life under ISIS’, The Guardian (17 February 2015), available at: {}.

13 Fazel Hawramy, Shalaw Mohammed, and Kareem Shaheen, ‘Life under ISIS in Raqqa: “We’re living in a giant prison”’, The Guardian (9 December 2015), available at: {}.

14 Sasha Havlicek, ‘The Islamic State’s War on Women and Girls’, statement given before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing (28 July 2015); Human Rights Watch, Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape (14 April 2015).

15 Hawramy, Mohammed, and Shaheen, ‘Life under ISIS in Raqqa’.

16 See, for example, Ashley Binetti, ‘A New Frontier: Human Trafficking and ISIS’ Recruitment of Women from the West’, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security (2015); Ed Royce, ‘Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment’, statement given before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing (29 July 2015).

17 See Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) for a discussion of Western foreign interventions in the Middle East justified by the emancipation of Muslim women.

18 Female migrants refer to themselves using this term frequently in their social media activity and interviews.

19 Eggert, Jennifer Philippa, ‘Women fighters in the “Islamic State” and al-Qaida in Iraq: a comparative analysis’, Journal of International Peace and Organization, 90:3–4 (2015), pp. 363380 ; Peresin, Anita and Cervone, Alberto, ‘The Western muhajirat of ISIS’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38 (2015), pp. 495509 ; Spencer, Amanda N., ‘The hidden face of terrorism: an analysis of the women in Islamic State’, Journal of Strategic Security, 9:3 (2016), pp. 7498 .

20 A notable exception is Carolyn Hoyle, Alexandra Bradford, and Ross Frenett, ‘Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS’, Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2015).

21 See Inge, Anabel, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) for a discussion of British women who convert to Salafism but remain in Britain and do not engage in extremist violence.

22 Alison, Miranda, ‘Cogs in the wheel? Women in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’, Civil Wars, 6:4 (2003), 3754 ; Bloom, Mia, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Natalia Herrera and Douglas Porch, ‘“Like going to a fiesta” – the role of female fighters in Colombia’s FARC-EP’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 19:4 (2008), pp. 609634 ; Gonzalez-Perez, Margaret, Women and Terrorism: Female Activity in Domestic and International Terror Groups (London: Routledge, 2008); Parashar, , ‘Gender, jihad, and jingoism’; Sarah Parkinson, ‘Organizing rebellion: Rethinking high-risk mobilization and social networks in war’, American Political Science Review, 107:3 (2013), pp. 418434 ; Viterna, Jocelyn, ‘Pulled, pushed and persuaded: Explaining women’s mobilization into the Salvadorian Guerrilla Army’, American Journal of Sociology, 112:1 (2006), pp. 145 ; Viterna, Jocelyn, Women in War: The Micro-Processes of Mobilization in El Salvador (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

23 See Okin, Susan Moller, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

24 Patterson, Molly and Monroe, Kristen Renwick, ‘Narrative in political science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 1 (1998), p. 315 .

25 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’, in Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), p. 93 .

26 Abu-Lughod, Lila, ‘Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others’, American Anthropologist, 104:3 (2002), pp. 788789 .

27 Lazreg, Marnia, The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 135 .

28 Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green, and Sarah Parkinson, ‘Wartime sexual violence is not just a “weapon of war”’, The Washington Post (24 September 2014), available at: {}.

29 Ibid.

30 We do not weigh in on whether Daesh is objectively oppressive. Important to our argument is that the perception of Daesh – and other Islamist organisations – as violently oppressive underlies much of the justification for Western militarisation in the Middle East.

31 Binetti, ‘A New Frontier’.

32 Ester E. J. Strømmen, ‘Jihadi Brides or Female Foreign Fighters? Women in Da’esh – from Recruitment to Sentencing’, GPS Policy Brief, PRIO Centre on Gender, Peace and Security (2017).

33 Michael Martinez, Ana Cabrera, and Sara Weisfeldt, ‘Colorado woman gets 4 Years for wanting to join ISIS’, CNN (24 January 2015), available at: {}.

