Gendered Jihad. Recruitment Strategy of the Islamic State

Master's Thesis, 2017

44 Pages


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1 Conceptualization
1.2 Contribution to Research
1.3 Methodology

Chapter 2: Motivating Factors
2.1 Preliminary Profile of ISIS Affiliates
2.2 Literature Review: Motivating Factors
2.2.1 Sociological Factors
2.2.2 Political Factor
2.2.3 Religious Factors
2.2.4 Psychological Factors
2.2.5 Female Jihad Female Jihad as a Factor
2.3 Preliminary Conclusions Motivating Factors

Chapter 3: ISIS's Recruitment
3.1 Recruitment Strategies in Islamic Terrorism
3.2 ISIS's Recruitment Strategy
3.3 ISIS's Gendered Online Recruitment
3.3.1 Binary System and Hatred on the West
3.3.2 Role of Women within the Caliphate
3.3.3 Marriage and Family
3.3.4 Life within the Islamic State
3.3.5 Travel Guide
3.3.6 Islamic Themes
3.3.7 Martyrdom and Fighting
3.4 Conclusions

Chapter 4: Policy and Agenda
4.1 Policy Advice
4.1.1 Female Returnees
4.2 Future Agenda


"We are created to be mothers and wives - as much as the western society has warped your views on this with a hidden feminist mentality."[1]

- Umm-Layth, female dropout from Glasgow University living in ISIS controlled territory.

Gendered Jihad – Recruitment Strategy of the Islamic State

Chapter 1: Introduction

In the past few years the news all over Europe included headlines about citizens leaving their home country to fight for the terrorist organization Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).[2] The increasing number of individuals radicalizing for ISIS leaves the population of Europe, and generally Western countries, including North America and Australia, with a lack of understanding. Why would someone leave their home country to go to a foreign country and fight the jihad [3] ? It is particularly puzzling, because ISIS undermines Western values, such as freedom of speech, religion, and sexuality.

When analyzing the phenomenon of the radicalization for ISIS of individuals living in the West, it is essential to consider the approximately ten percent who are women.[4] Specifically, because the terrorist group acknowledges a fundamentalist view on women’s rights and gender equality the incomprehension is especially strong concerning them.[5] Even more confusing is the fact that ISIS "justifies" misogynist practices, including sex trafficking and slavery of women through its interpretations of the Islam.[6] Moreover, although ten percent may not sound high, it makes ISIS the most successful Islamic terrorist group of muhajirat [7] in history.[8]

One aspect which may contribute to the high influx of women may be the advanced recruitment strategy of ISIS. This entails online recruitment via social media, online magazines as well as on-site recruitment. ISIS applies this strategy to indoctrinate their potential members from all around the world.

To help understand the large number of muhajirat from the West, this thesis will investigate into which factors affect women's radicalization process. Therefore, first the motivating factors for the emigration will be examined. Furthermore, the advanced recruitment strategy through which ISIS indoctrinates potential members will be analyzed. The thesis will argue that recruitment is an important aspect of radicalization, because it directly connects with the motivating factors of the individuals and frames the perspective of the affected women. The combination of the motivating factors and the recruitment will lead to the finalizing of the radicalization process. Understanding the connection between the recruitment and the motivating factors will in turn aid to draw implications for policy advice on effective counter-terrorism measures. Hence, my research question is: To what extent does the recruitment strategy of the Islamic State foster the radicalization process of Western women to join the Caliphate?

1.1 Conceptualization

Radicalization is a highly contested concept within academic literature. This may be due to the fact that the definition of radicalization depends on the historical and social context.[9] For instance, the normativity of religious orthodoxy deviates in Western countries compared to more Muslim coined countries. However, although radicalization is context specific, in the following radicalization is defined as the "process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs".[10] It is important to point out that within this definition radicalization does not imply executing violence.

1.2 Contribution to Research

This thesis will contribute to academia, because there is a lack of scientific research concerning radicalization, particularly with a gendered approach. Hence, this research will add to the existing literature by identifying whether there is a correlation between the recruitment strategies and the motivating factors with a focus on women. The value of the thesis is taking both, potential motivating factors and the recruitment into consideration.

