New research by Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre reveals the terrorist organisation’s efforts to attract women to their cause. Women became indispensable to the so-called Islamic State (IS), both in conflict areas and in the West. They played their role in the organisation’s state-building enterprise and were granted more proactive roles on the battlefields. This increase in the involvement of women could pave the way for potentially different roles of jihadi women in the future. Europol’s report, the first in a new series, Europol Specialist Reporting, aims to shed light on how IS – a group that supports a patriarchal authority – attempted to appeal to and recruit women.
IS’s ambition of building a functional state required the active and voluntary participation of women. Women were granted roles as doctors, teachers, ‘moral policers’ and – more controversially – combatants. Nevertheless, IS stressed that their main role remained that of stay-at-home wives and mothers. Women also featured noticeably more in IS propaganda than in the material of earlier jihadi organisations. IS clearly recognised the importance of women and their role in producing and disseminating propaganda. Official propaganda was itself aimed at women as IS soon realised the necessity of investing resources into reaching out to its female constituents.
Five key findings from Europol’s report
- The incentives put across by IS to recruit women are in many ways gender-neutral. Its propaganda focuses on ideas and concepts that speak to the emotions of both men and women in equal measure, namely the revival of the Islamic caliphate and the defence of the umma.1
- IS propaganda presents female jihadis to be as ideologically motivated as their male counterparts. Women are portrayed as seeking martyrdom and divine compensation, with their sense of empowerment lying in contributing to the building of an Islamic state. To quote one IS female propagandist: ‘Let these crusaders take heed, for just as the [caliphate] is filled with men who love death more than the crusaders love life, likewise are the women of the Islamic State’.
- IS online content was forthright in stressing the hazards of life in the caliphate; however, IS portrayed the suffering and adversity as part of God’s plan and as a stepping-stone to paradise.
- IS states that offensive jihad is not obligatory for women, and that a woman’s honour lies in being a producer of jihadis, rather than a warrior herself; nevertheless, the organisation encouraged women to carry out attacks against the enemy. As of late 2017, IS explicitly called on women to become actively engaged in battles and legitimised combative jihad for women.
- Examples of women who either carried out terrorist attacks or were arrested preventively prove that women are willing to use violence if the ideology allows them to do so. For now, it is not yet their role, but this balance may easily shift depending on the organisation’s strategic needs and developments.
The study looked exclusively at the incentives put across for this purpose within the organisation’s propaganda. It does not claim to analyse the manifold psychological and sociological factors that could motivate individual women to join IS or subscribe to its ideology.
This report is the first in a new series, Europol Specialist Reporting – a collection of reports published by our in-house experts on priority crime areas.
NB: The propaganda analysed covers the period from June 2014 to August 2018.
1 The umma is a concept that encompasses the Muslim community worldwide, eliminating cultural, ethnic or national identities and adopting instead an identity based exclusively on religion.