34 Morgan, Robin, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1989), p. 201 .

35 Audrey Young, ‘Rise in Kiwi women heading to Iraq and Syria’, New Zealand Herald (8 December 2015), available at: {}.

36 Lizzie Dearden, ‘ISIS “jihadi brides” trying to radicalise girls and encourage UK terror attacks online as they remain trapped in Syria’, The Independent (13 August 2016), available at: {}.

37 O’Rourke, Lindsey A., ‘What’s special about female suicide terrorism?’, Security Studies, 18:4 (2009), pp. 681718 .

38 Sjoberg, Laura and Gentry, Caron E., ‘Reduced to bad sex: Narratives of violent women from the Bible to the War on Terror’, International Relations, 22:5 (2008), p. 16 .

39 Vasudevan Sridharan, ‘“Sexual jihad”: British, Australian, and Malaysian women going to Iraq as “comfort women” for ISIS’, International Business Times (27 August 2014), available at: {}.

40 Shane Harris, ‘NYC terror groupies wanted to be bad bitches with bombs’, The Daily Beast (2 April 2015), available at: {}.

41 Katrin Bennhold, ‘Jihad and girl power: How ISIS lured 3 London schoolgirls’, The New York Times (17 August 2015), available at: {}.

42 Mia Bloom and Charlie Winter, ‘The women of ISIL’, Politico (7 December 2015), available at: {}.

43 Ed Royce, ‘Women Under ISIS Rule: From Brutality to Recruitment’, statement given before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing (29 July 2015).

44 Binetti, ‘A New Frontier’.

45 Militant Islamist organisations in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Pakistan, and elsewhere have successfully recruited Muslims from around the world, though no group has recruited foreigners as efficaciously as Daesh.

46 David Malet, ‘Foreign fighters playbook’, Foreign Affairs (8 April 2014).

47 Quoted in Davide Lerner, ‘It’s not Islam that drives young Europeans to jihad, France’s top terrorism expert explains’, Haaretz (4 June 2017), available at: {}.

48 Rabasa, Angel and Benard, Cheryl, Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalisation and Terrorism in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

49 Voas, David and Fleischmann, Fenella, ‘Islam moves West: Religious change in the first and second generations’, Annual Review of Sociology, 38 (2012), pp. 525545 .

50 Post, Jerrold M., The Mind of the Terrorist: The Psychology of Terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 251 .

51 Mahmood, Samantha and Rane, Halim, ‘Islamist narratives in ISIS recruitment propaganda’, The Journal of International Communication, 1:23 (2017), pp. 115 .

52 Parashar, ‘Gender, jihad, and jingoism’.

53 Shitrit, Lihi Ben, Righteous Transgressions: Women’s Activism on the Israeli and Palestinian Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 3 .

54 Mahmood, Saba, ‘Feminist theory, embodiment, and the docile agent: Some reflections on the Egyptian Islamic revival’, Cultural Anthropology, 12:2 (2001), p. 203 .

55 Shirit, Ben, Righteous Transgressions, p. 3 .

56 Sivan, Emmanuel, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 85 .

57 Dawson, Lorne L. and Amarasingam, Amarnath, ‘Talking to foreign fighters: Insights into the motivations for Hijrah to Syria and Iraq’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 40:3 (2016), p. 202 .

58 Kepel, Gilles, Jihad: The Trial of Political Islam (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2000).

59 Olivier Roy, ‘France’s Oedipal Islamist complex’, Foreign Policy (2016).

60 Ibid.

61 Though our snowball sampling technique certainly demonstrates that these women are ‘networked’, we discounted so many accounts throughout this procedure that we unfortunately do not have detailed data on the exact nature of these connections.

62 See Hoyle, , Bradford, , and Frenett, , ‘Becoming Mulan’; Jyette Klausen, ‘Tweeting the jihad: Social media networks of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 38:1 (2015), pp. 122 .

