Islamic State Steps Up Recruitment of Women and Girls

Terror group engaged in ‘considerable recruitment push’ for females

Footage from Turkish TV shows the three British girls who left the UK to join the Islamic State. / AP
March 24, 2015

Around 10 percent of foreigners who have traveled from abroad to join the Islamic State (IS) are women and girls, according to a new report that sheds light on the terror group’s increased efforts to recruit women into its ranks.

IS (also known as ISIL or ISIS) has launched a "considerable recruitment push" focused on women and girls in recent months, according to a comprehensive new report issued Monday by the London-based Human Security Centre (HSC).

The report contrasts the new efforts with IS’s previous male-centered recruitment strategy.

Women and girls, the report argues, play a significant role in the group’s mission. Resources have been spent in recent months to attract radicalized foreign females, many of whom are in their 20s. Women account for about 10 percent of the group’s current membership.

"ISIS’s takeover of territory in Syria and Iraq last year was a male driven act, with females expressly forbidden from the qitaal (fighting)," the report states. "However, the desire to form a caliphate comes with practicalities, notably the need for ‘support’ functions, such as increasing the population and establishing communities and home lives that can keep particularly foreign fighters engaged in the region."

"This reality has led to a considerable recruitment push aimed at women and girls in the past months," it states. "Despite some similarities, the method is heavily centered around technology and different from the strategies aimed at Western men."

While reports that three female British teenagers attempted to travel to Syria to join ISIS garnered international attention, they are actually "just the latest in a stream of women and girls who have not only been radicalized, but have followed through with the journey," according to the HSC report.

Julie Lenarz, the executive director of HSC, said, "Foreign recruitment is a serious problem which requires careful evaluation and prevention mechanisms. It is something that is perceived as a man's trade, when in fact an increasing number of female recruits make their way to Syria. They join ISIS’ al-Khansaa brigade (all female shari’a police), support their husbands fighting for ISIS or go to Syria to marry a jihadi. The bottom line is that radicalised women and girls pose no lesser a threat because of their gender."

Western governments have been slow to combat this female recruitment effort, the report says.

"The lack of attention given to this increasing trend is striking—as is the reactive nature of policy responses," the report states.

As IS continues to gain a foothold in Iraqi and Syrian territories, women have become more critical to the daily operations of governance, according to the report.

"The continuous news stream of women making the journey to the Turkey-Syria border demonstrates that it is not only Turkey's issue, but an international need to strengthen the counter narrative and coordinated intelligence targeting women and girls," said Emily Daglish, a researcher at HSC.

IS has taken to offering husbands and other perks to the women if they travel to join the fight.

"An urgent need for state functions set in around September 2014 due to the expansion and subsequent community building needed," the report states. "Western women and girls are promised ‘devout, jihadist husbands, a home in a true Islamic state and the opportunity to devote their lives to their religion and their god.’"

"This lure, coupled with the desire to become a ‘founding mother’ to a new nation, has helped establish a narrative of duty," it states. "It is well documented that any large army of men, which we must recognise that ISIS has become, requires morale building and continuous incentives. Women play a critical role in this and have done for centuries."

Like its male-focused recruitment efforts, IS’s campaigns aimed at women and girls have made use of social media.

Those women who have already joined the group have begun to serve as popular recruitment tools online, though this strategy differs from that used by IS to attract men.

"A particularly noteworthy propaganda element is social media, and Western women who have travelled to join ISIS are often well versed in social media, providing an additional source of further recruitment," the report found.

Efforts to attract women have "increased substantially in the last few months," according to the report, with IS promoting "the importance of women in establishing the desired state."

"New online forums and publications target women and girls in the West with a positive image of this new life," HSC found. "There are numerous elements to this which have proven successful in recruiting vulnerable young women in particular to make the dangerous journey. Many of those involved are Western women who have married ISIS fighters."

Popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have helped IS disseminate its propaganda to Western women.

"The English language, chatty and modern style of tweets, blogs and Instagram pictures that are uploaded by ISIS women, notably those of Western origin, act as a valuable propaganda tool to encourage more young women to travel," according to the report. "The fact that most UK women who are known to have travelled to Syria are below the age of 24 demonstrates the value and influence of such techniques, the familiarity of which chimes with their current social lives."