In the past few months, the FBI arrested a woman in Philadelphia charged with plotting to join the Islamic State and martyr herself, while a young Alabama woman was lured via the Internet to join the terrorist group in Syria.
Halfway around the world, Spanish police arrested a woman who they said ran a notorious ring to recruit girls for the Islamic State, and authorities reported a surge of women leaving Germany to join the so-called Islamist caliphate.
Dramatic and chilling, these episodes are hardly isolated but rather evidence of a concerted effort by the maturing Islamic State to use women as front-line recruiters for the next generation of terrorists, analysts warned a congressional committee Wednesday.
“This is not a sideshow. This is very much a core part of ISIS’ strategy, and it is a part of the evolving terrorist landscape,” Sasha Havlicek, CEO at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, testified during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. “As such, they should matter to us more than they have among intelligence circles.”
Ms. Havlicek estimates that thousands of women from Western countries have fled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, despite the group’s harsh and strict treatment of female members. Women in Islamic State custody have been raped, forced into marriage, sold into slavery and endured torturous physical punishments if they don’t adhere to a strict set of rules, including dress codes.
Still, Western women are heeding the Islamic State’s call and are being used to solidify the organization’s position, recruit others into its web and raise the next generation of jihadi warriors.
PHOTOS: Islamic State uses women to recruit, raise next generation of fighters
“ISIS needs women, needs to control them, to establish its caliphate and give rise to the next generation of ISIS,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the committee. “That is why ISIS is investing heavily in recruiting foreign women to join its ranks.”
Mr. Royce said each woman who is “brainwashed” by the terrorist group becomes a poster child to lure others to join.
In May, a 30-year-old Philadelphia woman was charged with trying to join the Islamic State and make herself a martyr. The woman, an unemployed mother of two, made arrangements to fly to Spain with the intent of traveling to Syria.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Willis told The Associated Press at the time that the woman would have boarded the flight had federal agents not served a search warrant on her home days earlier. She is now in jail pending trial.
A month earlier, a 20-year-old woman fled her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to join Islamic State militants in Syria. The woman went missing from her home after being “brainwashed” for an undetermined length of time by Islamic State recruiters online, a family spokesman told AP.
This month, Spanish police arrested a woman suspected of recruiting pre-teen girls and teenagers online to send to areas controlled by the Islamic State. Her orders were to recruit girls and arrange their travel to Syria, according to a Spanish Interior Ministry statement obtained by AP. Girls and teens she helped get into Syria were sexually exploited and were used for domestic and hospital work, the statement said.
Although women are not allowed on the Islamic State battlefield, those from the West are often able to goad others into joining the organization in Syria and Iraq or planning attacks in their home countries, Ms. Havlicek said. A girl can point to the fact that she made it to the Middle East on her own and question how other women or even men can’t do the same.
In addition to being effective recruiters and planners, women also are able to help formulate and solidify Islamic State values within society and help achieve the goal of building a nation ruled by believers of radical Islamic law.
Along with being mothers to the next generation of Islamic State fighters, women also pass down the “cultural memory” of any organization, allowing the same extremist and intolerant values and ideals to grow, Ms. Havlicek said.
“They know if they’ve got women in their camp, the extremists’ project is much more likely to succeed,” she said. “The cultural shifts will come through those women.”
Some women are recruited into the Islamic State to become brides to members who court them online. The Islamic State has given out marriage bonuses to its fighters: $1,500 for a jihadi to start building a home and family and have a honeymoon, according to a CBS News report in May.
Still, the terrorist organization commits horrendous atrocities against women.
Edward Watts, director and producer of the documentary “Escaping ISIS,” described at Wednesday’s hearing the rape of a girl who was only 9 years old and women who are sold into slavery “like cattle.”
“This should be the stuff of history books, not contemporary news reports,” he said.
Zainab Bangura, the United Nations’ special representative on sexual violence in conflict, told CBS News after touring refugee camps in Syria and neighboring Iraq: “[Islamic State members] are institutionalizing sexual violence. The brutalization of women and girls is central to their ideology.”
Ms. Bangura described women and young virgins being bought and sold at auctions. The Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom published a story of a girl being burned alive by militants “because she refused to perform an extreme sex act.”
Still, Western women are flocking to join the group.
Last month, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said about 100 of the 700 Germans joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were women, and half were younger than 25.
“We’ve seen a rise in the number of women who fall for the increased appeal of the recruiting activities both on the Internet and through direct personal contacts,” Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the agency, said to reporters in Berlin, according to a Reuters report. “The threat is becoming increasingly complex.”
This spring, British police released a photo of three teenage girls passing through an airport checkpoint on their way to join the Islamic State, touching off a frantic search that failed to intercept the youths before they reached Syria and married militants, submitting themselves to the regime. The photo became an iconic reminder throughout Europe of the changing face of terrorism.
Officials should not view this recruitment of girls as just a “women’s issue,” Kathleen Kuehnast, director of gender and peace-building at the United States Institute of Peace, said at Wednesday’s hearing. She said it has implications for broader national security.
“When sexual violence is used in war,” she said, “it can be even more devastating than a gun.”
Although the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on the campaign against the Islamic State, Ms. Havlicek said, “soft power” to combat the successful recruitment of women would be much less expensive and could have a large effect on the terrorist group’s ability to recruit. She said officials must come up with a way to stop the group’s message, not just its recruiting abilities, to be effective in the long-term defeat of the Islamic State.
Educating youths to spot propaganda and teaching them to use common sense in online or social media forums can help with this, she said. The message, however, must be delivered with emotive stories, not facts, and should come from a credible, Islamic voice, such as a survivor of brutalities by the Islamic State, not a Western government, she said.