On February 17, three British teenagers left their East London homes and boarded a plane for Turkey. Soon afterwards, they crossed into Syria, where they are believed to have joined the Islamic State militant group (al-Jazeera, February 21). This event has put female radicalization in the spotlight. Despite the extensive press coverage, however, the individuals—Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15—are only the latest women to leave their homes in the West with the intention of joining the Islamic State. Notable others include Zehra Duman (a.k.a. Umm Abdullatif), a 21-year-old Australian of Turkish background, who joined the Islamic State with her husband, and a 33-year-old Dutch-Chechen woman who took her children to Syria to live under the Islamic State last October (Daily Telegraph [Australia], April 1; NOS, March 16). This article will look at the evolution of such female migration to the Islamic State and explain how and why women are becoming a key strategic asset for the group.
Female participation in Islamist terrorist groups is long-established and is not confined to the Islamic State, with women having been previously involved with militant groups in Chechnya, Palestine and elsewhere. However, the way in which women participate in the Islamic State has some new features, including the act of migration to the conflict zone and the scale of recruitment.
One remarkable feature of the women who have joined the Islamic State is the aspect of migration. In the past, female extremists have usually radicalized within their home countries, and have carried out their acts of violence there. For example, Roshanoara Choudhry, a London woman who in 2010 stabbed British MP Stephen Timms, in what she described as retaliation for his support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, is a prime example of this (Guardian, November 3, 2010). She became radicalized by watching online lectures of al-Qaeda supporter Anwar al-Awlaki and then stabbed Timms a few miles from where she lived, while he was meeting with his constituents. By contrast, the new wave of Islamic State female radicals typically leave their home countries and families and then travel across continents to reach Iraq and Syria.
The sheer scale of the Islamic State’s recruitment of women is also unusual. For instance, of the 3,000 Westerners who have migrated to areas controlled by the Islamic State, as many as 550 are women, from such regions as Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.  The French government alone estimates that 115 French women have joined the group (Le Parisien, April 8). To understand why hundreds of women have flocked to the Islamic State, it is important to look at what motivates them to leave the relative safety and freedom of their Western homes to join one of the most barbaric organizations in recent history.
In many aspects, the motives driving female migration to the Islamic State are broadly similar to those driving male migration. Like men, these women are not only migrating voluntarily, but their choice to do so is based on specific “pull factors.” While each individual case of radicalization is different, Islamic State members’ prolific use of social media offers a unique look into the inner lives and motivations of the group’s female members.
The first wave of female Western migration to Syria began as a response to human rights violations that civilians were facing at the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The outrage that Western Muslim migrants felt towards al-Assad was mirrored by these individuals’ condemnation of the West for its lack of involvement in the crisis. For instance, the social media accounts of Asqa Mahmood, a female British member of the Islamic State who calls herself Umm Layth, a 20-year-old from Glasgow who is now believed to be in Syria, is an example of this. She began her virtual life on Tumblr and Twitter, where she reposted pictures of war-ravaged women and children from Syria and elsewhere. In addition, however, in an indicator of her radicalization, she increasingly interpreted this violence against Muslims, both within Syria and across the world, as indicating that Muslims are besieged and oppressed by Western nations. For instance, Mahmood stated on Tumblr in September 2014: “This is a war against Islam and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us.’ So pick a side” (Tumblr, September 11, 2014). This narrative of the West being at war with Muslims, especially when combined with the narrative by that continuing to live in the West, they are complicit in this perceived war is an important pull factor for Western migrants to the Islamic State.
A further factor driving Western female migration to join the Islamic State is the perception that this can allow migrants to resolve their own internal identity crisis. While to some people, it may seem counterintuitive for female migrants to give up the freedoms of the West for a life behind a niqab, but for the female migrants, this rejection of the West in fact signals a perceived reclaiming of what they regard as the traditional role of Muslim women, and it accordingly empowers and attracts women who identify with this ideology. For instance, prior to her migration Mahmood posted about her struggles with wearing the niqab:
These postings are important because they indicate her feelings of inner disconnect and reveal her struggle to harmonize who she wishes to be with her actual feelings; hence her need for “strength” and “patience.” This, coupled with the disengagement she feels from society, creates an internal maelstrom, which ultimately propelled Mahmood, and other Western migrants like her, to seek out those who they believe will accept them. Traveling to Iraq and Syria is therefore partly a quest for acceptance and to overcome such inner disharmony.
However, while the first Western migrants travelled to Syria in response to the massacre of Syrians by al-Assad and to resolve their own internal contradictions, this has increasingly been replaced by the idea of constructing the caliphate and the belief that it is their religious duty to build this idealized state and to continue to conquer territory. As Mahmood explains in one Tumblr post:
The overt brutality that the Islamic State displays, coupled with the misogynistic nature of the militant group, are considered the very definition of barbarism for most people. However, a very small segment of Western Muslim society is inured to this violence, and they see this barbarism as appealing. One female migrant tweeted her request for “more beheadings, please” (Twitter, August 20, 2014). Moreover, they sanctify this violence committed by their own side by their extremist beliefs. As another female migrant tweets “Beheading is halal [permissible under Islamic law]. Go kill yourself if you say its haram. :).”  For some, this barbarism in itself may be attractive.
The Woman’s Value to the Islamic State
Umm Layth, the three East London students and the other Western women who recently migrated to the Islamic State, provide high public relations value for the group. These young women, who all came from middle class backgrounds, were well-educated and apparently had bright futures ahead of them, can be seen to have publicly made a choice to leave this behind for life within the militant group. For the Islamic State, this is a powerful endorsement which they can use to attract further recruits. In addition, female recruits are valued for their own qualities, because in the Islamic State’s view, while the men are out fighting, these women, are viewed as the founding mothers of their new Utopian society. The women are holding down the home front and building the familial side of the new state by producing the next generation of jihadists who will continue the construction of the group’s self-proclaimed “Islamic State.” The presence of Western female recruits is therefore an important self-affirmation for the group, and fortifies their belief that they are building a viable, long-term state.
Alexandra Bradford has an MA in Terrorism, Security and Society from Kings College London and studies homegrown Islamist extremism and female radicalization.
1. “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” Soufan Group, June 2014, p. 16. https://soufangroup.com/foreign-fighters-in-syria/.
2. The tweet has subsequently been deleted, but it was published by @MuslimahMujahi1 on August 20, 2014.