Additionally, the importance of analyzing motivating factors of radicalized women also has practical reasons. These become apparent when considering that ISIS is the first Islamic terrorist organization which managed to radicalize such a high number of women.[11] Apart from posing a threat to international security when returning to their home countries, these women need to be prevented from emigrating in the first place. Analyzing the motivating factors of these women may identify risk factors of Islamic radicalization. Furthermore, the influence of the propaganda applied by ISIS is essential when attempting to understand the radicalization process. This will help to establish successful gender-specific counter-terrorism measures which directly appeal to the affected women. Therefore, combining gender with terrorism research becomes indispensable as muhajirat pose a significant risk for international security.

1.3 Methodology

To answer my research question and gain a deeper understanding of the motivational factors and the connection with the applied recruitment, primary and secondary sources will be analyzed. Concerning the primary sources, non-governmental organization (NGO) reports, newspaper articles, books, and social media channels of ISIS adherents will shed light on the motivating factors and the recruitment strategy. Additionally, propaganda published by the Islamic State itself will be examined, such as the "Dabiq" magazine and the propaganda magazine for women "Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade".[12] Moreover, secondary sources will be used, including academic literature and interviews with ISIS defectors as well as former recruiters.

A selection bias might be caused by the fact that the available data have mostly been gathered by Western scholars. However, as the research is focused specifically on women socialized in the West this might not cause a disadvantage. Furthermore, the external validity of the interview videos may be limited, since they have not been conducted by me. Nevertheless, they provide crucial information concerning the factors motivating the women and propaganda mechanisms applied by ISIS. In the investigation triangulation will be used, including propaganda published by ISIS, academic literature, books, interviews, NGO reports, and newspaper articles, in order to maximize the archival coverage and to reveal possible biases in the sources.

It is key to understand that this analysis only focuses on emigration of women of non-Muslim countries. Hence, the findings may not be generalizable to muhajirat of Muslim countries, because ISIS applies a different recruitment strategy in these countries.[13] Albeit, many women also emigrate from Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, this is still highly ignored in the academic literature.[14] Additionally, the reasons for joining the jihad and for carrying out a terrorist attack may differ. Although, ISIS encourages affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks when they have no possibility to emigrate to the Caliphate, it has not been researched yet whether these motivating factors are similar.

In the subsequent chapter, the preliminary profile of the characteristics of women who joined the terrorist organizations will be outlined. Afterwards, the literature review concerning the motivating factors of the women will be discussed. The third chapter will then explain the recruitment strategy of ISIS and analyze the themes used in their propaganda. A concluding part of the third chapter will connect the factors motivating the women and the recruitment and shed light on how ISIS appeals to the specific individuals. The fourth chapter will provide policy advice for counter-terrorism initiatives on the basis of the conclusions from the analysis. Furthermore, the threat of female returnees from ISIS controlled territory will be addressed. The final discussion section will put forward implications for the debate of the combination of gender and terrorism. Generally, the core argument of the thesis is that certain motivating factors are necessary as precondition in order for the recruitment to appeal to the individual. However, without the recruitment the individual would not radicalize for ISIS.

Chapter 2: Motivating Factors

In the following chapter, it will be examined whether specific characteristics can describe the muhajirat. However, because the emigration of western women to ISIS controlled territory is a current phenomenon, the findings are preliminary and it is not certain whether they are representative. The lack of knowledge is also caused by affected governments not disclosing these facts. Nevertheless, some studies were successful in gathering information, which will be outlined in the following. Afterwards, the literature review of the motivating factors will be presented. The factors will be divided into subsections, including sociological, political, religious, and psychological factors as well as female jihad [15] as a factor. To examine the influence of the recruitment on the radicalization process it is essential to first consider the factors which put individuals at risk for this process. This chapter will conclude with preliminary conclusions of the motivating factors.

