Guest Column: The Women of the Islamic State by Jeffrey D. Simon

The Islamic State (IS) is proving to be one of the most ruthless, efficient, and creative terrorist groups in recent times.  After shocking the world with a blitzkrieg across western and northern Iraq and executing captured Iraqi soldiers along the way, the group is now appealing to Western women to come join the fight.  Not as jihadist warriors, however, but rather as the wives of IS members and the mothers to a new generation of extremists.

It’s a scary prospect that indicates IS plans to be around for a long time.  In addition to their military prowess, the group is proving to be quite savvy in its use of the Internet to recruit these women.  They use blogs, tweets, and other social media tools in what can be considered the jihadist equivalent of sending spam messages to millions of people.  You only need a small percentage of women to respond to be effective.

We don’t know yet how many Western women may have already made the trip to Syria or Iraq.  But the lure of finding a husband and raising a family is an ingenious way to appeal to some women who may not initially have had jihad on their mind.

IS is using women already in their ranks to make the pitch to the new recruits.  As reported by Jamie Dettmer in The Daily Beast, the online messages include instructions for how to travel to Syria or Iraq.  “Biggest tip to sisters: don’t take detours, take the quickest route,” writes Umm Layth, who is believed to be a British woman living in Syria.  She also extols the virtues of being married to a jihadist fighter.  “There’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom].”

The prospect of Western women traveling to Syria and Iraq to marry IS members would not appear to present a security threat to the U.S. and European nations if all they actually did was to become wives and mothers.  But once the women are over there, there is the risk that some of them will be trained in terrorist tactics and weapons and then sent back to their home countries to carry out attacks.

Females present unique opportunities for terrorist groups since they are usually viewed with less suspicion by security personnel than are males.   They can also hide explosives under their clothing pretending to be pregnant.  Both secular and religious terrorist groups have used women for suicide attacks in the past, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, al Qaeda, Hamas, and Boko Haram.

Female terrorists have also been prominent among the Chechen extremists, with women known as “Black Widows” perpetrating suicide bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities.  In addition, women were part of Chechen teams that seized a Moscow theater in 2002 and a Beslan school in 2004, resulting in hundreds of casualties.

There is another daunting prospect to consider; namely, IS not even having to bring some of these women over to Syria and Iraq, but simply using the Internet to radicalize them and urge them to take action in their own countries.  The Internet has already proven to be a powerful tool used by Islamic extremist groups to recruit men for lone wolf attacks and the same can occur with women.

One of the most remarkable cases of the Internet turning an otherwise non-violent woman into a terrorist is that of Roshonara Choudhry, who was an excellent student at King’s College in London before unexpectedly dropping out just a few months before graduation in 2010.

She then attempted to assassinate Stephen Timms, a British member of Parliament who supported the war in Iraq.  Choudhry showed no signs of radicalization prior to the attack and gave no indication to her friends, families, and acquaintances that she was sympathetic in any way to those who expressed Islamic extremist views.

However, she secretly began downloading in November 2009 the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist Islamic cleric who was living in Yemen at that time and who was the spokesperson for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Between November 2009 and May 2010, when she carried out the attempted assassination, she listened to more than one hundred sermons by al-Awlaki.  She never met, e-mailed, or talked to al-Awlaki, but was motivated solely by his inflammatory sermons calling for violent attacks against the West.  And even though al-Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in 2011, his sermons live on via the Internet, ready to influence future lone wolves.

Who will emerge from the Islamic State to become the “godfather of lone wolves” as al-Awlaki was remains to be seen.  The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has already delivered one sermon that the group posted as an online video.  With the U.S. now engaged in air strikes against the IS, the risks have increased that the group will eventually call upon men and women in Western countries to retaliate with lone wolf attacks.


Copyright 2014 by Jeffrey D. Simon

Jeffrey D. Simon is President of Political Risk Assessment Co., Inc and a visiting lecturer in the Department of Political Science at UCLA.  He is the author of two books on terrorism, The Terrorist Trap: America’s Experience with Terrorism and Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat.  His website can be found at


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Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC

Kolenda Strategic Leadership LLC