In the wake of the van attack in Toronto last week there has been a lot of ink spilled and airtime filled on the problem of what to do with young men. Regardless of motive, it seems that serious violence is carried out overwhelmingly by the male half of the human species. Many researchers and government departments are struggling with first figuring out why this is (is it testosterone, a drive to ‘be someone’ , peer pressure, or something else?) and what to do about it. It is not as if this is a new challenge though: you’d be hard pressed to find a period in history where the bulk of murders, rapes and mass atrocities were not perpetrated by men.
At the same time, it is important not to forget the fairer sex. While they rarely figure in murders and violence we must not equate ‘rare’ with ‘never’. A recent case in Halifax where a US woman and her Nova Scotian boyfriend planned a ‘Valentines Day massacre ‘ a la Columbine underscores that women can plan mass casualty events.
On the terrorist front there have been cases where suicide attacks have been effected by women and in Nigeria even by girls coopted by Boko Haram. In this regard I recommend a great book by my friend and former colleague Jessica Davis on women in modern terrorism.
There has perhaps been no better example of the role of women in terrorist groups in recent years than that of Islamic State. There is a tonne of analysis on the group and how it came to be and I won’t attempt to summarise this growing literature, save to mention that I too have a book out on Western foreign fighters with IS. Here it is the women I want to focus on since many countries are now faced with what to do with those who are still around after IS has lost most of its territory.
Before that, however, it is worthwhile reminding the reader why so many ladies chose to travel to join IS. For some it was the allure of an ‘Islamic State’ in which they could live according to Sharia law. For others they were merely following boyfriends and husbands. Probably for a few the violence was an attraction. Whatever the reason, in many countries regardless of what they did in theatre (in Iraq and Syria) the mere fact that they left their homelands to join a terrorist group is an offence. In other words, one does not have to have committed atrocities to be found guilty of being a terrorist.
So now Iraq – and to a lesser extent Syria – are forced to deal with the women who are left. Many are being brought to trial and the vast majority are convicted after very short hearings (ten minutes in some cases) and sentenced to life or even execution. These court cases have led some to protest but my response is a simple one: maybe these women should not have joined IS in the first place.
Then there is the issue of what to do with those who come home or who are extradited by Middle Eastern countries. It is here that I fear some states are underestimating the threat women pose. For even if these ‘jihadettes’ (if you are offended by this term I don’t care: we used to call them ‘jihotties’ when I was at CSIS) were not responsible for rapes and killings we have to assume at a minimum that they were, and most likely still are, heavily radicalised. This suggests that they could return to pass on the ideology in their home countries, bearing in mind that those who actually traveled to conflict zones are usually much more effective radicalisers. It gets worse. Many of these women had children while with IS. We should work on the assumption that they will pass on the perverted IS ideology to their kids. Is any government considering taking these children away to prevent this? If not, why not?
I for one am getting tired of the sob stories and the claims that ‘I drove the bus’ that so many returning terrorists spout ad nauseum. IS was one of the most heinous violent organisations we have seen in a while and those who willingly thought is was a good idea to be part of it must be adequately punished ‘pour encourager les autres’. Anything less is a travesty of justice. If we want to show to the young that becoming a terrorist has serious consequences we need to start with the surviving IS members.