More foreign women and children were affiliated with ISIS than previously publicly known, a new study has found, suggesting an underappreciated threat that governments are yet to address.
Contrary to the common perception of the disaffected young male foreign terrorist fighter, a new report from King's College London suggest that up to a quarter of all ISIS "global affiliates" were women and children and suggests that they will play a significant role in keeping ISIS ideology alive in the future.
The report, from the university’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, documented 41,490 foreigners from 80 countries who travelled to the “caliphate” declared by ISIS in parts of Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017. Of them, 4,761 were women and 4,640 were children. In addition, at least 730 foreign children are known to have been born in ISIS territory, though the actual number is likely to have been significantly higher.
Of those foreign ISIS affiliates – which includes fighters, supporters and those coerced into association with the group – 7,366 are known to have returned home to their country of origin, including at least 256 women and perhaps 1,1180 children. While a large number of ISIS affiliates were killed in fighting or airstrikes, several thousand women and children are also known to be held in detention in Iraq and Syria.
The report describes how many female ISIS affiliates played a more active role than that of the coerced “jihadi bride” often ascribed to them in the media. “Many IS-affiliated women were driven by similar motivating factors as men, whether ideological commitment, grievances or discrimination in their own society, or the desire for a sense of belonging or purpose,” said report co-author Gina Vale. “Our research shows that women and minors affiliated with IS demand attention.”
“Women and minors are poised to play a significant role in the organisation going forward,” the report concluded. “They may assist in keeping the ideology alive, passing it to the next generation, continuing to recruit new members, support IS in other ways such as fundraising, or perpetrating violence on behalf of the group.”
Most problematic for governments looking to counter the threat of terrorism and the perpetuation of ISIS ideology is the role played by minors. The overwhelming majority of children affiliated with ISIS either travelled with their parents or were born in ISIS territory. Yet at the same time they were targeted for indoctrination and were trained to carry out attacks. And some minors played an active role in radicalising their families to travel.
Rehabilitation for children needs to focus on providing psychosocial support to address the traumatisation of their experiences, while also recognising the potential security threat posed by ISIS-supporting minors, the report argued. “Without effective de-radicalisation and reintegration initiatives tailored to children and teenagers, indoctrinated and trained minors will continue to pose a significant threat in the future, wherever they end up,” the report said.
In terms of deradicalisation initiatives, children who remain within ISIS-affiliated families – such as those being held in women and children camps or detention centres in Iraq and Syria – pose a particular challenge. “For children raised and remaining in a family unit that supports IS, or other extremist groups, the trust and bonds within the family create additional barriers to minors’ de-radicalisation,” said Ms Vale. “Defecting from the group constitutes a double betrayal, against IS and the family.”
Recognising the role of women and minors in ISIS will be important if governments are to effectively address the legacy of the group following the collapse of the so-called caliphate. “Going forward states need to adopt holistic and proactive policies that adequately consider the scope and scale of involvement of women and minors in IS,” Ms Vale said.