Editor’s Note: Manal Omar is the associate vice president for the Middle East and Africa Center at the US Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan organization working to resolve violent conflict around the world. She was an inaugural fellow for Foreign Policy Interrupted and is a 2016 Truman National Security Project fellow. Check out CNN at 10 p.m. ET/PT Friday for “ISIS: Behind the Mask,” which uncovers what happens when a young Western jihadi returns home The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Manal Omar: Groups such as ISIS can appeal to women, and we need to understand why
Once women become radicalized, they are fiercely devoted to the mission, she says
Radical extremists have mastered the lesson that women’s groups have known for centuries: To empower a society, engage their women. Despite the persistent myth that women are natural peace builders, women have played and continue to play a role in powering terrorist groups around the world, from Kenya to San Bernardino, California.
People don’t want to believe that groups such as ISIS could have a message that appeals to women. But they do, and we can’t fight it effectively until we understand why it’s working and include more women in peace and security efforts around the world.
As Zainab Hawa Bangura, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, explains: ISIS “will spend six hours a day online to recruit a woman. They understand how critical it is to have women. They have deployed smart women (to connect with recruits), and we (those in the West working to counter violent extremism) are still talking.” It’s time for actions to match up with words.
By no means is ISIS alone. In fact, my experience has shown me that once women become radicalized, they are fiercely devoted to the mission.
The UN Security Council, among other bodies, has acknowledged the necessity of addressing the issue of women as foreign fighters, passing essential resolutions such as 1325 and 1889, which affirm the necessity for member states to ensure women’s full and equal participation in peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts. Yet stereotypes about women still keep them at the margins of these efforts. This approach is not only naïve but dangerous. It makes us all vulnerable and profoundly limits the effectiveness of prevention and re-integration efforts to fight terrorism.
Women are incredibly effective at being able to shame men into going to the front lines. They can emphasize the need for justice (which often with extremist groups takes the form of revenge or collective punishment). They move through security checkpoints with greater ease.
At the same time, extremist groups provide women with the opportunity to reinvent themselves. The use of rape as a weapon of war and the strategy of creating sex slaves are both on the rise. ISIS victimizes women raised in restrictive and misogynist environments, then tells them they can reinvent themselves as jihadis – they give women the illusion of power and control. Women are given weapons, are trained and serve as fighters.
Women can become recruiters in their own right, such as Sally Jones, who became notorious as the bride (now widow) of an ISIS fighter and is now considered by some to be the world’s most wanted female terrorist.
These women are not anomalies. Videos from extremists groups specifically target women.
While female recruits are a popular investment for extremist groups, the international community has yet to incorporate women in any comprehensive way into strategies to defeat violent extremism. This must change. As the emergence of France’s first all-female ISIS terror cell illustrates, women as perpetrators are becoming harder to ignore.
Houda Abadi, associate director for the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, told me via email that to understand female foreign fighters’ motivation for joining up, the first step is “to challenge prevalent media portrayal of women in Daesh (an Arabic acronym for ISIS) as ‘Jihadi Brides,’ passive victims, or subsidiary supporters of male fighters with little to no influence in the organization’s overall structure.”
Fatima Akilu, founder of the Nigerian government’s deradicalization program, says that Boko Haram has the same strategy: luring women with the promise of agency over their own lives.
This is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the very first person to be tried for terrorism, Vera Zasulich, was a woman and an anarchist in Tsarist Russia. It would be hard to think of any insurgent and terror group that has not specifically targeted or directly involved women. From Italy’s Red Brigades to Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group to the Japanese Red Army, women were at the center. In Latin America, women form as much as 30% to 40% of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru.
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To defeat violent extremism, we must understand as fully as possible the ways recruiters connect with their targets. To do so, we have to be ready to challenge our assumptions and explore the dynamic and diverse roles women are playing.