The Complex Challenge of Female ISIS Returnees

Woman walksthrough dusty landscape

The Complex Challenge of Female ISIS Returnees


8 min read

Rachel Bryson Analyst, Co-Existence

Posted on: 7th March 2018

Countries worldwide are facing the challenge of how to deal with women returning from ISIS as the group loses territory and people who previously left their countries to join the group now flock home. In February 2018, the head of the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terror Command, Dean Haydon, warned of the threat posed by returning women and their children. These new arrivals are presenting unexpected challenges to law-enforcement officials, who were bracing for an influx of male returnees but instead have found themselves deciding the fates of women and children. Authorities have little experience and empirical evidence of best practice to guide their decisions.

The exact threat posed by female returnees arriving in Western countries from Iraq and Syria is unclear. Germany, France and Britain claim they will deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis, but the response to female returnees needs to be more comprehensive. What functions women performed for ISIS, why they returned and what threat—if any—they pose are fundamental questions that policymakers need to answer to devise concrete and constructive policies for returnees.

Due to the nature of war zones and the ambiguity of women’s roles in jihadi groups, answering these questions is difficult. This, coupled with the novelty of the challenge and the lack of completed cases to learn from, means governments risk having insufficient guidance on how to deal with women on their return. In response, the international community must collaborate better to share data, experiences and best practice to inform coherent policy.

In response, the international community must collaborate better to share data, experiences and best practice to inform coherent policy.

A Spectrum of Responses to Returning Women

Recent cases of female returnees have been diverse. For women in Iraq and Syria who have expressed a desire to return home, states have responded in a variety of ways, depending on the perceived activities of the women while with ISIS.

In January 2018, Emilie Konig, a 33-year-old Muslim convert from Brittany, France, and a notorious ISIS recruiter, became the latest European woman to plead publicly to be repatriated from Syria. She appears on the UN and US lists of dangerous militants and was arrested in early December 2017 with her three young children, all of whom were being held in a Kurdish camp.

Benjamin Griveaux, a spokesman for the French government, stated that there were no plans to bring Konig home. He claimed that if “there are legal institutions capable of guaranteeing a fair trial assuring their right to a defense”, women arrested in Kurdish-held Syria should be “judged there”. However, Konig’s lawyer argued that France must repatriate her under its “international commitments”.

The French case stands in stark contrast to a recent Canadian one. Towards the end of 2017, Canadian authorities were actively trying to bring home a woman and her two-year-old daughter after they escaped ISIS territory in Syria. She left Montreal in November 2014 to join ISIS and, soon after her arrival in Syria, realised life with the group was not what she had expected. The woman and her child subsequently spent considerable time trying to escape, eventually ending up in Kurdish custody. The Canadian police has not indicated whether the woman will be charged with a criminal offence on her return.

ISIS’s propaganda played a considerable role in drawing recruits worldwide, especially at the time of the declaration of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, when the group’s messages proclaimed a utopian existence. But it is not unknown for people to realise quickly after arriving that life under ISIS was far from perfection—notably for women who were under strict surveillance, speedily married off and largely restricted to their homes.

Women With Children

Research by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change reveals that when travelling to join extremist groups abroad, British men often went alone whereas women regularly took children with them. In the few cases of female returnees from such groups, more often than not, children are present too.

These children, some of whom were born in a war zone and have unclear nationalities, pose complex difficulties for states and social services. In January 2018, a 27-year-old woman was arrested at Heathrow Airport under antiterrorism laws. She brought her child, aged under two years old, home with her, and he has since been taken into care.

It remains debated to what extent a threat is posed by such children, who have grown up in conflict, are exposed to extreme ideology and have never known anything else. Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has warned that many women and children “had become so radicalized and identify so deeply with [ISIS] ideology that, by all accounts, they must also be identified as jihadis”.

In the UK, while the police has suggested DNA-testing children who have returned to the UK having been born on ISIS territory, to ensure they have the right to live in Britain, the responses for those who can stay is unclear. Social services have drawn up plans to take such children into care, but the degree of desensitisation to, and practice of, violence is unprecedented. Therefore, authorities need to share best practice across countries and contexts to direct policy.

It remains debated to what extent a threat is posed by such children, who have grown up in conflict, are exposed to extreme ideology and have never known anything else.

Women’s Varied Roles in ISIS

In the two cases of Konig and the Canadian returnee, the roles the women played while abroad and their levels of allegiance to ISIS appeared to dictate the host countries’ responses. Dealing with male returnees, who typically took part in fighting and state building, is hard enough. But when it comes to women, whose roles are less understood and could range from domestic aides to militants, snipers or attempted suicide bombers (as seen more recently, particularly in Mosul), the challenge is even more complex.

