Women fighting for Daesh. A threatening reality

Women fighting for Daesh

Since Daesh has emerged as a significant threat in 2014, policymakers and Western analysts have shed light on the organization’s cruel and disrespectful treatment of women. According to international observers, who strongly condemn the extensive ‘sex slave’ industry created by male fighters who massively buy and sell Yazidi women and girls (Yazidis represent a Kurdish religious minority living around the Sinjar Mountain in Iraq), it is also crucial to reflect on an often neglected aspect: the recruitment of local and foreign women by Daesh. What is pushing women and girls to leave their respective countries, to join such a cruel and conservative organization as Daesh?

Even though it is not easy to deal with this kind of information flow, some data are available from targeted research and security papers. Indeed, the foreign fighters come both from Western and Middle Eastern countries. Looking at the ranking by regions drawn by the Soufan Group, the Middle East and Maghreb provide for the highest number of foreign fighters, respectively 8,240 and 8000, while Tunisia accounting for over 6000 foreign fighters. Western countries accounts for the second largest number, with more than 5000 individuals who have joined Daesh.Over 3,700 out of 5000 came from just from United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Germany. According to the gender disaggregated data collected by national security agencies, including French intelligence services, in 2014, only 10 percent of French recruits with Daesh were women. On the other hand, today women represent nearly 35 percent of French migrants in Syria and Iraq. According to the data provided by the Soufan Group, in 2014 more than 600 women from Western countries have joined Daesh.


The rising of the so called “muhajirat” could be due to manifold factors: the development of an anti-western sentiment, the mounting anti-Muslim discourse in the West, and a strong politico-ideological commitment to further encourage this massive migration. Further explanations about this phenomenon perceive female recruitment mainly as the result of deception and the promise of an alluring exciting life. Unfortunately, the awful truth is that once they have joined Daesh, these women are relegated to domestic roles and very often victims of violence. A third explanation for joining Daesh armed groups pertains to foreign fighters more broadly. The argument suggests that foreigners join Daesh due to their own feelings of isolation and exclusion in their home communities along with a lack of integration in many European countries.

The number of women travelling overseas willing to team up with the jihadists is increasing. The narrative of the passive Muslim woman, largely spread by European public opinion, largely neglects the fact that Western women who join the organisation are motivated by the desire to witness radical actions and play a role in the fight. The massive recruitment is being made by Daesh through the easiest way available today: the social media. Daesh and its supporters specifically target Muslim and non-Muslim women who are believed to be marginalized within their society they do not belong to. The recruiters aim to exploit their social and economic alienation along with their disaffection towards values which are not shared by which mainly represent the Western culture.

Despite women represents only 20 percent of the foreign fighters, it does not mean they should be underestimated. The use of women in Daesh either as fighters or slaves poses a new and real threat to security, especially in the digital era. First of all, the use of technology is becoming more important in terms of monitoring but this will make the conflict between the limits of privacy and public security harsher. A conflict which represents a serious challenge to national authorities and intelligence agencies,  which are now trying to get fresh data using the information in social networks accounts or on the internet. Secondly, most of the time these women not only cross several physical borders to join Daesh’s rows, but they also act on the internet as recruiters in their turn, spreading the word and publicly promoting their commitment in the fight.

The Jihadi Brides

Last but not least, the participation of female fighters has definitely increase the the vulnerability of women’s rights in such contexts. The phenomenon of “Jihadi brides” which entails marrying the fighters and witnessing their martyrdom, is part of the duties which contribute to increase the sense of belonging and commitment to the mission of Daesh. In addition to that, the cruel trafficking of girls as sex slaves within Daesh, which seems to be hold through Whatsapp, is turning into a common practice truly helping ensure the vitality of the organization, through the flow of money exchanged with sex. Furthermore, women represent an essential resource in guerrilla time due to the fact that, paradoxically, the presence of women contribute to make Daesh’s movements safer. Since the majority of females are being used as human shields, Daesh assumes that coalitions will not target locations where there are a large number of civilians, such as the downtown areas of major Daesh controlled cities. Therefore, the civilian presence allows the organization to move within safe city walls.

In conclusion, Daesh is fighting its war also by taking advantage of women, whose views have been radicalized, which may lead extremism/fundamentalism to affect less controlled channels, and the risk is that radicalism will spread over the less controlled channels, such as the internet and social media. In this regard, online propaganda becomes the most serious threat to security, due to the free use ad direct channels of communication they allow. The exit strategy would be difficult to be figured out, as social media are now out of control and due to the privacy issue. Is the West ready for such a step back in terms of privacy?

Federica Mastroforti

Posgraduate Master in Cooperation and Development


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Laura Sjoberg, “The Women of Daesh: Thinking about a Decade of Research on Women, Gender, and TerrorismAvailable at


Farahnaz Ispahani, “Women and Islamist Extremism: Gender Rights Under the Shadow of Jihad” available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/15570274.2016.1184445?scroll=top&needAccess=true

Allison, Barnes (May 2015) “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s strategic treatment and use of women” available at https://imes.elliott.gwu.edu/sites/imes.elliott.gwu.edu/files/downloads/documents/Capstone-Papers-2015/Allison%20and%20Barnes%20Capstone%20Final%20050515.pdf

Florence Gaub, Julia Lisiecka, “Women in Daesh: jihadist ‘cheerleaders’, active operatives?”

Available at http://www.iss.europa.eu/uploads/media/Brief_27_Women_in_Daesh.pdf

Gulf News Thinkers, “When women fight Daesh”. Available at http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/when-women-fight-daesh-1.1882787

Foreign Fighters, An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq, available at http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf

Agence France-Presse, “Hundreds of Tunisian women join jihadists in Syria: Minister,” The Times of 12 India, December 5, 2015. Available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/middleeast/Hundreds-of-Tunisian-women-join-jihadists-in-Syria-Minister/articleshow/50050192.cms.

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