2.1 Preliminary Profile of ISIS Affiliates

There is a consensus in the academic literature that in the Western world the individuals most vulnerable to radicalization are second- or third-generation immigrants or individuals that have recently converted to Islam.[16] This is also reflected in the preliminary findings concerning the women who joined ISIS.[17] Additionally it was found that Western affiliates are generally younger than non-Western affiliates.[18] The women who joined ISIS were mainly between sixteen and twenty-four and travelled to Syria or Iraq without their parents' permission.[19] A study by Huey and Witmer identified characteristics of "Fan girls", meaning women who openly advocate ISIS in online forums and blogs.[20] The researchers also found that the average age was under 25, the youngest being fifteen and the oldest thirty-two. The women were also mostly immigrants or recent converts.[21]

An important factor playing into the distorted Islamic view of these individuals is the fact that most recruits from the West cannot read the Koran in Arabic and believe in biased interpretations.[22] However, trusting these interpretations of the Koran does not undermine their education. On the contrary, the individuals attracted to ISIS are often well-educated, but frustrated with their life craving for belonging and identity. On average, Western affiliates of ISIS are higher educated as compared to non-Western affiliates.[23] Indeed, there were multiple adherents arriving in ISIS controlled territory holding PhDs in computer science, English or physiology. Furthermore, most of the recruits indicated that they graduated secondary school. Hence, individual education is not related to vulnerability to radicalization, as already outlined by scholars before the rise of ISIS.[24] Individuals involved in terrorism are often well educated, however mostly employed in low-skill jobs. Therefore, it is probable that the expectations exceed the reality of opportunities which may foster their frustration.[25]

No pattern can be found yet in the question of travel companions, because with whom the recruits travelled were highly divers among Western affiliates. Most of the times women and men made the hijra [26] alone or with friends or siblings. However, also families travelled together, such as the three sisters from Bradford who left with their nine children to Syria.[27]

These preliminary findings show some demographic facts about the Western recruits. But the question remains: Why do young, well-educated women who do not understand the Koran move to ISIS controlled territory? In the following paragraphs this question will be answered by analyzing the motivating factors of these women.

2.2 Literature Review: Motivating Factors

The motivating factors to join terrorist organizations vary considerably including religious, psychosocial, sociological, and political aspects.[28] Concerning ISIS, academic scholars who have worked on these motivating factors are rare, but in the following the main findings will be examined. Peresin, for instance, attempted to investigate into factors for radicalization of women by analyzing open source information on social media channels of identified ISIS adherents.[29] She outlines that the reasons expressed by women leaving their country to join the jihad are multifactorial, including the perception of alienation, the need for a strong meaning in life, romantic illusions, the wish to live in an Islamic state, and hatred on Western society.[30] Hoyle, Bradford and Frenett also investigate the muhajirat and categorize the factors in three components, namely the oppression of Muslims, individual duty, and building a caliphate.[31] When stating oppression of Muslims as reason to join ISIS, the women in the process of radicalization, reframe the world into a binary system, either fighting with or against the Muslims. This coincides with Peresin’s findings, who mentions hatred on Western society as a motivating factor to leave Western countries. This idea taken further may imply building a caliphate, as mentioned by Hoyle et al.[32] This connection shows that the motivators are intermingled, however to understand the different components, the main findings will be grouped to create an overview.

