Jessica Davis is the president and principal consultant at Insight Threat Intelligence, and author of Women in Modern Terrorism: From Liberation Wars to Global Jihad and the Islamic State
As the Islamic State loses the last of its territory, media reports indicate that there may be as many as 21 Canadians detained by Kurdish forces. Interestingly, most of the adults are women, but we should not be surprised.
Women are playing an increasingly prominent role in terrorist organizations, and the Islamic State is no exception. Canadian women have travelled in the dozens to join terrorist groups abroad, including IS. In 2016, Public Safety Canada released a report stating that 20 per cent of extremist travellers were women. In a subsequent report from 2018, the department noted that 190 extremist travellers remain abroad, while another 60 have returned to Canada. This means that there may be as many as 38 female extremist travellers abroad, and as many as 12 who have returned to Canada. Many of those women likely travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State.
These women are almost always described as the “wives and mothers” of the Islamic State, but that is far from the full nature of their involvement with the terrorist group. In the Islamic State, women took on active roles in intelligence collection, reconnaissance, enforcement of morality laws, and suicide bombing. Women in the Islamic State, such as Canadian Umm Haritha, have also been involved in recruiting other women to travel to join the terrorist organization. These are crimes for which these women should be held accountable.
Women who have tried but failed to join the Islamic State or women who adhere to the IS ideology also pose a threat to the states in which they reside. Some of these women have conducted terrorist attacks in their home countries. In France, three women were arrested in 2016 following the discovery of their plot to use car bombs to destroy Notre-Dame Cathedral. On Thursday, Rehab Dughmosh was sentenced to seven years in prison in relation to her attack at a Canadian Tire store in Scarborough, Ont., which was conducted in the name of the Islamic State.
There is some evidence to suggest that law enforcement and security services are not taking these women seriously as threats, to the detriment of the security of their home countries. Research conducted in the United States (and published by the Combating Terrorism Centre) suggests that women involved in terrorism are less likely to be arrested and convicted and receive more lenient sentences compared to men. This research raises questions about Ms. Dughmosh’s attack as well. A year prior to the attack, she had tried to travel to join the Islamic State. The subsequent trial has revealed that she remained radicalized after this attempt, but did not appear to be under investigation by the RCMP.
Did the RCMP not consider her a threat, even though she had tried to join a terrorist group? While we may never know the reasoning behind their decision, was gender a consideration in their assessment of the threat she posed?
While the phrase “women and children” of the Islamic State is common, these are two very different things. The children of the Islamic State were either brought to Syria and Iraq by their parents, or were born there. They had absolutely no agency in the decision to join a terrorist organization. They cannot be held accountable for this crime and are the victims of their parents’ decisions, although we would also be wise to consider the possible need for deradicalization and reintegration programs. But women who travelled to join the terrorist organization did so of their own volition. Any potential return of these women into Canada could very well constitute a threat to the security of Canada.
The suggestion that women have joined terrorist organizations out of loyalty to their husbands is misguided – and the radicalized women also offer this excuse as well. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that women are radicalized in largely the same way as men, and that it is a highly individual process for both genders.
There are two exceptions to this rule. Risk-taking behaviour can play a more significant role in men’s radicalization. Women, on the other hand, often require a pre-existing social connection to facilitate their entry into a terrorist group; they typically need a friend, family member, or acquaintance already in the terrorist group in order to join. This has important implications for the radicalization to violence process, suggesting that women are more likely to undertake terrorist acts with other people (both men and women). These differences may also have implications for deradicalization programs.
In order to ensure the security of Canada, two key changes need to take place. The government must take steps to ensure that our law-enforcement and security services are conducting unbiased, evidence-based assessments of the threat that terrorists pose to the security of Canada, including radicalized women. The government must also ensure that deradicalization programs also include a gender component in order to identify and mitigate the threat that radicalized women could pose to the security of Canada.