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25th Oct 2021

Feature

The dilemma of Europe's returning female jihadis

  • The case of Shamima Begum highlights the complexity of returning women. Begum was a 15-year-old schoolgirl when she left her native London to join so-called Islamic State (Photo: Screengrab: ITV News/GMB)
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Should gender be a non-issue in Europe's fight against terrorism, or are there valid reasons for a different approach to female returnees from conflict zones?

At the beginning of September, three Swedish women landed in Stockholm, expelled from Syria together with their children. Two of the women were arrested, one suspected of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Their children were immediately taken into custody.

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  • ISIS female fighters - free agents, or puppets of the men? (Photo: Denis Bocquet)

The scene is a familiar one across Europe since the early 2010s, when large numbers of foreign fighters began to join – and later defect from – the militant group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).

Today, at least a thousand Europeans remain in detention camps in northeast Syria. More than 600 are children. NGOs like the International Red Cross urge Europe to bring them home, highlighting the camps' hazardous living conditions. A majority of EU countries refuse, regarding them as threats to national security.

Women make up a large part of those who do return. But Islamist ideology promotes gender separatism and views equality as an abhorrent Western idea. If women are mere homemakers in these groups, would they really constitute a threat back home?

Hardliners remain

Dr Joana Cook is assistant professor of terrorism and political violence at Leiden University and senior project manager at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism. Her latest work is A Woman's Place: US Counterterrorism Since 9/11.

Women's roles in the Islamic State were very complex and multifaceted, she says. "We saw individuals who at the same time could be minors/wives or widows/ mothers/victims/supporters/perpetrators. Women would often play a multiplicity of roles in that world."

In the early days, Cook saw female returnees who were less ideologically-driven. But those who stayed until the end, through the fall of the caliphate and the final stand of the Islamic State in 2019, were more likely to be invested in the group.

"It was not the case for all of them, but for some of the more hardline individuals – some of who remain in the camps today. The longer they remain in these camps in a state of limbo, the more likely the grievances of even less ideologically committed women will deepen and compound."

Cook says she's frustrated by "problematic" narratives like that of hapless "Jihadi brides". "It assumes a lack of agency in women; that they're victims or duped into going over. It undermines our understanding of the many women who made independent decisions to go join this group, or that the circumstances under which they went may be more complex than just an interest in marriage."

Having their religious identity acknowledged and valued by the Islamic State was an attractive prospect for some, she says. "It's fascinating, because when I looked at internal documents like letters from women to other women in the IS, they speak about being 'empowered' by the rights they attain under the Islamic State – the right to wear religious symbols and practice their faith as they see fit, for example. So they reframe these narratives [of female empowerment] in a way that fits with IS ideology."

Not a uniform group

Cook says it's vital to evaluate the risks they pose case-by-case. There are women in the camps who beg their governments: "Please, bring me home. I'll go to jail, just get me out of here." Some of them are likely not going to pose a danger to society, she deduces. However, Cook and her colleagues also see women who would.

"And this is exactly why it's imperative that this issue is addressed – proactively returning these European citizens, and determining the best approach to managing these individuals on a case-by-case basis."

The case of Shamima Begum highlights the complexity of returning women. Begum was a 15-year-old schoolgirl when she left her native London to join IS. She gave birth to three children in Syria, all of whom tragically died due to disease or malnutrition.

This week, the now 22-year-old appeared on British television, clad in Western garb, live from a camp in Syria she says she's desperate to leave.

Not everyone is convinced of Begum's explanation that she made a foolish, teenage mistake. Her classmates remember that she wore an ISIS badge to school and actively tried to recruit them.

Richard Walton, former head of counterterrorism at the Metropolitan police, commented that Begum is a terrorist who joined a conscripted organisation and should be treated as such – not as a "lost gap-year student in Thailand". Begum has been stripped of her British citizenship.

Long-term strategy needed

Cook sees no problem putting women involved in terrorist activities on trial. "No, this is absolutely the correct approach. Any woman who comes back and has committed a crime should be held accountable for any criminal activity she's been involved in to the full extent of the law."

But Europe must start considering what comes next, she says: "Reintegration, rehabilitation, de-radicalisation. The right kind of support for these women, and the children who come back with them, will be imperative for addressing these distinct populations long term."

Rachel Briggs is an expert on foreign and security policy and, among other roles, chair of the board of eirectors of the Global Center on Cooperative Security. She acknowledges that bringing back those who've been involved or associated with militant groups constitutes numerous risks, but says the risks are just as serious if European countries leave them behind. "If not more serious, given the recent development in Afghanistan. Not everyone who went to Syria ended up fighting. But you have individuals that are battle-hardy because they lived in a constant state of conflict and under extraordinary conditions for a number of years. Many are likely to have created networks that offer an opportunity, should they wish to engage in conflict back home or elsewhere."

'Don't underestimate the women'

Whether or not they have personal battle experience, returnees will very often have access to people with know-how, hardware, and experience, she says.

As for whether female extremists are less dangerous than their male counterparts, Briggs is clear: "Anyone who underestimates women does so at their own peril. The women who went to Syria weren't on the frontlines, as their ideology prevents them from that, but it's not unheard of with women in leading positions in terrorist groups. Just look at Baader Meinhof in 1970s Germany or many of the current day Latin American guerrilla groups."

Organisations such as Islamic State are most visible as perpetrators of terrorist attacks and other acts of violence. But they're reliant on a wide support network, a community around them of non-fighting people that keep the infrastructure up, says Briggs. "So women without fighting skills can still play a role in sustaining the conflict."

Author bio

Lisa Bjurwald is a Stockholm-based journalist who specialises in international current affairs, political extremism, right-wing populism, terrorism, press freedom and women's issues.

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