2.2.1 Sociological Factors

The outlined hatred against Western societies serves as an important sociological motivator for women to join the jihad. The hatred is caused by the experience of racial harassment and the evoked feelings of marginalization.[33] The harassment of Muslims may entail being the first one to be searched by the police or being insulted on the streets.[34] This is particularly prevalent for Muslim women, because they are usually easier to identify as compared to man when they wear a hijab. Experiencing racism fosters feelings of isolation and frustration, which makes individuals more susceptible to radicalization.[35] Additionally, it may evoke an inferior complex, as demonstrated by the interviews Khan carried out.[36] The interviewees mentioned that they were hated "for being Muslim or for being brown" and that "they were told what to dream about, that they cannot be the president".[37] Moreover, racist comments give individuals the perception of not being home, as one interviewee argued: "I feel like a Pakistani in England and in Pakistan I feel like an Englander." Furthermore, recruits prior to their emigration to the Caliphate stated: "There is no place or future for me here in this country."[38] These statements are triggered by the feelings of hopelessness, insignificance, and being a "foreigner".[39] Additionally, to direct racism, these feelings are further emphasized through small interactions, such as conversations in the supermarket or a "hello" by the postman that are normal in everyday life. When instead receiving hostile responses from society, it creates vulnerability and marginalizes the affected people.[40] These findings make it tempting to jump to the conclusion that integration is the nub of the matter of solving the problem of radicalization. Consequently, it is noteworthy that a lack of integration is not causal to radicalization; hence radicalism is not a by-product of such.[41] On the contrary, assuming this may be dangerous, because it leads to ineffective interventions which will be elaborated on in the fourth chapter.

In addition, another societal factor, which often concerns women in their adolescents, working as motivator is the "freedom" gained when joining ISIS.[42] This may sound wrong at first sight; however a lot of women come from Muslim communities with highly conservative values.[43] This entails arranged marriage, strict rules, and a focus on the honor of the family. Therefore, fleeing to ISIS controlled territory may provide the women with a sense of freedom concerning life decisions, such as whom to marry.[44] Foreign women arriving in Syria or Iraq can usually choose on arrival whom they wish to marry. However, this freedom is often temporary, since they flee into the control of their husband.[45] Nevertheless, first and foremost it was the women's own decision to leave their home country. The pressure from the family or community may also expand to sexuality. On the one hand, the women live in a highly sexualized Western society; however on the other hand, these women are not able to participate in the Western culture due to e.g. no sex before marriage policies. This may cause extensive problems, because the women are trapped between two worlds.[46]

However, strict parenting and daughters' longing to escape from it not only concerns Muslim adolescents.[47] Generally, parental control is stressing during adolescence and leaves some girls to take extreme measures.[48] This susceptibility to radicalization is part of a youth phenomenon, wanting to escape rules and boundaries and finding oneself.[49] Therefore, the hijra may be experienced with pride when viewing it as a form of taking control and escaping parental authority in search for the sense of belonging and identity.

2.2.2 Political Factors

Moreover, geopolitics serves as motivating factors provoking hatred and defiance, for instance the Western support for Israel. A young American who was about to board for Syria and arrested immediately before stated: "Why should the taxes of American Muslims go to support Israel? The government of Israel is using this money to kill Muslims in Gaza."[50] This shows that hatred on the West may work as a political motivator for susceptible individuals when support for Israel is viewed as an attack on Muslims. This anger over foreign policy also extends to other geopolitical decisions of Western countries, such as the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. These conflicts are viewed as a direct attack on the ummah which represents the imagined Muslim community with Muslims all over the world.[51]

2.2.3 Religious Factors

Furthermore, ISIS affiliates also argue that religion is a motivating factor for radicalization. Even though, most people in the Western world prefer living in a state under the rule of law, this does not imply that every citizen agrees with the respective national justice system. There are also individuals who value living under the Sharia law[52] as it was outlined by the Dutch woman Khadija who states on her blog: "I always wanted to live under Sharia. In Europe, this will never happen".[53] This demonstrates that the freedom to execute Islamism as extensively as it is possible in the Caliphate can serve as a motivating factor.[54] Although there is freedom of religion in Western countries by law, it is not necessarily tolerated by the population. This is illustrated by the fact that wearing a hijab[55] in public is often received as a sign of repression of women by the non-Muslim population. However, for Muslims wearing a hijab represents faith and liberation which endows honor and dignity.[56] Furthermore, wearing a hijab implies for women having the power and influence over their families. Taking this into consideration may show the potential of viewing ISIS as an escape of the victimization of Muslim women in the West where they are confined to exercise Islamism.

