Female Fighters Show ISIS’s Changing Nature

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Female Fighters Show ISIS’s Changing Nature

Posted on: 13th February 2018
Rachel Bryson
Analyst on conflict and counter-extremism

On 7 February, ISIS released a new video showing women in combat, ending the debate about whether the group is using women on the front line. This video marks a noteworthy shift in the treatment of female combatants and offers insights into the group’s mindset and ideological development.

The propaganda shows men and women fighting side by side, united in their vision and mission. The video reveals an upcoming battle in which female combatants in Iraq and Syria will “avenge the chaste women” in “honour of [their] sisters in prison by the apostate Kurds”. The aim of the move is to launch a “coordinated, multipronged attack south of the Euphrates river” and take revenge for supposed slights by the Kurds against the “honour and dignity” of the “pure women”. While the content of the video is new, its rhetorical themes align with previous ISIS propaganda, which has focused on honour, unity, purity and sacrifice. 

There is a correlation between ISIS’s level of military success in Iraq and Syria and the role of women in its so-called caliphate. ISIS’s early manifestos drew a clear line between men and women in combat roles. Men were called on to train and fight, whereas women were supposed to look after the home, invest in the next generation of jihadis, support their militant husbands and spread propaganda.

There is a correlation between ISIS’s level of military success in Iraq and Syria and the role of women in its so-called caliphate.

Women could defend themselves if attacked but weren’t allowed to instigate warfare. Overall, ISIS’s approach to jihad at the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014 was offensive, on the front foot and expansive. With thousands of individuals flocking to ISIS, the group was not short of militants to aggressively grow its territory.

Although women’s roles were expansive too, they were more geared towards ensuring the future of the movement. ISIS manifestos in 2015 allowed women to train with weapons, to give them the necessary skills to defend themselves in case of attack, but this training had to be out of sight of men. For example, in early 2014 ISIS introduced its al-Khansaa Brigade as an all-women police or religious enforcement unit.

The concept of offensive and defensive jihad applied to the group as a whole when ISIS began to be in disarray on the battlefield. With a shortage of male fighters in Iraq and Syria, the group needed to pool as many able bodies as possible, including women. When ISIS’s territory started to shrink and its militants were killed or fled, its primary survival needs adapted—and thus the narrative in the group’s propaganda shifted. In July 2017, an article in Rumiyah, an ISIS magazine, said the time had come for women to “rise with courage and sacrifice in this war”. In October, ISIS called on women to take up arms, claiming it was an “obligation” for women to wage militant jihad. This move reveals how ISIS perceives itself and the way in which the group’s battle has gone from an offensive jihad to a defensive one.

This shift from offence to defence has occurred in other jihadi movements too. In 2005, ISIS’s predecessor group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, carried out four suicide bombings involving female operatives. In 2008, 39 female suicide bombers killed at least 363 people and wounded 974 others in Iraq. This spike in female suicide bombings by AQI coincided with a time of increased military operations against the group, which was on the back foot—just as ISIS is today.

This move reveals how ISIS perceives itself and the way in which the group’s battle has gone from an offensive jihad to a defensive one.

For a group that is publishing propaganda at a far less prolific rate than before, the choice to concentrate on the topic of female combatants is significant. ISIS is fully aware that it has suffered drastic losses but does not see its existence as over. The video framed the latest battle as a “new area of conquest”, with an attempt to demonstrate the movement’s pioneering, surviving and ever-adapting characteristics. Combined with this is an overtone of seeking revenge for all the wrong that has been done to the group—in this case, against women specifically. With these messages, ISIS wants to arouse global fear of an entire army of mujahidat, or female fighters.

The global security implications of these recent developments are stark. Women are now permitted to fight on behalf of the group, and security services need to adapt. In Europe, multiple female jihadis have been arrested and all-women cells have surfaced, showing the international knock-on effect when followers in other contexts can be inspired to take a similar course.

However, the context-specific nature of the defeat of ISIS’s caliphate, and the battle launched in the group’s recent video, is important. ISIS affiliates worldwide, such as in Afghanistan, Somalia and Egypt, are not showing the same pattern as the movement in Iraq and Syria. This doesn’t necessarily change the tactical calculus of militant groups worldwide, but it does provide a new level of ideological legitimacy for would-be female fighters.

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