More Girls and Women Are Joining Violent Groups And Here’s Why

Violent extremists are masterminds at exploiting empathy and giving girls and women a false sense of hope. Over the past five years, an astonishing number of girls and women have joined violent groups. Statistically, the numbers are low and no more than fifty females have tried to join ISIS or offer ideological, material, and financial support. While the number may seem low, it is a sign that the trend continues, an argument I made after I left the US government and published my first op-ed in December 2006 in The Baltimore Sun

Fast forward to 2018 and the international community is still trying to make sense of girls and women seeking an alternative reality when they join violent terror groups. 

The Ultimate Goal is Paradise

There is no greater dream for a believing Muslim than the desire to enter Paradise. The ultimate goal is to breathe heavenly air and recline in gardens from which rivers flow, as the Quran promises, with a tribe of family, friends, and all of God’s Prophets. How one achieves that dream is determined by actions in this life. A believer is told that the hereafter is for those whose acts of charity are stacked higher than the sins of a mortal. But the Afterlife, though an attainable goal, is not without the tests of faith that a Muslim endures on earth.

In an era of romantic terrorism, the rules for entry into Paradise are constantly rewritten, and a Muslim’s rights and responsibilities are redefined. For nearly twenty years, I have witnessed the semantic folly that terrorists use to seduce seemingly innocent girls and women to resolve a grievance. For some women, the decision to join religious extremism is voluntary and is often driven by personal reasons, including the need to belong, to be loved, to be purposeful, and to offer a helping hand to a Muslim community suffering the barbarism of war.

Male terrorists use a gamut of tricks to lure women into their organizations and justify violence to vent frustration in a cause where dialogue and negotiation are nonexistent.

Worse, terrorists flirt with the language of the Quran and a history of traditions to attract the attention of potential female recruits.

The promise of Paradise is their greatest form of psychological warfare.

For nearly twenty years, I have lectured on the growing phenomenon of Muslim female extremists and highlighted four key points.

  • First, the growing number of conflicts raging in the Muslim world gives girls and women few options for a secure future. With increased exposure to death, destruction, and violence, some females turn to violence as a natural response to effect change for their communities and countries. In the future, wars will continue to appeal to, attract, and have allure for women. Afghanistan is one of the many conflicts raging in the Muslim world. Beyond Afghanistan, there is violent opposition to rotten governments and vicious civil conflicts in the Middle East. These wars empower violent extremists and create unwieldy politics that struggle through painful processes of nation building. 
  • Second, Muslim women drawn to long perspectives and political temporalities still have a personal motive. The different hypothetical possibilities of joining a violent group range from the rational to the absurd—to save the victims of war, the noble calling; or for marriage, motherhood, and martyrdom. To this end, violent men are persistent and offer women the illusion of a hopeful future entangled with unrealistic goals. Men play on a woman’s emotions and use shame, guilt, humiliation, and injustice interchangeably to stress the importance of her commitment to Islam.
  • Third, beyond romance, some girls seek friendship and family. They need to connect with a global Muslim community. Their yearning for sisterhood and spiritual connection is their foundation, even when that connection is likely to be short-lived, superficial, and shallow.
  • Finally, ignorance of Islam and an over reliance on self-professed scholars encourages female recruitment. Without a proper understanding of the Quran, females are vulnerable to the perverted readings of scripture and oral traditions. It is common for extremist ideologues to engage the revelation without understanding the holistic tradition. 

Extremists are ignorant of the deeper meaning of the sacred verses. They refute the need for introspection. The Quran says, “Verily, God does not change the conditions of a people until they change themselves.”

The Three As

As noted above, there are a plethora of reasons for radical recruitment. As a terrorism analyst and scholar, I’ve seen numerous models or frameworks that “dumbs down” the complex and complicated trend. The most common rationale are as follows: 

Attention: Girls want to live for something more than themselves; they dream of shedding their ordinary lives and look for something that is extraordinary. Females seek attention from the group–their new family–and the man (or men) they will marry. Attention is why terrorists exist. 

Acceptance: Girls join violent groups to gain acceptance, much like attention, from God. They believe that supporting, direct or indirectly, a violent group will offer them the ultimate acceptance by their Creator and thus, grant them a place in Heaven–the ultimate goal. Acceptance by God is everything.

Altruism – Girls respond to the call to justice and many say that they believe they are doing good when they join violent groups. Which is how they justify violence: it is a means to an end and will allow for the fantastical Caliphate to be born. Altruism or the concept of charity is a powerful motivator and a fundamental concept in Islam. 

Of course, the three As is just a humble beginning. The list of motivations is too long to list here–you can learn more in my latest book. (See below.)

What You Will Learn In The Book

In my new book, I explore the uncomfortable nexus between religion and terrorism by examining female radicals. This is what you will find inside the book:

  • The story of Shannon Conley, an average young American woman from Denver, CO who married an ISIS fighter online and joined the extremist group. She was arrested at Denver airport. Where is Shannon now?
  • Three East African teenagers, also from Denver, lied to their parents and boarded a plane for Turkey to join ISIS…but when they are caught, they are pardoned and returned to their community. What happens to the girls once they return home?
  • A newly wed Pakistani woman, who is well educated and once lived in Saudi Arabia, married a man from California after meeting online–their marriage turned deadly as the husband-and-wife hit team murdered innocent people at a community center in San Bernardino, CA. What can we learn from a dead female terrorist?
  • Iraq’s youngest female suicide bomber is caught on camera with a bomb under her oversized blue abaya (dress). Four hours later, in police custody, she said she was drugged and didn’t want to hurt anyone. So who indoctrinated her?
  • A girl from Indian-held (read occupied) Kashmir approaches a terrorist group and offers to be a suicide bomber. But the ‘brothers’ do not see her value as a woman who dares to kill in the name of conflict, Islam and her gender. Where is she now?

And so much more. My new book is a series of stories of girls and women who leave everything behind to join extremist groups–this is the untold story of their lives and motivations. Through my counter-terrorism work, I have found Islam. I have learned that Islam is not extreme, violent, or hateful. 

There is another narrative, more powerful and meaningful because it is based on truth. Islam is a simple, practical and peaceful religion. 

And the truth never lies. 

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