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Women of ISIS: The Al-Khanssaa Brigade

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Blake Evermon
March 31, 2015

On June 29, 2014, after years of struggle, a global Islamic caliphate was declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers proclaiming that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now has supreme religious, political and military authority over Muslims. ISIS is a Sunni Jihadist terror network inspired by al-Qaida, which according to the counter-terrorism intelligence company Intel Center, currently has over 31 affiliated groups. These groups are located across the globe, from North Africa to the Philippines and are classified by level of support—some have offered full allegiance while others have offered lesser levels of support. ISIS and its affiliates are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions more. Even more disturbing is the rising role of women within its ranks.

It defies western conscience to think that women would seek to join a group where basic human rights and freedoms are denied to females, even in victory. Women have always fought alongside men for their families, against threats of imminent death or physical harm and in the name of freedom and equality. What is perplexing about ISIS female recruits is the absence of these values in their motivation. Their faith and revulsion of western ideology appear to be driving motivators.

According to the Site Intel Group’s report “Woman in Jihad,” woman fighters are a very contentious issue among Islamists. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Union in Afghanistan and Pakistan have supported women taking an active role; al-Qaida is split on the issue. ISIS has offered a medium between active and supporting roles through the Al-Khanssaa Brigade. According to a report by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), this brigade was formed in February 2014 to recruit single women between the ages of 18–25 to execute counter-insurgency operations in ISIS-controlled territory. Each member is paid approximately 25,000 Syrian liras (less than $200 USD) each month and is allowed to serve only in the brigade.

Just last month the brigade released a primary source discussing the role of women in the Islamic State called “A Manifesto on Women.” It was translated from Arabic to English by the Quilliam Foundation, a British think-tank, and can be found in its entirety here. It is important to note that this document is highly propagandized and might not reflect the true beliefs or intentions of ISIS. It is also unclear if the authors of the document are women. Nevertheless, it provides insight to ISIS’ thinking on the topic.

The target audience for this manifesto is Arab women. The document provides examples of women living under ISIS to prove that their way is the right way. The document was written for three self-identified purposes:

1) To clarify the role of Muslim women in ISIS territory.
2) To refute detractors’ statements.
3) To expose the hypocrisy of the alternative ways of life.

According to the manifesto, women are to have a sedentary role that focuses on worshipping Allah, taking care of the house, getting married (age 9 is acceptable) and serving men. Women can leave the house for educational training in fields such as nursing, education and theology or by a religious edict calling for jihad.

The CIA’s recent intelligence assessment, as reported by CNN, claims that ISIS has approximately 20,000 to 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria alone. This is a substantial increase from the estimated 10,000 members in 2013–2014 due to military victories in Iraq and Syria, declaration of the caliphate by ISIS leader Abu al-Baghdadi, a strong and steady source of income from seized goods like oil and gold and a strong global recruitment program. The New York Times discusses ISIS’ international reach through its ability to recruit and retain fighters not only from the Middle East but also from Western Europe, the United States, former Soviet bloc nations, Southeast Asia and China.

What is different about ISIS versus other terror groups is their savvy use of social media to broadcast their messages, inspire fear and recruit fighters. The beheading of American journalist James Foley sent shockwaves through the media. This despicable act was followed by the atrocious immolation of the captured Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh. ISIS then repeated these actions with international journalists and aid workers, Iraqi soldiers and innocent civilians. At the same time they increased their campaign of human trafficking, sexual slavery, rape, theft and the destruction of ancient artifacts to shape the region into their image of acceptable governance and lifestyle. Their use of technology has increased their popularity, funding levels and appeal. On the other hand, the publication of such brutality has united countries, sects, ethnicities and religions in a common cause―survival. The Washington Post reports that over 60 nations have joined together to confront ISIS.

With ISIS having such a reputation of barbaric behavior, why would women want to join and how can they be stopped? The answer to this question could be an important key to shutting down ISIS for good.


Author: Blake Evermon is a doctoral candidate in public administration at the University of Illinois, Springfield and his research interests include refugee assimilation, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic radicalization, emergency management and terrorism. Evermon has completed graduate work and language training in Jordan, and field research in Israel and the Palestinian, West Bank. His professional experience includes analysis for the U.S. government and information/cyber security for educational institutions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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