The wives of Islamic State – what to do?

When we think of terrorism and terrorists our minds usually turn to men, and for good reason.  It is an undeniable fact that most terrorists are men.  Full stop.  Whether this has anything to do with testosterone or men seeking to establish themselves in the world or whatever all remain interesting questions but irrespective of the reason we are still left with the reality that most of the perpetrators of attacks around the world, and all those in positions of power and influence in terrorist organisations, are men.

There are, of course, a few examples of the fairer sex in such groups.  Ulrike Meinhof was one half of the eponymous Baader-Meinhof leftwing terrorist group  in West Germany in the 1970s.  The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were famous for their use of female suicide bombers in Sri Lanka.  Anarchists such as Emma Goldman were also important leaders in violent movements.  My friend and former colleague at CSIS, Jessica Davis, recently published a book on women and terrorism, entitled Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State and I encourage you to read it since she knows a lot more about this than I do.

More recently however we have seen an uptick in female participation in terrorist groups, none more so than with Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.  Hundreds of women left their homes in countries around the world to join the so-called Caliphate and IS even had an all-female brigade called Al Khansaa.  Some of these women were born Muslim while others converted to Islam and later embraced IS’ abominable version of the faith.

Now that IS is no longer what it once was – it no longer holds significant amounts of territory and thousands of its fighters have been killed – the two countries most cursed with its presence are faced with a very sticky problem: what to do with the women captured by Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian forces (there are also large numbers of children – a topic I will return to at a future date)?  Iraq, for instance, is subjecting these women to very short trials – as little as 15 minutes – and sentencing them to prison or death. In other cases, these countries have asked the women’s homelands, often located in the West, to take them back.  Not all that surprisingly some countries, e.g. France and the UK, are not jumping at having IS veterans return to their native lands.

What then is the issue here?  Simply put, it is exactly the same issue as what to do with returning male foreign fighters.  Allow  me to explain.

When it comes to those of our citizens who elected to leave our shores to join IS and who did not end up dead we face the challenge of what to do with them when they return: openly, surreptitiously or extradited by Iraq and Syria.  Do we charge them?  Follow them?  Leave them alone?  Rehabilitate them?  Turn them into human sources or agents?  What evidence do we have that they did wrong?  Can we actually bring them to court?  All very good questions.  We are stuck with figuring out who’s who and, with the exception of those stupid enough to pose beheading photos online, what they did or did not do while in theatre as well as whether that constitutes a crime, against humanity or otherwise.

The exact same goes for the women.  Some clearly went with the full intention of supporting IS.  Some were dragged by their husbands or boyfriends.  And there a whole bunch in the middle.  The problem here again is which is which?  Do we believe those who said they were duped and had no idea what IS was all about?  Did some really have no choice as this Moroccan woman says?  Is saying sorry ok?  Do we allow them a ‘do-over’?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  In some countries, Canada included as I interpret the law, it is illegal to leave to join a terrorist group, no matter whether you ‘drove the bus’ or raped little girls once you got there.  Hence yes, all should be charged.  Countering that is the sheer number of people who went and the difficulty in gathering evidence that stands up in our court systems.

In the end we will probably muddle through.  Some high profile cases will go to trial to make an example of someone in the hopes that down the road others may think twice about following their lead.  Others will be enrolled in counter radicalisation/de-radicalisation/rehabilitation programmes despite the uncomfortable fact that no one really knows what works and what doesn’t.

But before we feel sorry for these women and their children – ok it is right to feel for the kids because they sure as hell didn’t choose to go – can we please remind ourselves that a lot of these ‘rueful women’ made their bed and now have to sleep in it?  No, not all deserve our contempt but we need to acknowledge that it is going to be really hard to separate the innocent from the guilty.  Just as it is going to be for the men.  For on this issue the sexes are truly equal.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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