However, although religiously motivated travels to the Caliphate were a prominent narrative on social media of ISIS affiliates, the opposite was found to be true through ISIS leaked material. On arrival in the Caliphate, jihadists have to fill out an employment form where they have to indicate, among other information, their knowledge of Islam.[57] The analysis showed that the majority of the Western adherents rated their knowledge of the Sharia and Islam as "basic", which was the lowest category. As opposed to this, non-Western adherents which often stem from Muslim countries indicated an advanced knowledge of Islam. Additionally, it was found that two British affiliates ordered the "Koran for dummies" and "Islam for dummies" on Amazon in preparation to join ISIS.[58] The lack of knowledge of the recruits demonstrates that ISIS preys on religious ignorance which enables them to create a branch of Islam constructed to carnage and increase territory. Hence, knowledge of Islam is not a prerequisite; rather the opposite is custom.[59] This finding makes religious factors questionable as credible motivating factor for Western adherents. However, it may also suggest that the differences between the recruits are major concerning religiousness.


[1] Viano, Emilio, C. "Cybercrime, Organized Crime, and Societal Responses: International Approaches." (2016), p. 31.

[2] Rösing, Patrick. "Jung, männlich, aus der Stadt: Was europäische IS-Kämpfer gemein haben." (2016).

[3] Refers to the holy war against the enemies of the Islam.

[4] Zakaria, Rafia. "Women and Islamic Militancy." (2015), p. 9.

[5] Sherwood, Harriet, Laville, Sandra, Willsher, Kim, Knight, Ben, French, Maddy, and Gambino, Lauren. "Schoolgirl jihadis: the female Islamists leaving home to join Isis fighters." (2014).

[6] The Middle East Media Research Institute. "Islamic State (ISIS) Releases Pamphlet on Female Slaves." (2014).

[7] Female migrants. (2014).

[8] Peresin, Anita, and Cervone, Alberto. "The Western Muhajirat of ISIS" (2015), p. 503.

[9] Rabasa, Angel, and Cheryl, Benard. Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe. (2014), p. 3.

[10] Borum, Randy. "Radicalization into violent extremism I: A review of social science theories." (2011), p. 9.

[11] Saltman, Erin. M., and Smith, Melanie. "Till Martrdom do us part. Gender and the ISIS Phenomenom." (2015), p. 4.

[12] Winter, Charlie. "Women of the Islamic State: A Manifesto on Women by the Al-Khanssaa Brigade." (2015).

[13] Ben Ali, Saliha. "Foreign Fighters." (2017).

[14] Lamb, Kate. "Indonesian women being radicalised into would-be suicide bombers." (2017).

[15] This concept will be explained later in this chapter.

[16] Wilner, Alex S., and Claire-Jehanne, Dubouloz. "Transformative Radicalization: Applying Learning Theory to Islamist Radicalization." (2011), p. 420.

[17] Rabasa, Angel, and Cheryl, Benard. Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe. (2014), p. 139.

[18] Dearden, Lizzie. "Isis documents leak reveals profile of average militant as young, well-educated but with only 'basic' knowledge of Islamic law." (2016).

[19] Sherwood, Harriet, Laville, Sandra, Willsher, Kim, Knight, Ben, French, Maddy, and Gambino, Lauren. "Schoolgirl jihadis: the female Islamists leaving home to join Isis fighters." (2014).

[20] Huey, Laura, and Eric, Witmer. "#IS_Fangirl: Exploring a New Role for Women in Terrorism." (2016).

[21] Huey, Laura, and Eric, Witmer. "#IS_Fangirl: Exploring a New Role for Women in Terrorism." (2016), p. 4.

[22] Dearden, Lizzie. "Isis documents leak reveals profile of average militant as young, well-educated but with only 'basic' knowledge of Islamic law." (2016).

[23] Dearden, Lizzie. "Isis documents leak reveals profile of average militant as young, well-educated but with only 'basic' knowledge of Islamic law." (2016).

[24] Speckhard, Anne. "De-Legitimizing Terrorism: Creative Engagement and Understanding of the Psycho-Social and Political Processes Involved in Ideological Support for Terrorism." (2007), p. 258.

