An alarming trend shows that an increasing number of Western women are taking a more active and potentially violent role in terrorism.
French citizen, Hayat Boumedienne, is suspected of playing a critical part in the recent terrorist attacks that unfolded in Paris, which left 17 dead. Boumedienne's partner, gunman Amedy Coulibaly, was among the terrorists killed by police. Boumedienne is currently believed to be in Syria, the destination of choice for female jihadists.
As Boumedienne's involvement has shown, the lure of being a foreign fighter in Syria is no longer limited to men. The US State Department estimates that women comprise as much as 15% of the 3,000 Westerners who have joined terrorist groups such as ISIS in Syria.
Drawing on original research conducted by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), we followed a trail of radicalized women through social media. We were able to offer the first in-depth analysis of Western women who have migrated to ISIS controlled territory, including a history of female extremists, the process behind ISIS' female recruits, and the new security risks posed to the West.
The women we tracked offered three primary reasons for traveling to ISIS-controlled territory; grievances, solutions and individual motivations.
One of these women, Umm Layth, now confirmed to be Asqa Mahmood, a 20-year-old from Glasgow, offers an interesting look at the path towards radicalization.
Mahmood is thought to have been radicalized through the internet. Like some of the women we studied, Mahmood's social media presence began with postings of videos and pictures illustrating the brutality of the Syrian Civil war. She lambasted Western countries for their refusal to involve themselves in the conflict. Mahmood's criticism and disillusionment of the West coincided or perhaps prompted her descent into radicalized Islam.
Mahmood's initial post appeared on Tumblr in January 2013. In the months that followed she posted regularly about her feelings of isolation and directionless:
'I feel like I have no direction in life anymore. It's funny how things work out, once upon a time I used to be such a career obsessed girl. Now I have no clue. I just want another fresh start and to do it right this time.'
During this period she began to read, what her parents referred to as 'al-Qaeda books,' which included texts by Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awalki (whom she calls her 'main man'). Her interest in extremist texts was the first indication to her parents that she was radicalizing. Mahmood posts frequently about their disapproval:
'I asked my dad to get me some books while he goes to Pakistan next week. He got angry and said what 'Al Qaeeda' [sic] type books. (Tafsir ibn Kathir) My parents genuinely think I'm extremist cba cba'
In the early months of 2013 she began to wear the full traditional Islamic coverings, and no longer went to parties with the friends who attended the same private school she did. Mahmood stopped listening to music and withdrew from her middle class community.
In October 2013, her intentions to travel to Syria become evident. She writes frequently about her devotion to ISIS and her desire to join them:
'I'm getting so so [sic] Halal jealous hearing of all those who've recently made Hijrah to Bilaad ash Shaam Feesabeelilah :') [sic] May Allāh keep them steadfast.'
She left for Syria in November 2013. The exact date of her arrival is unknown, but she confirmed that she was in Syria in a posting on 30 November 2013.
The subject of female radicalization has become a hot topic within the media, where it is assumed that female extremism is a new and unique phenomena created by ISIS. But ISIS is not the first terror group to utilize women. That glass ceiling broke long ago.
Currently, women recruited by ISIS are prohibited from undertaking the role of fighter, but they are empowered with the responsibility of constructing a functioning state, which includes providing education, medical care, and raising families. Evidence gathered through the social media accounts of our sample of women, suggests some women of ISIS are not satisfied with their role as a wife or housekeeper and are willing and able to take on the role of combat fighter.
Indeed, our report takes a look at the example of the Chechen 'Black Widows', women who shifted from being passive members of society, to suicide bombers following the deaths of their loved ones during the second Russo-Chechen civil war.
The Chechen case study acts a possible forecast for the future of Western female ISIS supporters. Like the Chechens, some of the women we have tracked have been significantly affected by the deaths of their husbands, in some cases, the loss of their loved one has strengthened their commitment to ISIS.
As the West continues to battle against ISIS, there will almost certainly be an increase in civilian causalities and potentially the loss of ISIS supporters, including the friends and loved ones of the Western women. The deaths of loved ones could be a potential trigger to propel women into fighter roles or compel them to act as suicide bombers.
The online presence of the Western women could potentially pose the largest risk to the West. The recent attacks in Sydney and Paris indicate that homegrown style attacks by lone wolf individuals may be on the rise.
The online accounts of the men and women of ISIS not only contribute to the spread of Islamist ideology, but could also inspire those who cannot physically join ISIS to attack their home countries. Recently, Mahmood called for lone wolf attacks in the West, she stated on twitter:
'If you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself. Be sincere and be a Mujahid wherever you may be.'
It appears that 2015 will be a critical year for ISIS. The appeal of the group among women wishing to join in jihad remains strong. Importantly, those who travelled to Syria to fight alongside the group and who are not currently active on social media are likely to pose the biggest threat to the West. These individuals have the ability to return to the West undetected and may be trained and ready to carry out attacks in their home countries.
Alexandra Bradford is a co-author of "Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to Isis, Threat and Response" a report by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue.