The Rise of Female Terrorists

The Rise of Female Terrorists

How domestic women are being recruited into radical Islamic groups and the roles they play.

Laurel Denmark


Western women recruited to Islamic radical groups pose a unique threat and the US should focus greater attention on addressing this growing threat by utilizing social media and deradicalization programs. [1] Primarily recruited through social media, these women perform a variety of tasks in Islamic terror groups, making them as formidable of a threat as their male counterparts. The Western female jihadist poses a definite threat to US security due to the danger of women returning and committing lone wolf attacks.


Women comprise over 15% of Western jihadist recruits and typically come from well-educated backgrounds with little previous Islamic influence. In the EU, approximatively 17% of individuals travelling to Syria and Iraq to join radical groups are women. [1] In the US, 16% of those joining terror groups in Syria are women. [2] Regarding the Islamic state specifically, 20% of all Western recruits are female. [1] While the recruitment numbers for other groups such as Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are less clearly quantifiable, female involvement does appear to be on the rise, with Western women being linked to bombings and online recruitment. [8] [13] Based on data from past recruits, the average radicalized Western woman is 21 years of age, middle class, and comes from a well -educated background. [2][9] Surprisingly, most of these women do not come from Islamic families, nor do they have any previous involvement in a Muslim community. [11]
Radicalized women are recruited for a variety of reasons, but the primary motivations include religious ideology, feelings of isolation, and perceived oppression of Muslims. Recruiters use rhetoric of building a utopia, overthrowing injustice, or pursuing piety to draw women into the ideology of their given group.


Such rhetoric proves so effective, particularly to young adults, that women domestically recruited cited ideology as the main cause of their recruitment. A sense of alienation from a community, whether fabricated or legitimate, is also persuasive to many women, since the group assures they can offer a more substantial alternative. [9] Lastly, recruiters use antijihadist sentiments to construct a narrative of Western oppression and discrimination against the Muslim population. This perceived injustice can prompt women to join a group to help right apparent wrongs. [4]
Female recruiters primarily use social media to select potential candidates by portraying the organization in a deceivingly positive light. Females within a terrorist group are the most common recruiters of other women because they can relate to or identify with potential female recruits better than men. Recognizing the importance of social media to young adults, the groups use media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to disperse propaganda and communicate with recruits. [5] It is common for a group to portray their actions in a “rosier” light to convey the cause as something worthy of supporting and joining. [9]


While it is a common misconception that women enter terror groups because of romantic desires or unfamiliarity with the organization, overall, women join for the same reasons as men. [3] Due to the consistent oppression of women by Islamic terror groups, many Westerners are baffled by the existence of any female recruits. A persistent explanation for this behavior includes romantic motivations – becoming “jihadi brides” – or general ignorance as to what the Islamic group truly does. This statement is true in the sense that many women do become mothers and housewives within terror groups. However, the same motivations that radicalize men, such as fighting injustice, pursuing “holiness”, and finding purpose, are also persuasive to women. [9]


The primary roles western women fill in terror groups include administrative organizers, recruiters, business professionals, and militant operatives. Undeniably, the most emphasized role for any woman in Islamic groups is supporting her husband by tending to households matters and raising children. [10] However, women often also handle fundraising, communication, and other vital administrative components imperative for the group to function properly. [15] Recruitment of both domestic and foreign females is another task generally performed by the woman via social media. [5] Specialized positions, such as a doctor or a teacher, can be held by women within the home, but are rarely used within the professional sphere. [1] Groups such as Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have recently increased their use of females as militants in suicide bombings. [14] Reportedly, females are more effective in suicide bombings than their male counterparts because they are largely unexpected, giving them the ability to operate with stealth.[13] In addition to this, women bombers produce a greater psychological impact on the watching world since they are a relatively new phenomenon, leaving the viewer shocked and appalled. [16]


The greatest threat that Western female terrorists pose to US is the danger of women returning and committing lone wolf attacks on US soil. The events of the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack stand as proof that both men and women are capable of committing lone wolf attacks. The widespread retreat of the Islamic State in key areas of the Middle East has prompted many Western recruits to return to their home nations. Additionally, the advent of social media platforms as recruitment tools allows for other groups to recruit internationally and encourage women in Western nations to commit their own attacks. [7] The US is woefully unprepared to deal with potential female attackers because functional deradicalization programs for women are virtually nonexistent. Furthermore, the persistent Western mentality holds that women would have no reason to join groups like ISIS because of the rampant abuse of females. As a result, legislative and social reforms to address this threat are severely lacking. [3]


