We like to think of women as peacemakers, not purveyors of violence. The rise of ISIS, however, which is drawing female recruits from around the world, is turning that assumption on its head.
Two of the world’s leading experts on ISIS describe women as a central part of the terror group’s brutal machinery. Female recruits are the morality enforcers, the propagandists, even the overseers of rape against captured non-Muslim women.
“What was eye-opening to me in my research is that the women were every bit as motivated as the men,” said the Brookings Institution’s William McCants, author of the forth-coming book The ISIS Apocalypse. Together with Princeton Islamic scholar Bernard Haykel, McCants this week described the inner workings of ISIS to invited journalists at the Faith Angle Forum on Religion, Politics and Public Life. Both scholars at this Miami gathering portrayed a terror group with a culture far more brutal than even Al Qaeda, architect of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Of course, women have often been the targets of Islamic terror. Prominent examples include the Pakistan Taliban’s shootings of Malala Yousafzai and her friends—singled out for daring to attend school—and, in Nigeria, the girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram, some of whom were tragically stoned to death this week.
Operating in large swathes of Syria and Iraq, ISIS reserves its worst brutality for non-Muslim women and girls, particularly the Yazidi women captured last summer, who are being held in brothels and repeatedly raped. Others were sold as brides—another word for prisoners. ISIS “enslaves non-Muslim women and children,” says Haykel. “That’s what the early Muslims did.” And rape of one’s "property," be they wives or captives, is perfectly acceptable under ISIS theology.
Here’s where it gets even more warped. Young women recruited to ISIS are the ones running those rape brothels. Women also form the core of the terror group’s brutal “morality police,” enforcing strict codes of dress and behavior for female Muslims. “Women are doling out punishment to women,” says Haykel.
One of ISIS’ most famous propagandists, notes Haykel, is a poet named Ahlam Al-Nasr, who left her home in Kuwait to join the terror group. She crafted a detailed defense of the burning death of a Jordanian pilot, which otherwise would not be permitted under Islamic law. One part of her case: “You can do to your enemy what he does to you,” a rationale created to justify inflicting the pilot-bomber with this wretched form of death.
By demonizing opponents—just as the Nazi’s did to the Jews—and portraying themselves as victims not responsible for their horrendous actions, ISIS recruits commit evil, including videotaped beheadings, in the name of God. New York University’s Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, author of the forthcoming Not in God's Name, described ISIS’ savagery as a form of “altruistic evil” that “leads you to say that burning a pilot alive is God’s work.”
Women recruits are drawn to ISIS for many of the same reasons young men are pouring into its ranks. For some, it's a quest for identity and a reaction to feelings of marginalization by the West. Others believe they are joining a utopian, end-of-times movement, feel peer pressure and a pull to be part of something bigger than themselves or are simply searching for adventure.
But for women there is an added allure—the prominence gained by marrying an ISIS fighter, a status that grows even larger if her husband is killed. “To be the wife of a martyr brings you great status in that community, and it brings you a pension,” notes McCants. “You can become powerful as a spouse; there is a long history of that” in Islam.
ISIS’ control of territory (in contrast to the lack of land controlled by Al Qaeda) gives recruits a place to land, and an explosion of social media platforms give young men and women “bragging rights” to promote their new lives through Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, says McCants.
ISIS brands Muslims in the US and Europe as apostates, encouraging young people to believe they can disobey their parents. New recruits slip off into the night, often landing in Turkey and crossing borders into Iraq and Syria. As outsiders, these young jihadists show a willingness to be more ruthless to local populations.
ISIS women are lending their support to an organization that is far more ruthless than even Al Qaeda, whose late leader Osama Bin Laden unsuccessfully cautioned his fellow terrorists to try to win over the hearts and minds of the local population rather than simply crushing them.
“We will see a lot more death and destruction of other Muslims,” says Haykel. "It’ll be a lot worse before it gets better.”