Canada’s 2016 public safety report notes the lack of clarity regarding the roles women played with ISIS: “The most commonly held assumption is that women travel abroad to marry terrorists, but the reasons for travel and eventual roles vary.” It is this ambiguity that makes it hard to dictate responses to their return home.

The boundaries for women’s roles in ISIS have shifted with the group’s evolving ideological approach to women in the past three years. Initially, women were constrained to domestic functions—supporting their militant husbands and raising children to carry on the movement’s vision—and forbidden from engaging in battle unless attacked. More recently, women have been called to arms as the caliphate was under duress. In recent weeks, ISIS released a video showing women fighting alongside men in Iraq and Syria.

The boundaries for women’s roles in ISIS have shifted with the group’s evolving ideological approach to women in the past three years.

Going Beyond a Case-by-Case Basis

A Necessary but Not Sufficient Approach

As recognised in France, Germany and Britain, it is nigh-on impossible to have a one-size-fits-all response to female returnees and their accompanying children. A case-by-case basis is important, because each person who returns has different experiences, has partaken in the group’s activities in various ways, and has unique requirements and challenges on return.

But this approach is also insufficient, as it suggests that governments do not have a clear position on what female returnees can expect on arrival. In addition, because there is so little coverage of what exactly happened in ISIS’s so-called caliphate, the lack of evidence makes building a case for or against an individual on return complex. As such, the actions of a state could largely rest on the ability of an individual to tell his or her version of events on return.

In the case of Morocco, a senior official said, “All the women tell us the same story”—rejecting any responsibility, claiming ignorance of their actions and blaming their husbands or an external situation. Then, the official went on, women “appear intent on resuming their old lives”. Morocco is obliged to accept custody of its citizens, but again, there is no clear policy on how to receive them. Male returnees who have committed crimes are sentenced to prison, but their wives and children, who generally have no record of violence, are much harder to deal with.

A Question of Intent

As the Moroccan official touched on, returnees’ level of intent on joining ISIS is vital to measure but in many cases still unclear. Whether women have the ability, free will and desire to partake in the activities of groups like ISIS or were forced to join remains disputed: current debates tend to acknowledge the presence of such agency, but very little data-driven evidence informs the discussion.

This is important, because when it comes to returnees, the policy stance from which states approach women will be shaped, consciously or not, with a preformed conception of their levels of intent. The post-conflict threat posed by a woman who joined ISIS because she had little or no other choice is drastically lower than that of a woman who joined with the intention of establishing an Islamic state ruled by extreme sharia law and who either actively promoted or participated in violence.

If female returnees are intent on committing attacks in their home countries, this is evidently a severe security concern for the host governments and should shape the punitive response. However, although ISIS in Syria and Iraq has permitted women to fight there, whether they will pose a similar physical threat back home is debated—and often challenged by those who do not see women as perpetrators of violence.

In addition to the security threat, it is essential to understand to what extent returnees are committed to the cause of ISIS, because they could pose an ideological threat on return. Evidence shows women to be key influencers in their networks, often with family and friends. For those who subscribe to the destructive worldview of ISIS, their ability to spread ideas and encourage others to commit attacks should be high on the agenda of concern and contribute to the security response. If a woman does not fight, she could still urge those around her to do so. In this case, imprisoning her with ample access to other inmates risks rampant radicalisation.


Greater International Cooperation Needed

To adequately respond to the threat of returnees and form a clearer line on what returnees can expect on arrival, international collaboration is needed. In February 2018, around 15 defence ministers from the anti-ISIS coalition met in Italy to discuss the fate of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria. Such discussions are required to share experience and develop best practice on returnees, specifically women.

Individual countries often lack sufficient experience to inform constructive policy alone, but cross-border sharing pools the key findings and lessons learned to form a wider evidence base. Given the increasing security complexities that Britain and the EU will face in light of Brexit, it is crucial that cross-border collaboration does not fall victim to the withdrawal process, and that neither UK nor EU security is weakened after Brexit.

The more cases of returnees that arise, the larger will be the established empirical evidence base that can feed into global best practice. Lessons also need to be gleaned from previous conflicts and other related fields such as the criminal or rehabilitative spheres. In all these efforts, forming a thorough understanding of the ideological parameters surrounding a woman’s role, the level of an individual’s subscription to an extreme Islamist worldview, and measuring genuine intent on return are paramount.

Underdogs, Divine Favour, and the Islamic State


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