The Terror of the Terrorists
Nicole Morgan, Ph.D
In November 2014, two young women from Montreal were reported missing by their families who feared they had joined the Islamic State in Syria. Two is hardly a trend, but according to Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University who has been studying the issue, theirs is not an isolated case. Amarasigam knows of at least two other Canadian women and believes there are several more already in ISIS territory. Still more have tried to leave Canada but have been turned back, while others have indicated they have plans to travel to the Middle East.
The data available is sketchy and the Canadian security services are not saying much. When Global News recently approached the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for information on the number of Canadian women who have joined or were contemplating joining ISIS, the RCMP declined to comment and CSIS did not respond in time for Nick Nolan’s January 28, 2015 report Hundreds of Women have left Western Countries for the Islamic State.
US agencies have hardly been more forthcoming, though they acknowledge not making much effort in collecting data. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, downplayed the issue in the United States, saying that the number of women and girls joining ISIS was of concern but did not amount to an epidemic. “It’s a threat, but it’s (one) among many potential threats coming out of Syria,” he told the Guardian.
Europeans, on the other hand, have been gathering a wealth of information on what The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College, London has called “the largest mobilization of foreigner fighters in Muslim majority countries since 1945.” These include women.
ICSR estimates that some 20,000 foreign fighters are involved in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Women and girls appear to make up about 10% of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with jihadi groups such as ISIS. France has the highest number of female jihadi recruits, with 63 in the region – about 25% of the total – while at least another 60 are believed to be considering the move. This is hardly surprising since France holds the record for men who are now believed to be fighters with Sunni militant organizations in the Middle East.
According to the Guardian, at least 40 women have left Germany to join ISIS in what appears to be a growing trend in that country too of teenagers becoming radicalized and travelling to the Middle East without their parents’ permission.
Who are these young women and why do they join?
Social media plays a crucial role in recruiting young Western women to join ISIS, often spearheaded by women residing in ISIS territory. Researchers at ICSR estimate that the young women being recruited by ISIS are mainly between 16 and 24 years of age. Many are university graduates and have left behind caring families in their home countries.
The conventional wisdom is that women are being recruited to fight alongside men in the cause of the “Caliphate” and the promise of paradise if they die, or more prosaically to serve as sex slaves in ISIS-controlled territory where they will be raped, tortured and traded. Some have certainly been recruited for such purposes.
But according to Louis Caprioli, former head of the French security agency Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, in most cases the young women appear to have left home to marry jihadis, drawn to the idea of supporting their “brother fighters” and having “jihadist children to continue the spread of Islam”. Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at Massachusetts University and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, reports that the recruitment campaign paints a “Disney-like” picture of life in the “Caliphate”. Some recruits are offered financial incentives not just to cover travel expenses but also as compensation for bearing children. “If their husband dies, says Caprioli, they will be given adulation as the wife of a martyr.”
The fact that the main role of the female recruits is to serve as wives under traditional Islamic rules may explain why US and Canadian intelligence analysts haven’t paid more attention to the issue – just as there has never been much study of the camp follower phenomenon, a footnote in war studies. But it could turn out to be a costly mistake to overlook such a demographic time bomb in a setting of asymmetric warfare. Two drivers of this phenomenon are particularly important. The first is the marriage crisis afflicting young men in the Arab world, the second the perverse role of mothers in influencing sons to join the jihad.
The marriage crisis
Like any army with pedestrian necessities, ISIS worries not only about recruitment but also about retention. For ISIS the problem of defection is drastically reduced if it can offer a young jihadi a wife.
What many don’t realize, reports Mia Bloom, is that in most Arab countries young men have no access to or relationships with women before marriage. For the most part, there is no dating or premarital sex. Moreover, marriage is typically such a costly endeavour that most men cannot afford to get married until their thirties. More than 50 percent of men aged 25-29 remain unmarried because of the high cost. ISIS, Bloom writes, has emerged as the perfect solution to this “marriage crisis”. In addition to promising a young fighter a salary to join the Islamic State, ISIS can also promise him a wife — and perhaps more than one.
The Western media, as one might expect, focuses heavily on young men from Europe and North America leaving to join the jihad. Belgium appears to account for a disproportionate number of them. But the vast majority of fighters come from the Muslim world, attracted to the cause for reasons which have as much to do with libido as liberation.
As for the women, they are promised a wonderful husband and a house with top-of-the-line appliances such as a fridge, a microwave, and even a milkshake machine.
Beyond the demographic and sociological factors in play, however, there is also pathology of the most archaic and violent kind influencing the recruitment of young men to the jihad – rooted in fear and hatred nurtured by a most unlikely source, the wives and mothers of the fighters.
Woman the eternal enemy
In its first outpouring of propaganda, Al Qaeda included a cyber text known as the Epistle to Women (Mathieu Guidère & Nicole Morgan, Le manuel de recrutement d’Al Qaïda, Paris, Seuil, 2007). The epistle discloses in plain words the deep secret fear of the terrorists. They have an enemy within, an implacable foe who terrifies them more than any other: women! More dangerous even than the external enemy, women are to be feared for weakening through their love and affectation hard men who are otherwise ready to fight and die for the cause.