63 To the best of our knowledge all the accounts in our data have now been suspended by the social media platform or deleted by the author.

64 Our selection/confirmation rubric and further explanation of our selection process is available in the supplemental Appendix.

65 Through this reliability mechanism we excluded 14 accounts from our final data where though the authors are likely Western migrants, the accounts failed to meet our coding standards. We further discounted hundreds of other pro-Daesh accounts.

66 We offer detailed descriptions of our data, including code frequencies and dominance, in the supplemental Appendix.

67 See Emerson, Robert, Fretz, Rachel, and Shaw, Linda, Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 11 for a discussion of the risks of only using ‘a priori theoretical categories’ when exploring qualitative data.

68 Small, Mario Luis, ‘“How many cases do I need?” On science and the logic of case selection in field based research’, Ethnography, 10:1 (2009), pp. 538 .

69 Al Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 August 2015). This account offers the month of each post but not the date. Therefore, we default all posts to the first of the month for Al Muhajirat.

70 Umm Adam Britāniyah, Twitter (9 April 2015, 23 March 2015).

71 Umm Layth, Tumblr (3 June 2014).

72 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (18 September 2015).

73 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 May 2015).

74 GreenBirdofDabiq, Twitter (28 August 2015).

75 Hoda Muthana, personal interview conducted by Ellie Hall over Kik.

76 Lioness, Twitter (6 June 2013, 12 August 2013); Sakina, Twitter (3 September 2015, 21 September 2015); Ummu’AbbāsAl-Britāni, Twitter (24 November 2013).

77 Though marriage appears mandated, Umm Nosaybah Kalashn reports being in Daesh-controlled territory for over a year and claims that women are not forced to marry the fighters they are recommended. However, her experience appears unique. Umm Nosaybah Kalashn, Twitter (18 September 2014, 17 March 2015, 2 June 2015).

78 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 May 2015).

79 Lioness, Twitter (27 February 2014).

80 Umm Umar, personal interview conducted by Nabeelah Jaffer over Twitter.

81 Lioness, Twitter (6 October 2013).

82 We did find evidence that one woman did not fully understand the role she was to play in Daesh. Umm Nosaybah Kalashn notes her disappointment in not being allowed to fight and mentions that she had been in her national army at home. See Umm Nosaybah Kalashn, Twitter (22 May 2014).

83 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 April 2015).

84 Umm A, Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 September 2015).

85 Umm M, Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 September 2015).

86 GreenBirdofDabiq, Twitter (18 October 2015).

87 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 September 2015).

88 Umm Layth, Tumblr (11 September 2014).

89 Umm Usamah, Twitter (12 October 2014).

90 Umm Aminah, Twitter (30 April 2015).

91 Umm Abbas, Twitter (18 September 2015); Ummu’AbbāsAl-Britāni, Twitter (29 October 2014).

92 Umm Abbas, Twitter (21 September 2015).

93 Bint Mujahid, Twitter (3 February 2015).

94 Umm Nosaybah, Twitter (18 September 2014).

95 ISIL Committee on Research and Fatwas, ‘Fatwa Number 64’ (29 January 2015).

96 al-Muhajirah, Umm Sumayyah, ‘Slave-girls or prostitutes?’, Dabiq, 11 (2015), pp. 4648 ; the author’s name suggests that she is also a migrant.

97 Umm Abbas, Twitter (23 September 2015).

98 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 June 2015).

99 Bint Muhajid, Twitter (17 July 2015).

100 Umm Abbas, personal interview conducted by Nabeelah Jaffer over Twitter. It is important to clarify that we have no way of measuring the actual incidence of rape and violence that these women face and this distinction should be kept in mind.

101 Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, ‘Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat’, New York City Police Department, Intelligence Division Report (2007).

