What had been tactical considerations became strategic choice. Islamic State not only rationalised its tactical choices, it went a step further by stating women were in fact obligated to participate in combat. That small semantic shift has important potential consequences for the future of the jihadist movement and the nature of the threat it poses. The popular perception of Islamic State is of an organisation that has placed brutal restrictions on women. However, the experience of women in Islamic State went far beyond these assumptions.
Despite its many well-documented atrocities against women, the caliphate attracted a significant number of women, more so than other jihadist theatres.
Since its establishment, 15 per cent of voluntary migrants to the caliphate have been women. Islamic State gave its female adherents in jihad a sense of agency and empowerment. The group appealed to women by framing travel to the caliphate as a religious duty and by offering them a rationale to defy husbands, family, and even Islamic laws such as travelling alone if necessary. Far from framing wives and mothers as passive or supportive, IS narrative presented these active choices as a means of female agency.
In its early days, Islamic State shared and promoted the prevailing jihadist stance on the role of women and their prohibition from combat. She is the teacher of generations. Yet even while encouraging women to confine themselves to their home and extolling their domestic role, IS women were also called on to perform security and recruitment functions for the organisation. The notorious al-Khansaa Brigade, purportedly led by a Moroccan woman,  was made up of mostly French-speaking women  who acted as a hisba , a morality police force.
While they did not participate in combat operations, they were given weapons and weapons training. While al-Khansaa enforced morality or hisba rules, other female battalions extended their responsibility beyond hisba. There are reports of female IS supporters accompanying male fighters on house raids so they can search women,  and running brothels of Yazidi sex slaves.
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Women were also given leadership roles. They urged people to come to the caliphate in general pronouncements, but also specifically identified would-be recruits online and facilitated their travel to Syria. In the online space, women acted as propagandists, facilitators of travel, and influencers, as well as recruiters for the caliphate. Shadi Jabar was another young Australian who was an active online recruiter and promoter of Islamic State.
Like other female IS supporters in the online space, they played a role in normalising the atrocities and the radicalism of the group, and presenting it as a lifestyle choice and an initiation into a sisterhood. From the land down under, to the land of Khilafah. The examples of Duman, Jabar and others illustrate how IS women online have been able to engage in jihad beyond their traditional support roles and with fewer gender constraints.
The Islamic State (Terrorist Organization) | RAND
As Islamic State suffered increasing military and territorial losses in its fight to maintain the physical caliphate, it became more important to shore up participants in battle — including women. In January , the al-Khansaa Brigade published a manifesto on the role of women, articulating a combat role for women in specific defensive circumstances. Other IS documents echoed this. However, IS online magazine Rumiya went further in July ,  going beyond the defensive jihad justification in issuing a call to arms. Recalling the history of Umm Umara, IS women were urged to the battlefield on the basis that jihad was now fard ayn , an individual obligation.
In October , in an essay in al-Naba , IS stated that women were not only permitted but now obligated to fight on behalf of the caliphate, calling on women to follow the examples of other women who fought alongside the prophet Muhammad. It could be argued that Islamic State is merely following the same trajectory as other jihadist groups and conflicts before it, overriding established ideology for tactical reasons in arguing that combat jihad was now permissible for women.
Around the time of propaganda releases, Islamic State was indeed collapsing, with fighting in Mosul and Raqqa at its peak and Coalition forces closing in. There were reports of multiple female suicide attacks in Mosul. And there was no caveat or expiration date on the call to combat.
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Even before Islamic State declared it obligatory for women to fight on the battlefield, women had already begun fighting in its other branches. The first confirmed report of a female IS suicide bomber was from an affiliate organisation in Libya. Female fighters also reportedly handled logistics, were given weapons training and explosive belts, and fought alongside men.
Female participation in IS terrorism has not been confined to the theatres of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Women have been involved in, planned, and perpetrated terrorist attacks around the world since the inception of the Islamic State. Islamic State held a particular appeal for Western women.
In Europe the numbers are striking. Between and , there were 33 separate plots involving women in European countries. The first all-female IS cells emerged in France in , connecting via social media. In the course of their arrest, one of them stabbed a police officer. Undeterred, they directed their efforts against their home country instead. In many cases they were encouraged and guided by male counterparts. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night. There are numerous other cases of women in the West self-radicalising, attempting unsuccessfully to travel to join the caliphate, and plotting attacks on their home territory.
An all-female cell, a mother and two daughters, planned knife attacks near the UK Parliament. One of the women, Safaa Boular, was groomed by Australian Shadi Jabar, who proved to be a prolific networker before her death by a Coalition drone strike in One of the deadliest attacks orchestrated by a woman was the San Bernardino shooting in California, in which Tashfeen Malik and her husband killed 14 people in a small arms ambush attack.
US officials now understand that Malik, not her husband, was the driving force behind the attack.
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The group later praised Malik for her attack. Africa and Asia have also been targets of female IS terrorists. In addition to the female suicide bombers of Boko Haram, other African women have plotted and committed attacks. In Mombasa Kenya in , three women who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State set off a petrol bomb inside a police station and stabbed an officer before being killed by police.
Originally thought to be the work of al-Shabaab, this was the first claim of an attack by female IS-inspired jihadists in Kenya. Tunisia has been the largest source of IS foreign fighters in Syria and Libya, and more than Tunisian women have been arrested in Tunisia since for a variety of terror-related offences.
The Sri Lanka Easter bombings, the deadliest terrorist attack ever claimed by Islamic State, also featured a female suicide bomber. Fatima Ibrahim, the pregnant wife of one of the church bombers, detonated a bomb that killed her and her three children, as well as three police, during a raid on the family home in the days after the church bombings. Perhaps the most shocking example of the expanded profile of IS jihadists was the Surabaya bombings, in which three families associated with IS affiliate Jamaah Ansharut Daulah JAD strapped explosives on themselves and their children and attacked churches and police stations killing 30 people in May In March , as fighters in Baghouz lost their last territory in Syria, a JAD-affiliated mother and son committed a home-grown suicide attack during a stand-off with police at their North Sumatra home.
Women were already involved in other security operations in the caliphate; IS affiliates had already used women as suicide bombers and combatants; women outside the conflict zone who were inspired by Islamic State initiated attacks in their home countries, and women were active in online jihad.
All these circumstances normalised the idea of a greater combat role for women, which Islamic State then formalised by its declaration of obligatory female engagement in violent jihad. The caliphate has been defeated.
There have been few reports of female suicide bombers in Syria or of women fighting in Baghouz, the last remaining IS stronghold. There is no evidence of an influx of women participating in military operations or suicide missions in the Syria-Iraq theatre. Yet while the caliphate may be no longer, Islamic State is far from a spent force. As Islamic State shifts from governance project to global terrorist and insurgent force, women will play an important role in its resurgence and transformation.
If Sunni socio-economic, political, and sectarian grievances are not adequately addressed by the national and local governments of Iraq and Syria it is very likely that ISIS will have the opportunity to set conditions for future resurgence and territorial control Women appear to be a part of this resurgence strategy. There are reports that women have been recruited or compelled to act as couriers, go-betweens, and weapons smugglers since the fall of Mosul.
They have been transporting supplies from groceries to home-made bombs to male fighters biding their time underground. The use of women is an advantage because they are subject to much less security scrutiny. They are allowed to move more freely in heavily policed areas; they pass through checkpoints without being searched, and unlike men, garner little suspicion when they enter government buildings or assemble in groups.
Iraqi and Syrian forces do not have adequate security forces or procedures to deal with these women.