The tendency to downplay the agency of female ISIS members was explored last week by my colleague Lydia Khalil (Repatriating female foreign fighters: political not personal). In media interviews, detained women or their families often make self-serving claims to have been brainwashed or duped. And although the age that they joined the terrorist group is an element to be taken into account, the ameliorating effects of youthful naivety are diminished depending on the type of crime they commit or group they support.
The attention on the role of women who join or support radical jihadists groups should focus on the fact that they willingly join organisations that are fighting foreign governments.
Youngsters joining a terrorist group such as ISIS are, and ought to be, considered differently to youthful offenders committing common crimes.
When women claim to have played only a subordinate or minor role in a terrorist group such as ISIS it is fair to be sceptical; everyone was expected to support the forceful establishment of Islamic rule in whatever way they could.
Although former British student Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria as a 15-year-old to join ISIS and now wants to return home, claims to have never been armed and argues she does not pose a threat to the UK, the reality is that she could still pose a threat to national security.
Propaganda has a wide reach and is harmful, William Joyce (aka Lord Haw Haw) for example, was executed for distributing Nazi propaganda during the Second World War, rather than for any martial exploits. Today, in the era of social media saturation, propagandists are key enablers of armed groups.
Australian Shadi Jabar, sister of Farhad Jabar who shot and killed Curtis Cheng in October 2015, left Australia for Syria the day before the attack. She was partnered with a Sudanese jihadist who planned overseas attacks and adopted the online identity Umm Isa al-Amrikiah. Jabar was also in contact with an 18-year-old woman in the UK who was subsequently convicted of terrorist offences and was described as an “influential ISIS recruiter and extremist” by the US Defence Department when it announced her death in an airstrike in April 2016.
Another Australian, Zehra Duman, showed what she thought of her country and fellow citizens when she wrote via her Twitter feed from Syria about her and her housemates from Australia and the United States:
US + Australia, how does it feel that all 5 of us were born n raised in your lands, & now here thirsty for ur blood?
The attention on the role of women who join or support radical jihadists groups should focus on the fact that they willingly join organisations that are fighting foreign governments. These women are also committed to attacking their countries of nationality and residence.
Labelling these women as “ISIS brides” and portraying them with young children might be expected to divorce the women from the organisation and elicit sympathy. But these women were not “ISIS brides” so much as jihadi volunteers. Everyone’s contribution to violent jihad can be different.
Childbearing is central to the role of women within ISIS. Women are expected to guide their children (“lion cubs”) towards jihad so that the conflict can become multi-generational. As Umm Sumaya al-Muhajirah said in her article “A jihad without fighting” in the ISIS online magazine Dabiq:
My Muslim sister, indeed you are a mujāhidah (female jihadi), and if the weapon of the men is the assault rifle and the explosive belt, then know that the weapon of the women is good behavior and knowledge…my sisterly advice to you as you are preparing the lion cubs of the Khilāfah is that first comes knowledge, then the weapon.
It is understandable that the focus is on the women who travel to join a terrorist group that is committed to attacking Australia and other Western countries.
But there is also the massively under-examined role of women who never left Australian shores but are equally committed to supporting terrorist groups and their activities.
With the exception of some who have been charged with channelling funds to ISIS, jihadi efforts by women are buried in the masses of evidence collected in terrorism cases. It is worth looking at a few anonymous examples drawn from those court documents to show that there has been, and likely remains latent support among some women for the racism and vile intolerance that Salafi-jihadism is based upon.
One example is the casual intolerance evident in the way one woman refers to “those Christian dogs in Iraq” while speaking to a male relative subsequently found guilty of terrorism offences. Another is the passive or active support for terrorist acts by women to their partners. In a discussion between a convicted terrorist and his wife on the news that Curtis Cheng had been killed, she urged her partner “to watch it before it gets deleted”.
Elsewhere, after a man’s passport was cancelled by authorities at the airport as he attempted to travel to Syria, his partner urged him to stay strong and not to stray from the path of jihad. “Don’t let shaytaan (Satan) whisper in your ear this doesn’t change anything”, she told him. He was subsequently found guilty of planning a terrorist attack in Australia.
In the world of jihadi terrorism one thing is for sure – behind every mujahid there is a “good” mujahidi. It’s just that we rarely get to hear about it.