An appropriate US response should include preventative measures that increase awareness and understanding of the issue, as well as defensive measure that promote deradicalization. In order to prevent future radicalization, it is crucial that the US raise awareness of the current problem so that a deeper understanding of the motivations of these women can be achieved. Preemptive efforts can then be crafted around this understanding so that potential recruits on social media can be accurately pinpointed before they are fully radicalized. The US should also disperse counter-information on relevant social media platforms to help correct the extremist narrative. [7] Deradicalization must fundamentally start with grassroots efforts in communities – encouraging individuals to reach out to returning women and personally assist with their integration into a community. [1] Additionally, providing vocational training for radicalized women allows for them to have a career and stability, lessening their chances of returning to an extremist lifestyle. [12] Finally, women should be placed in significant roles within the security sector so that they might be able to identify and help radicalized and at-risk women. The success of female Islamic recruiters has shown the effectiveness of women in this role; thus, the US should respond by countering it with the same tactic. [3] ▪

  1. Committee on Women’s Rights & Gender Equality, “Radicalization and Violent Extremism – focus on women: How women become radicalized, and how to empower them to prevent radicalization”, The European Parliament, December, 2017. http:// www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ STUD/2017/596838/IPOL_STU(2017) 596838_EN.pdf
  2. Danielle Paquette, “Why young American Women are Joining ISIS”, The Washington Post, November 17, 2015. https:// www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/ wp/2015/11/17/why-young-american-womenare-joining-isis/?utm_term=.ae605d15ea86
  3. Rebecca Turkington and Agathe Christien, “Women, Deradicalization, and Rehabilitation: Lessons from an Expert Workshop” Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security, April, 2018. https:// giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/ uploads/2018/04/Policy-Brief-WomenDeradicalization-and-Rehabilitation.pdf
  4. Murad Batal al-Shishani, “Is the role of women in al-Qaeda increasing?”, BBC News, October 07, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-middle-east-11484672
  5. Hallar Abderrahaman Mohamed, “Women and ISIS: Social Diagnosis and Interventions”, Institute of Political Science of the University of Warsaw, December 22, 2016.
  6. Florence Gaub and Julia Lisiecka, “Women in Daesh: Jihadist ‘cheerleaders’, active operatives?”, European Union Institute for Security Studies, October, 2016. https:// www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ EUISSFiles/Brief_27_Women_in_Daesh.pdf
  7. Ashley Binetti, “A New Frontier: Human Trafficking and ISIS’s Recruitment of Women from the West”, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security, January, 2015, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wpcontent/uploads/2017/10/Human-Traffickingand-ISISs-Recruitment-of-Women-from-theWest.pdf
  8. Peter Grier, “’Jihad Jane’: How does Al Qaeda recruit US-born women?”, Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 2010. https:// www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0310/JihadJane-How-does-Al-Qaeda-recruit-US-bornwomen
  9. Meredith Loken and Anna Zelenz, “Explaining extremism: Western women in Daesh”, European Journal of International Security, October 17, 2017. https:// www.cambridge.org/core/journals/ european-journal-of-internationalsecurity/article/explaining-extremismwestern-women-indaesh/7187A082116198F6FA855E6292B9 646D/core-reader
  10. Andrea Sjøberg Aasgaard, “Migrants, Housewives, Warriors or Sex Slaves AQ’s and the Islamic State’s Perspectives on Women”, Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes, 2017. https:// www.jstor.org/stable/26326474? seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
  11. Beverley Milton-Edwards and Sumaya Attia, “Female terrorists and their role in jihadi groups”, The Brookings Institute, May 9, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/ opinions/female-terrorists-and-their-rolein-jihadi-groups/
  12. Kathleen Kuehnast, “Engaging and Educating Women and Girls in the Prevention of Violent Conflict and Violent Extremism”, The United States Institute of Peace, April 3, 2014. https:// www.usip.org/publications/2014/04/ engaging-and-educating-women-and-girls
    prevention-violent-conflict-and-violent
  13. Kathleen Turner, “The Rise of Female Suicide Bombers”, Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, March, 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/ pdf/26351404.pdf?refreqid=excelsior% 3A09299b9330f0fd55148193ec70e6348e
  14. Robyn Kriel, “Boko Haram favors women, children as suicide bombers, study reveals”, CNN, August 11, 2017. https:// www.cnn.com/2017/08/10/africa/bokoharam-women-children-suicide-bombers/ index.html
  15. Nadia Khomami, “Number of Women and Children Who Join Isis ‘significantly underestimated’”, The Guardian, July 23, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/ world/2018/jul/23/number-of-womenand-children-joining-isis-significantlyunderestimated
  16. Zedalis, Debra. “Female Suicide Bombers”, Strategic Studies Institute, July, 2004. https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pdffiles/ PUB408.pdf

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