Following the terrorist attack in Paris on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an international manhunt is underway for one of the suspects, Hayat Boumeddien, partner of Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman killed by French authorities during his related hostage takeover of a Jewish supermarket in the capital. However, reports show that after her arrival in Istanbul on January 2, she crossed the border to Syria, where it is likely she is staying in Islamist controlled areas. Some have suggested that Boumeddien was even more radicalized than her partner, leading to some more serious questions about the role women have come to play in terrorism, and their place in organizations such as ISIS and Boko Haram.
Exact figures for the number of women who have crossed into Syria to join the jihadist group are hard to come by, but the London International Center for the Study of Radicalization estimates that there are approximately 30 European women who have been lured to the group. For France the numbers are shockingly higher– around 63 of the 350 French nationals who have joined ISIS are women, a little under 20%.
While ISIS initially discouraged women from joining, strictly abiding by the tradition that “women [have] no place in war,” its leaders quickly came to realize that women were necessary for the establishment of a state and could play an important position in the economy, policing order, and the recruitment of new members. Today, there are strong social media campaigns, often launched by ISIS women, which call on other “sisters” to join the community, travel to Syria and Iraq, and devote themselves to jihadist husbands and the Islamic state. ISIS has even set up the Al Zawra school aimed at girls who are “interested in explosive belt and suicide bombing more than in a white dress or a castle.” Indeed, to stop the beheading of two Japanese citizens, ISIS asked in exchange for three women: a failed suicide bomber, an alleged bomb maker and the supposed wife of al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State. Furthermore, a female ISIS security force now exists, tasked with ensuring local women comply with the strict Islamic laws of dress, conduct and sex segregation.
Scheming in Nigeria
While ISIS has recently started recruiting women to its ranks, women taken in by Nigeria’s insurgent group Boko Haram have played increasingly violent roles, becoming martyrs for the group’s cause. Since its initial rise to power in 2009, Boko Haram, which is calling for the creation of its own state in Nigeria under a strict interpretation of Sharia law, has attacked villages, schools, and military bases, and has killed over 6,000 people in 2014 alone. But its new tactics of training and deploying female suicide bombers in Nigerian towns illustrate the growing ambition of the group, according to Elizabeth Pearson, a member of the Nigeria Security Network.
In July, reports indicated the creation of a female wing in Boko Haram’s command structure, and since then, over a dozen suicide attacks in Nigerian towns and markets have been carried out by young women, some taking the lives of 78 people. Furthermore, a police report showed that Boko Haram has released 50 women suicide bombers throughout the city of Maiduguri, which has already been subject to multiple rounds of attacks by the insurgent group. Women’s long hijab means they can conceal explosives and their gender ensures that they won’t get searched by law enforcement. It is widely expected that these women will assume a bigger role in promoting Boko Haram’s agenda, and the upcoming presidential elections, already postponed by 6 weeks from the original February 14 date, will likely be a litmus test for both Nigeria’s security forces and the extremist group’s nefarious use of women.
The Nigerian elections will be largely fought between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and ex-military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, in what promises to be the most closely fought race since the country’s re-establishment of democracy in 1999, after a long military rule. Anti-Jonathan feeling is increasing in the country, as many blame the President for failing to contain the Boko Haram attacks, turning the elections into a single-issue contest: who can assure Nigeria’s security? Although the economic achievements of Jonathan’s government are impressive, under his watch Nigeria becoming Africa’s largest economy, few have taken notice.
On the other hand, Jonathan’s opponent, Buhari, has promised to use his military know-how to crush the Boko Haram insurgency “ in a matter of months,” a promise of dubious value. However, the former strongman remains a strong proponent of establishing Sharia law throughout Nigeria, and has offered little in terms of protection of women and their right to education. He recently caught the attention of the International Criminal Court for “instigating and inciting violence that led to the killings of some 800 people after he lost 2011 elections.” These events also resulted in the displacement of 65,000 people and the torching of Christian churches and schools. In a country where people are increasingly fearful for their safety, it is vital that its future leader is strong in his fight against Boko Haram, but also doesn’t ignore the consequences of further divisive religious extremism.
Islamic Feminism 2.0?
As women begin to play greater and more chilling roles in modern terrorist organizations, it’s high time we start to view and address this issue through a different lens. Today, much of the problem is the West’s tendency to focus on terrorist violence against women and “see terror through the lens of gender, positing radical Muslim men against women.” Islamic feminism, or better said, the attempts of various scholars to accommodate the Koran with gender equality, has too long been ignored in European capitals and now it seems that jihadist groups have found the clincher. Despite our instincts to focus on events such as Boko Haram’s kidnapping of school girls, or ISIS’s sexual violence and forced marriages, the fact of the matter is that despite their perceived oppression, women have found a reinforced sense of personal identity with these groups. This should send alarm bells ringing across Western capitals.
As terrorists become increasingly skillful about bringing women into the fold, we need to make long-term investments in the education of young girls, women and communities, and move away from simplified Manichean notions about gender and terror. Nigeria’s women’s ministry has already undertaken such efforts and has launched several de-radicalization programs that “promote education and peace as an alternative to terrorism.” Without these long-term commitments, we could begin to see an even greater prevalence of women joining the ranks of terror groups, making these organizations ever stronger and deadlier.