By Moha Ennaji
There have been several reports of European and North African women travelling to Syria to join up with jihadists there. The precise number of girls and women seeking to join the terrorist groups is unclear, but some analysts estimate that roughly 20% of recruits from Europe and North Africa are women, often influenced by social media networks that offer advice, tips, and even logistical support for travel. There are plenty of online marriage markets for young Salafis, and that often portray life under the caliphate as a kind of Islamic paradise that offers a religious alternative to what can often be a second-class life of struggle and alienation in the West.
In most cases, young women who seek jihad do not come from particularly religious families, but are students who want to go to Syria to marry a devout Muslim or provide humanitarian aid. As a rule, young women are radicalised outside the home, due to peer group influence, a preacher in a mosque (masjid) or through religious schools (madrasas).
Life conditions inside the radical groups are often different, of course, from the cheerful images on screens. Daesh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State) is led by men and is rigorously male dominated with recruits separated by gender. It seems contradictory that women fight in their ranks, considering the terror group’s staunch adoption of laws that are unfavourable to women. Female recruits often find the reality is far different from that ideal.
Daesh, for example, recently published guidelines detailing how females should appear in public, including having their hands and feet covered, and to always have a male guardian with them while walking on the streets. They have even required shopkeepers to cover their store mannequins with full-face veils.
Terror groups are equally deploying women as law enforcers of their strict Islamic moral codes, a sign of how women’s role may be changing in a context where militant groups have established themselves as de facto governments. The most well-known female moral police, called Al-Khansaa Brigade, was created in the city of Raqqa in 2013.
During the last few months, Spanish authorities arrested six young girls aged between 14 and 19 after attempting to join terrorists fighting in Iraq and Syria. Most were Spanish citizens of Moroccan origin. The recruitment of a minor shows that the terrorist groups have no respect for their targets’ age.
Moroccan security forces have led numerous momentous raids on jihadist recruitment cells this year, arresting more than 30 people. Governments in the region fear that battle-hardened Islamist fighters may return from Syria and other conflict zones under the influence of Daesh and Al-Qaeda-inspired groups, posing a threat of attacks.
Al-Qaeda-aligned militias have also recruited Tunisian women. Officials stated that at least 300 women, some as young as 13, were lured to Syria for sex with numerous jihadi rebels as part of what they termed a jihad sex war.
Authorities, which enhanced border control, have stopped thousands of recruits from leaving the North African state. After the sexual liaisons they have there in the name of sexual holy war, they come home pregnant.
Daesh has now become a serious concern for families whose daughters are being tricked into offering sex to terrorists under the pretext of “a holy act”.
A Tunisian girl, with initials T.A., tells her story of being deceived to go to Syria under the name of Jihad Al-Nikah (pleasure marriage), to marry the terrorists in a bid help them better fight against the Syrian government forces.
She says that Salafist preachers offer Islam as a simple solution to all problems, essentially sending out the message that all that matters is being a “good Muslim woman”. But once they arrive in the war zone, the girls are isolated from the events going on around them. “They don’t even understand just how dangerous the situation they have placed themselves in really is,” she says.
Former Mufti of Tunisia Sheikh Othman Battikh described the so-called “sexual Jihad” as a form of “prostitution”. Some Sunni Muslim Salafists, however, consider sexual jihad a legitimate form of holy war.
The jihadi problem is fuelled by low youth employment, corruption, lack of opportunities, identity crisis, and social injustice. Young girls are often revolting against a family in which they are misunderstood or a society in which they don’t feel appreciated.
Appeals to women to raise their children as jihadis seem to attract women who suffer from insecurity for three main reasons. First, many of them consider jihad a structured setting, where they can join, doing something that they feel is important. Second, they like to integrate a group that is very influential. Third, they are attracted by the idea of motherhood and being part of women who are struggling together with the company of jihadi husbands.
Security officials in North Africa and Europe are seriously concerned about the number of young women joining the jihad in Syria and Iraq. Women are ideal for preparing attacks, security officials say, because of their largely unobserved preparatory work, says one intelligence officer. They are stopped and searched less often than men, which makes them more efficient planners and perfect terrorists.
To combat terrorism and extremism which is spreading in the MENA region requires political will. Appropriate laws should be enacted as soon as possible and policies must be implemented to ensure border control, the closure of financing ports, propaganda platforms, anti-addiction, etc. Civil society has to be proactive in countering Daesh and its allies. Counter terrorism should emanate from the inside, in coordination with the outside world through sensitising youth, reforming education and media, regional and international cooperation and coordination, and through awareness raising in families, schools, universities and civil society organisations.
Since the spread of terror is the goal of Daesh which seeks to paralyse societies, we expect the media to play a positive role by refusing to be a tool serving extremism and terrorism and dealing with it professionally and rationally, and not by broadcasting terrorism news automatically.
Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. He is professor of gender and cultural studies at Fès University. His most recent book is titled Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe (Palgrave-Macmillan 2014).