Islamist texts are replete with emotional calls for the destruction of the designated Judeo-Christian enemies, but to read the Epistle aloud is to catch the sober and controlled character of the cold hatred reserved for women. “We will speak directly to women to tell them that they are the major obstacles to the victory of Islam and its hegemony.”
In the Epistle, women are told that they were the cause of the original “humiliation”, when Adam was expelled from an earthly paradise and his descendants forced to kneel before the Crusaders. More recently, the ancient Caliphate was lost because of them.
“In the past, Islam has been able to vanquish the most powerful infidel states only when women have lived up to their responsibilities. They are the ones who educated their children in the love of Jihad. They are the ones who protected men’s honour and their wealth when they went to the Jihad. But their breast filled with love and they forgot their duty.”
We are here at the epicentre of the terrorist psyche. “The evil that has devastated the Muslim Nation stems from the love of life and the hatred of death”. Women, the Epistle claims, are the ones who want to keep their husbands, brothers, sons, fathers and cousins alive. Women do not want to hear about hatred. So woman is the obstacle, whether she is a mother, a wife, a sister, or a daughter. Only a woman’s “love”, reads the Epistle, is capable of making a son ready for martyrdom hesitate, only a woman’s tears can hold back a husband ready to go to war. “The predictable result of our love for life and hatred of death and combat has been to turn away from the Jihad, which many children of the Nation and especially women think is the certain way to death and abandonment of life”.
Not only do women weaken men, they are sin itself. First, they have let themselves be seduced by the Western talk about the liberation of women and sexual freedom. For Islamists, the emancipation of women is not negotiable. Their subordination is central to their beliefs, for otherwise women “become the destructive pickaxe used by the enemy of Islam against the Nation within its own house”.
“While we wish that women would participate in building the Nation, we are totally occupied in trying to hold back their hand from undermining the foundations of Islam. The enemies of the Nation care about the liberation of women only because they know that they are the pillar of the Nation.”
Second, women are all the more detestable because they are unavoidable. Not only can men not live without them, but they are recognized as being the force which motivates men. “If we speak directly to women in these pages, it is because we observe that if women are convinced of something, it is an extraordinary motivation for men to accomplish it. And if they oppose it, this constitutes a major obstacle. This is especially true when these women are grandmothers or mothers to whom one owes respect and obedience.”
The role of women in the jihad
What, then, is the role of women in the jihad?
To some extent, women can “redeem” themselves by becoming warriors, as some did in the past. Islamic texts have lavished great admiration on several historic figures. But the admiration is of a sober kind. Not only can becoming a warrior give contemporary women “ideas” about their equality with men, but it can stoke the sense of humiliation so widespread among their menfolk. Why, in the past, did men need the help of women warriors if not because of their own inadequacies? On this front, the Epistle is quick to reassure them: “In the first century of Islam, women did not enter the field of battle because men were lacking, but for the sake of sacrificing themselves in the cause of Allah, to give of themselves in the search for salvation”.
In the final analysis, however, the main way for women to be worthy of their religious destiny is to accept the call to sacrifice their own children. For good measure, it is A call loaded with recrimination and accusation.
“Oh mother of men! How many children do you have? Did you give to Islam what Afrâ gave? Do you have a child who has participated? Aren’t you ashamed to go and meet Allah the Most High with so many children who gave nothing to religion? Worse, aren’t you afraid of Allah, for being yourself an obstacle on your children’s path to join the Jihad? Follow the example of the pious women of the past and meditate on their actions! Give as they did to be rewarded as they were.”
Several pages in the Epistle relate the stories of pious women in history who forced their sons into going to war, passages which explain better than any other the violence which underscores Islamist thinking. But lest we believe there is only love of the Nation at issue, the Epistle makes clear just how perverse Islamist thinking can also be. It takes a son’s “martyrdom” for a mother to gain a place in paradise for herself.
The story of Umm Ghadanfar is particularly illuminating. Completely illiterate, she believed the story she heard that the mother of a martyr would achieve paradise. Going back home, she called her only son and proposed that he go to the Jihad in Afghanistan; maybe Allah would grant him martyrdom and he would be able to intercede on her behalf. But she felt some reticence on his part, whereupon she fetched a whip and hit him violently, crying and telling him: Go to the Jihad! Who else could intercede in my favour on the day of the last judgment!
In another story, a woman is distraught to see her son coming back alive from a suicide mission. In shame, she beats him and throws him out of the house. “Go back and get killed”, she screams.
If women do not follow the model, the Epistle assures them, they will perish in hell. “Know that your manoeuvres to dissuade men will be regarded as a detour from the cause of Allah and will expose you to the punishment that Allah the Most High has prepared for the unbelievers”.
This is all very strange for the Western mind. We can understand, from our history and culture, the attraction of female warriors. The French still revere Joan of Arc. So word that some of our young women have left families and homes to go fight in the Middle East strikes us as tragically illusory but not totally irrational. But it plumbs the depth of our comprehension to read that their function is to serve as wives and mothers whose purpose is to counsel husbands and sons to lay down their lives for the cause of Allah – so that they themselves can achieve paradise. We honour the distraught mothers and widows who lay wreaths on the steps of war memorials. They loved the ones they lost, would dearly love to have them still.