Lady jihadists police morals, trigger suicide bombs and — maybe — fight on the front lines
by DARIEN CAVANAUGH
In late February 2016, seven female Islamic State fighters were captured in Libya. Three others were killed in clashes with government forces, including one who attempted to blow herself up.
That was different. That was new. Sort of.
The stories coming out of Syria and Iraq tend to portray the women who live under Islamic State rule as serving only “sedentary” and domestic roles or as part of a “sexual jihad” in which they marry ISIS fighters or act as “comfort women.”
These accounts are true in many regards, but they’re also only part of the story.
Women play a vital role in the functioning of the Islamic State bureaucracy, including serving in various security and police forces and as propagandists and recruiters.
And, in a some cases, as combatants.
In early 2014, ISIS had established two all-female armed brigades — the Al Khansaa Brigade and the Umm Al Rayan Brigade — to serve in Syria and Iraq.
The Al Khansaa Brigade is a morality-police force. It patrols the streets of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, looking for women violating Islamic State’s strict decency codes.
The Umm Al Rayan Brigade helps to guard checkpoints and search for men who attempt to sneak past by disguising themselves as women. There are also reports of women accompanying male fighters on house raids so that they can search women and their belongings.
Having women serve in these roles makes sense in that they can touch, search and otherwise interact with women without violating ISIS’s religious laws.
There is little evidence that members of either brigade have participated in direct combat operations, but members of Al Khansaa have become particularly feared and loathed for the vicious punishments they mete out for even the most minor offenses.
Women often receive dozens of lashes, administered at police stations or in public on the street, for such trivial infractions as uncovering their eyes in public or wearing a burqa that is too tight, shoes that are the wrong color or makeup under their niqab.
In addition to beatings, Al Khansaa also employs an instrument referred to as “the biter.” This torture device resembles a steel-jawed animal trap with pointed teeth that clamp onto the skin, causing pain and injury.
That’s nowhere near the worst punishment members of Al Khansaa have delivered.
In December Al Khansaa agents reportedly found a woman breastfeeding a baby under a tree in Raqqa. They took the woman’s baby and then “mutilated” and killed the women, even though she had kept her breasts and her baby hidden underneath her burqa throughout the feeding.
Women from the Al Khansaa and Umm Al Rayan Brigades also reportedly guard and manage brothels where sex slaves, primarily Yazidi women and girls, are forced to have sex with ISIS fighters returning from battle.
Though the women in the police and security forces in Syria and Iraq are not yet serving as militant soldiers on the front lines, there have been reports of at least one combat mission in Syria involving female ISIS fighters.
In June of 2015, dozens of ISIS militants disguised themselves as Kurdish fighters to infiltrate the town of Kobani and go on a killing spree.
“It was around four a.m. when we heard loud gunshots and explosions,” a witness from Kobani told Al Jazeera. “When we ran outside we saw [ISIS] fighters disguised as Kurdish forces yelling in Kurdish, ‘We are with you. We are from your side,’ then shooting randomly at people.”
“They were disguised as Kurdish forces and had women disguised with them, too,” the witness added.
People living in Kurdish-held territories are accustomed to seeing female Kurdish soldiers who are members of the famed all-female Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ. Seeing women combatants during the raid, especially if they were in YPJ uniforms, undoubtedly disoriented local residents who were not accustomed to seeing female ISIS fighters.
Up to 300 people died in the raid.
The Kobani raid, if the witness accounts are accurate, is definitely an outlier. However, there are tentative precedents for women taking part in Islamic State combat operations.
Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who founded the Islamic State-predecessor Al Qaeda in Iraq, enlisted dozens of female suicide bombers who carried out attacks on coalition and government targets in Iraq. That practice fell by the wayside when Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi took control of the organization following Al Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. air strike in 2006.
Leaders of Boko Haram — a blanket name used for Islamic terrorists groups operating in Nigeria and the surrounding countries — have pledged allegiance to ISIS and now broadly refer to their groups as Islamic State in West Africa.
They, too, have deployed female suicide bombers — in more than 100 attacks, according to one account. However, the strength of the ties between Boko Haram and ISIS remain somewhat ill-defined.
Islamic State leadership in Syria has gone as far as to praise women for carrying out attacks in other countries. When Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik — married Muslim immigrants living in California — killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in a mass shooting in San Bernardino in December 2015, ISIS commended Malik for her actions.
“How much more deserving of Allah’s blessing are a husband and wife who march out together to fight the crusaders in defense of the [caliphate]!” read an article in Dabiq, the Islamic State’s slick English-language propaganda rag.
There are also indications that changes on the ground could substantially alter the role of women in ISIS. The Al Khansaa Brigade released a manifesto last year entitled Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al Khansaa Brigade. In a section on the “secondary functions of a women,” the manifesto explains that it is acceptable for women to participate in jihad “by appointment” and in special circumstances.
For instance, “if the enemy is attacking her country and the men are not enough to protect it,” then it would be acceptable for women to take up arms. The manifesto also refers to the female fighters of Islamist organizations in Iraq and Chechnya as “blessed women.”
All of these instances are exceptions to the rule with extenuating circumstances, but taken collectively they do suggest that the idea of enlisting female fighters is not completely alien to ISIS. Likewise, the recent developments in Libya suggest that Islamic State leadership might be adopting new thinking on women combatants.
Since forming in 2014, Islamic State in Libya has become one of the most successful of the terrorist organization’s franchises.
Islamic State in Libya’s fighters suffered losses in the eastern coastal city of Derna in April 2016, but the group still controls large swathes of territory along the coast, including the cities of Sirte and parts of Benghazi.
In recent months ISIS commanders in Syria have been directing fighters to Libya in an effort to set up a second homeland. The New York Times recently referred to Islamic State in Libya as an “actively managed colony of the central Islamic State.” In other words, the Libyan “province” is a precious piece of real estate for ISIS.
The attacks in which the women jihadis were captured and killed in Libya in late February 2016 marked the group’s first confirmed use of female combatants. However, reports from the region suggest it may have been the beginning of a trend, as “hundreds” of ISIS women in Libya are being trained to join in combat operations or perpetrate suicide-bombings.
Considering that much of the ISIS command in Libya is from Syria and Iraq and stays in close contact with the leadership in those countries, it’s reasonable to assume that ISIS commanders in all three places are comfortable with exploring the possibility of women becoming a more prominent part of the Islamic State’s fighting force.
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