102 Hoda Muthana, personal interview conducted by Ellie Hall over Kik.

103 Sakina, Twitter (26 September 2015).

104 Ummu’AbbāsAl-Britāni, Twitter (24 September 2014).

105 Barbara Perry, ‘Gendered Islamophobia: Hate crime against Muslim women’, Social Identities, 20:1 (2014), pp. 74–89.

106 Ibid.

107 Many women in the West – devout and not devout – choose to wear the veil. For many others, veiling is not part of their religious or cultural practice. For discussion of the diverse, complex relationships between Muslim women and veiling, see Asifa Siraj, ‘Meanings of modesty and the hijab amongst Muslim women in Glasgow, Scotland’, Gender, Place & Culture, 18:6 (2011), pp. 716–31 and Mishra, Smeeta and Shirazi, Faegheh, ‘Hybrid identities: American Muslim women speak’, Gender, Place & Culture, 17:2 (2010), pp. 191209 .

108 Rachel Zoll, ‘US Muslim Women Debate Safety of Hijab Amid Backlash’, Associated Press (10 December 2015), available: {}.

109 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 July 2015).

110 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 July 2015).

111 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 August 2015).

112 Brigade, Al-Khansaa, Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women. trans. Charlie Winter (Quilliam Foundation, 2015), p. 28 .

113 Lioness, Twitter (27 February 2013).

114 Umm U, Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 September 2015).

115 Bint Mujahid, Twitter (27 February 2015).

116 Viterna, , ‘Pulled, pushed and persuaded’, pp. 145 ; Viterna, Women in War; Parkinson, ‘Organizing rebellion’.

117 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 August 2015).

118 Sakina, Twitter (9 August 2015).

119 Al-Muhajirat, Tumblr (1 July 2015).

120 Umm Layth, Tumblr (3 June 2014).

121 Ummu’AbbāsAl-Britāni, Twitter (30 April 2015).

122 Umm Abbas, Twitter (23 September 2015).

123 Umm Abbas (Twitter, 12 September 2015) writes, ‘Don’t you feel ashamed? To see a child in kital [fighting with a weapon] whilst you neglect Hijrah, Ba’yah [allegiance] and Jihad #WilayatAlBarakah #IS.’

124 Umm Nosaybah Kalashn, Twitter (17 March 2015).

125 Ummu’AbbāsAl-Britāni, Twitter (29 October 2014).

126 Umm Layth, Tumblr (9 April 2014).

127 Umm Layth, Tumblr (11 September 2014).

128 Bint Muhajid, Twitter (10 February 2015).

129 Hoda Muthana, Twitter (19 March 2015).

130 Some scholars suggest that sex or romanticism may motivate male recruits though this argument appears infrequently. See Roy, Olivier, Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of the Islamic State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

131 Richard Barrett, ‘Foreign Fighters in Syria’, presented to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (2015).

132 Farwell, James P., ‘The media strategy of ISIS’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 56:6 (2014), pp. 4955 .

133 Adam Nossiter, ‘“That ignoramus”: 2 French scholars of radical Islam turn bitter rivals’, New York Times (12 July 2016), available at: {}.

134 Ibid.

135 Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

136 Inge, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman.

137 Roy suggested in a recent conversation about European terror that Islamic ideology had little to do with the attackers’ motivations: ‘had [the attacker] been imbued with Islamic culture and bent toward the ambition of establishing an Islamic state in the Middle East, he would have probably not have known about pop singer Ariana Grande … he would have traveled to Syria or Libya instead.’ Women in our data did travel to Daesh-controlled territory, but similarly reflect a working knowledge of Western popular culture and teenage phenomena. This highlights the contradictions between explanations for extremism touting religion and those emphasising other factors.

138 Mahmood, , ‘Feminist theory, embodiment, and the docile agent’, p. 202 .

139 Ibid., p. 204.

140 Auchter, Jessica, ‘Gendering terror’, International Feminist Journal of Politics, 14:1 (2012), pp. 121139 .

141 Ibid., p. 124.

142 Peresin, and Cervone, , ‘The Western muhajirat of ISIS’, p. 495 .

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