by Francesco Bruno
It is a woman who teaches you today a lesson in heroism, who teaches you the meaning of Jihad, and the way to die a martyr‘s death … It is a woman who has shocked the enemy, with her thin, meager, and weak body … It is a woman who blew herself up, and with her exploded all the myths about women‘s weakness, submissiveness, and enslavement.
-Al-Sha’ab editorial, February 2002
Since the decline of Islamic State (IS), national governments are faced with the dilemma of leaving the remaining Jihadi foreign fighters and their families in Syria or repatriating them for prosecution in their home countries. This article focuses on the choice of the British Government to leave these individuals in Syria. It does so by discussing the associated difficulties to reintegrate jihadi women within society and its impact on existing counterterrorism (CT) strategies and de-indoctrination processes in the United Kingdom. Specifically, the role of female foreign fighters within the culture of Salafi-Jihadism remains underestimated, particularly with regards to their devotion to the cause and survival of the terrorist network.
Historically, a large participation of women in terrorists networks can be seen. According to Jessica Davis, female suicide bombers counted between twenty-eight to thirty-one per cent in Chechnya, while these numbers stand at fifty-four per cent in Nigeria. Similarly, during the 1970s and 1980s in the German Red Army, women counted for one third of the overall number. In the meantime, between 1986 and 2005, of the seventeen terrorist organisations which used suicide-bomb as a tactic, women were active in half of them. The article concludes that due to the lack of access to terrorist networks and their affiliated organisations, experts generally focus on male foreign fighters, as they cover positions of relevance within the organisation. In this sense, opting for repatriation of these individuals could result in a unique opportunity to advance the knowledge on rehabilitation and de-indoctrination procedures.
In terms of numbers, in 2017, there were over 40,000 jihadi fighters who travelled to Syria to fight under the banner of IS. Of the total number, thirteen per cent (or 4,761) were women, with another twelve per cent (4,640) were minors, who joined the terrorist grouping between 2013 and 2018. Since its defeat, around four-hundred foreign fighters, among them about fifty to sixty women, could or have returned to the United Kingdom (UK). A number of these women have not been able to return as Downing Street exercised its power to strip such citizens of their British nationality. This power, granted by the Immigration Act 2014, states that the British Government reserves the authority to deprive a person of their citizenship should that individual have conducted himself or herself in a manner that could compromise the UK’s interests.
One example of a female foreign fighter stripped of her British citizenship is Shamima Begum, a case which British newspaper put in the spotlights. The problem, however, is larger than her. Causing devastation on multiple occasions, the UK confronts a long history of home-grown terrorists which keep CT agencies in constant pursuit. One of the most prominent and famous cases is Samantha Lewthwaite also named the White Widow, the wife of the London 7/7 attacker, Germaine Lindsey, and currently on Interpol’s most-wanted list. Lewthwaite fake her detachment from her husband’s actions and beliefs and convinced the prosecutors of her innocence. She escaped British and European authorities disappearing shortly after. Lewthwaite is also linked to a series of other terror plots including the 2012 bombing in Kenya and in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013.
At present, the British government decided that foreign fighters should remain in Syrian prison camps. However, the terrorist threat continues, with al-Qaeda’s increased activity in the region could potentially see remaining IS fighters join, detainees released, and both groups absorbed into the Base’s operations. According to the head of MI6: ‘They are likely to have acquired both the skills and connections that make them potentially very dangerous and also experienced extreme radicalisation.’ In this sense, IS’ weaker presence in the region does not reflect a decrease in the overall influence of terrorist organisations, which are likely to benefit from the situation. At the same time, repatriating these individuals would likely result in a higher investment of resources for monitoring and de-indoctrination purposes. Such a development would add further pressure on the criminal justice system and counterterrorism units.
What makes female jihadi fighters so significant in light of such debates? Academics tend to focus primarily on the role of men in terrorist organisations as they cover positions of relevance. The lack of ample information regarding female fighters makes them equally dangerous, and all the more important to understand. Lacking the most up-to-date information on women’s ‘path to Jihad’ makes it difficult for Counterterrorism experts to produce appropriate de-indoctrination procedures fitting these profiles. However, from the available information on radicalisation and focusing on case studies in which women were the subjects, it is possible to understand this important element.
Women often cover ‘less visible,’ albeit critical roles within terrorist organisations. They are educators of the next generation, facilitators, and perpetrators of the jihadi cause through recruitment and management of finances displaying a deep devotion to the cause and a continuation of the religious struggle. The level of indoctrination they have been subjected to in their homes or in camps, but also due to the nature of the motivations for joining the organisations contests to this fact. Multiple psychologists including Yoram Schweitzer and Farhana Ali identified these causes as being much more personal for women. Indeed, they can be with the ‘Four Rs:’ Revenge (the loss of a dominant male in their lives such as husband, father or brother), Redemption (due to alleged or real sexual misconducts), Respect (inability to conceive children or being considered marriageable), and Relationship (being daughters, wives or sisters of well-known insurgents).
Based on their analysis, it is crucial to consider the individual’s unique path to radicalisation and indoctrination. Such a path is clearly based on personal experiences via the justification of events happening to them, their families, and their community. Specifically, each individual justifies the use of violence and the adoption of Islamic extremism based on how they interpret their familiar links to terrorists, often citing hatred against those who killed their family members, and even societal pressure. In a nutshell, ‘terrorist behavior is a response to the frustration of various political, economic, and personal needs or objectives.’ Therefore, this link between personal experiences and an individual’s personality transform women, who choose to follow the path of radicalisation, becoming strong believers in violent jihad and demonstrating extreme devotion to the cause.
To conclude, whether to support or criticise the British government on its decision to deny the return of these individuals depends on an in-depth and accurate analysis of the pros and cons of such decisions. The long history of home-grown terrorism in the United Kingdom constitutes an important element of analysis in the choice to repatriate or leaving these individuals in Syria. The example of Samantha Lewthwaite, for example, shows the difficulties associated with the processes of de-indoctrination. In this sense, women have demonstrated to cover essential roles in the fields of recruitment, finance, and perpetration of terrorism, showing a new way to interpret the figure of the ‘terrorist.’ Such a shift inspired scholars to coin an alternative version named the ‘female jihad,’ to understand female fighters’ unique path to radicalisation and, thus, creating a new window of analysis. In this context, repatriation ought to be seen as an opportunity to develop more rigorous de-indoctrination processes which are currently still in the pioneering stage, while using the protection of these individuals as examples to disillusion prospective foreign fighters.