Women Are Fueling ISIS’s Comeback
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- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
Affected Countries: syria;
On August 28, Syrian Kurdish security forces backed by the United States launched an operation targeting ISIS sleeper cells in the Al-Hol camp, in northeast Syria. The mission was intended to stabilize the detention facility, which holds thousands of internally displaced people and families of suspected ISIS members.
But more than a month after the raids began – and despite hundreds of arrests – ISIS remains entrenched in Al-Hol. Violence in the camp has reached record levels, and at least 44 people have been killed this year in ISIS-initiated attacks.
The failure of Kurdish security efforts is largely due to an overreliance on targeting male ISIS leaders and operatives. Unlike in 2014, when male fighters led the militant group’s seizing of territory in Iraq, Syria, and beyond, today it is ISIS’s female supporters who are expanding influence. Unless this shift is understood correctly, the group’s ascendancy inside Al-Hol, and its reemergence outside, is all but guaranteed.
Historically, the role of women in violent extremist groups, and ISIS in particular, has been domestic and focused on supporting husbands and children. Women have been used in terrorist operations or suicide bombings if the religious authorities permit it. And ISIS has allowed women to work, including as doctors, teachers, and religious police. But during its height, the group urged most women to stick to roles inside the home.
Things changed dramatically after ISIS’s territorial defeat in 2019. With male members either dead, detained, or on the run, ISIS female supporters took it upon themselves to keep the group’s ideology alive.
The creation of Al-Hol, which holds some 56,000 individuals from various nations, the vast majority of whom are women and children, made their task easier. In addition to the high concentration of like-minded people in one place, the absence of male supervision inside the camp has allowed ISIS female supporters to take the lead and mirror ISIS practices.
One of the most concerning developments in Al-Hol is the indoctrination of children by pro-ISIS women. About 28,000 children inside the camp are reportedly living without access to proper education. Benefiting from this vacuum, ISIS female supporters have established makeshift schools to inculcate young people with ISIS ideology.
These schools teach up to five levels. In addition to sharia courses, older children are provided ideological and military training. Sadly, the camp residents’ home governments view the children as threats rather than victims, which explains the lack of effort to rescue them from this ideological upbringing. Hence, analysts and officials fear that Al-Hol is being used as a “breeding ground” for the next generation of ISIS.
Women ISIS members have also formed “hesba,” a religious police unit, to uphold ISIS ideology and impose its norms on other women in the camp. This force has reportedly made women wear the veil and attend informal sharia courses. It also prohibits smoking, dancing, listening to music, wearing pants, and talking to men.
Pro-ISIS women have even established their own sharia court, modeled on ISIS’s judicial system, to hold accountable those who violate the group’s religious teachings. Punishments include flogging, imprisonment, torture, food deprivation, burning of tents, and murder.
For now, the influence of ISIS’s women supporters is primarily limited to the camp. During the group’s rise, women were largely excluded from propaganda produced by ISIS’s central media machine. In Al-Hol, they initiate their own online campaigns to promote ISIS ideology and disseminate its propaganda.
But the women of ISIS have been able to launch campaigns to collect donations from outside Al-Hol. This funding, which is largely transferred through the informal hawala money transfer system, is used to cover expenses and pay smugglers to help them escape. Eventually, these revenue streams could fund activities beyond the camp’s perimeter fence.
Despite being aware of these practices, security forces seem unable to act. That is partially a result of how new these female-led structures are, which makes them difficult to detect.
Additionally, fear of reprisals and hard living conditions inside the camp make residents less willing to cooperate with authorities. As a result, recent security operations have been limited to confiscating weapons and propaganda materials, disturbing ISIS’s networks, and shutting down the infrastructure used by female ISIS supporters (such as tunnels, trenches, schools, and sharia centers).
Anti-ISIS security operations inside Al-Hol will only reap results if the women-led structures promoting the group’s ideology are properly identified and countered. Rehabilitating and reintegrating ISIS supporters, inside and outside the camp, is essential for ensuring the group’s enduring defeat. Without these actions, Al-Hol – and other camps like it – will continue to play a key role in the continued existence of ISIS.
Dr. Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.