LONDON—The number of foreign women and minors involved in ISIS in Syria and Iraq has been “significantly underestimated,” according to the first detailed study of its kind.
Twenty-five percent of foreign ISIS-affiliated individuals are women and minors, according to the report by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), which says they pose a significant security risk.
Recent high-profile terror plots have highlighted the growing role of women in ISIS terrorist attacks. In June, Safaa Boular in London became the youngest convicted ISIS terrorist after plotting to carry out a gun and grenade attack on the British Museum with her sister and mother.
Until now, however, there have only been crude estimates of the number of women who traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS.
The report by the ICSR used 283 sources to make the first concrete data set on women and minors.
The report also found that 20 percent of the 41,970 ISIS members and affiliates have returned to their home countries.
Although the ISIS caliphate in Syria/Iraq was brought to its knees last year, it was established for long enough to bring in women and children from other countries, with 730 children born to foreigners, according to the report.
“We do see IS as an intergenerational problem now. We are going to be dealing with it for 10, 20 years,” said Dr. Joana Cook, co-author of the report ‘From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State.’
“Because they’ve established this so-called caliphate, held an administered territory, they indoctrinated a generation of children and they were able to bring in women in a way that no other group has before,” Cook said.
Cook said that recording the involvement of women and minors is vital to understanding the threat and tackling the extremism spawned under the caliphate.
She also notes that some women and minors are victims, and some are both victims and terrorists. For example, young children given military training and forced to carry out atrocities are similar to the child soldiers from other locations in the world—simultaneously guilty of crimes and victims of indoctrination.
The report uses the term “ISIS-affiliated” individuals, to allow the inclusion of those who may have been taken against their will, or born there, along with the die-hard jihadist terrorists.
According to the study, of the 5,904 European ISIS-affiliates 17 percent are women, 25 percent are minors.
The study found that 1,765 have already returned to Europe.
The report said that ISIS’s ability and hunger to recruit minors cannot be underestimated.
The report notes, “Women and minors are poised to play a significant role in the organisation going forward—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.”
The report says that, “Women played a variety of roles beyond those of simplistic ‘jihadi brides’,” traveling to Syria and Iraq for a variety of motivations.
“Pull factors ranged from ideological motivations, efforts by IS to portray women’s empowerment in IS, fulfillment of a perceived ‘obligation’ to make hijra and live under strict Islamic jurisprudence and governance, supporting IS’s state-building project, seeking adventure, seeking a husband or traveling to join one already in theater, traveling with family (whether willingly or not), and even seeking free healthcare or education.”
ISIS’s caliphate was the first time a jihadist group allowed and facilitated women’s roles in security and combat training.
Many children were taken to ISIS territory primarily for material or ideological benefits, such as free education and healthcare, or ‘correct’ upbringing under sharia law, notes the report.
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