[25] Rabasa, Angel, and Cheryl, Benard. Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe. (2014), p. 3.

[26] The journey.

[27] Dearden, Lizzie. "Isis documents leak reveals profile of average militant as young, well-educated but with only 'basic' knowledge of Islamic law." (2016).

[28] Jabbour, Nabeel. "10 Reasons Muslims are Eager to Join ISIS." (2016).

[29] Peresin, Anita. "Fatal Attraction: Wester Muslimas and ISIS." (2015).

[30] Peresin, Anita. "Fatal Attraction: Wester Muslimas and ISIS." (2015), p. 25.

[31] Hoyle, Carolyn, Bradford, Alexandra, and Frenett, Ross. "Becoming Mulan?" (2015), p. 11-14.

[32] Hoyle, Carolyn, Bradford, Alexandra, and Frenett, Ross. "Becoming Mulan?" (2015), p. 12.

[33] Khan, Deeyah. "For Isis women, it’s not about ‘jihadi brides’: it’s about escape." (2015).

[34] Ben Ali, Saliha. "Foreign Fighters." (2017).

[35] Khan, Deeyah. "For Isis women, it’s not about ‘jihadi brides’: it’s about escape." (2015).

[36] Khan, Deeyah. "Jihad." (2016).

[37] Khan, Deeyah. "Jihad." (2016).

[38] Ben Ali, Saliha. "Foreign Fighters." (2017).

[39] Ben Ali, Saliha. "Foreign Fighters." (2017).

[40] Khan, Deeyah. "What Muslim extremists and rightwing racists have in common." (2015).

[41] Sadiq, Rahimi, and Raissa, Graumans. "Reconsidering the Relationship Between Integration and Radicalization." (2015), p. 48.

[42] Dearden, Lizzie. "Isis 'jihadi brides' trying to radicalise girls and encourage UK terror attacks online as they remain trapped in Syria." (2016).

[43] Hall, Ellie. "Gone Girl: An Interview With An American In ISIS." (2015).

[44] Kneip, Katharina. "Female Jihad – Women in the ISIS." (2016), p. 94.

[45] Khan, Deeyah. "For Isis women, it’s not about ‘jihadi brides’: it’s about escape." (2015).

[46] Khan, Deeyah. "Jihad." (2016).

[47] Khan, Deeyah. "For Isis women, it’s not about ‘jihadi brides’: it’s about escape." (2015).

[48] Speckhard, Anne. Bride of ISIS. (2015), p. 70.

[49] Kneip, Katharina. "Female Jihad – Women in the ISIS." (2016), p. 92.

[50] Jabbour, Nabeel. "10 Reasons Muslims are Eager to Join ISIS." (2016).

[51] Rabasa, Angel, and Cheryl, Benard. Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe. (2014), p. 34.

[52] Islamic law derived from interpretations of the Quran.

[53] Brown, Katherine. " Why are Western women joining the Islamic State?" (2014).

[54] Peresin, Anita. "Fatal Attraction: Wester Muslimas and ISIS." (2015), p. 24.

[55] Headscarf.

[56] Von Knop, Katharina. "The Female Jihad: Al Qaeda's Women." (2007), p. 409.

[57] Batrawy, Aya, Dodds, Paisley, and Hinnant, Lori. "Leaked Isis documents reveal recruits have poor grasp of Islamic faith." (2016).

[58] Batrawy, Aya, Dodds, Paisley, and Hinnant, Lori. "Leaked Isis documents reveal recruits have poor grasp of Islamic faith." (2016).

[59] Batrawy, Aya, Dodds, Paisley, and Hinnant, Lori. "Leaked Isis documents reveal recruits have poor grasp of Islamic faith." (2016).

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Gendered Jihad. Recruitment Strategy of the Islamic State
Leiden University
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Female Radicalization, Gender, Counter Terrorism, Recruitment, ISIS
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Helen Stenger (Author), 2017, Gendered Jihad. Recruitment Strategy of the Islamic State, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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