A new study of 25 U.S. women who’ve sought to join jihadist causes in recent years reveals no common profile, showing the difficulty in coming up with counter-extremism policies when the drift toward radicalism is so personalized.
The case studies, dating from January 2011 to September 2016, offer among the most in-depth looks to date at the motivations of a handful of American women who’ve been attracted to Islamic extremist groups.
The report, prepared by Audrey Alexander of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, examines the family ties, mental health, romances and other factors that shaped the women’s drift toward the radical end of the Islamist spectrum.
The study also touches on a trend that’s debated among terrorism researchers: Why are women who join jihadist groups often portrayed as misguided or duped when it’s just as likely that they were as ideologically driven as their male comrades? The trope of the “jihadi bride” – a naive wife or girlfriend who bumbled her way into the extremist world – is especially pervasive in the news media.
Alexander’s report reveals a much more nuanced reality that defies easy description – or countermeasure. She found that women fall into three main categories: plotters, supporters and travelers. And even within those categories, she writes, there are challenges to the stereotypes that “assume women are naively duped into participation or are depraved instigators of violence.”
Some of the women studied are notorious – San Bernardino attacker Tashfeen Malik is part of the tally – but many others made only the local news: two girlfriends from Queens, N.Y., who are accused of being al Qaida sympathizers plotting a bomb attack, a Virginia woman whose alleged support of the Islamic State included trying to recruit her sister, three Bosnian-born women who are accused of helping an interstate cell send money and military gear to foreign fighters in Syria.
The women come from 14 different states, range in age from 15 to 44 and aligned themselves with a range of extremist groups, including the Islamic State, al Qaida, the Taliban and al-Shabaab. Some appeared to act alone; others schemed in pairs or clusters. Some are accused of spreading propaganda via social media; others bought plane tickets and set off for faraway battlefields. They come from various races, educational backgrounds and social milieus.
In short, Alexander found, “an overarching profile of the American female jihadist is indiscernible.”
“These findings contribute towards the development of policies to respond to this threat, which must be met with a varied response,” Alexander wrote. “Moreover, the diverse backgrounds of these cases render monolithic approaches ineffective.”
Critics of so-called “countering violent extremism,” or CVE, initiatives have said for years that the radicalization process is too individualized for a broad, one-size-fits-all policy. And for all the media attention on women’s roles in extremist movements, the numbers show that there is no mass radicalization afoot in the United States. Indeed, Alexander’s study identified two dozen suspected women extremists in four years – from a U.S. Muslim population of more than 3.3 million.
Alexander urges policymakers to look at the issue of women jihadis on a case-by-case basis, to explore interventions rather than arrest in cases that don’t involve imminent danger, and to recruit defectors and women who’ve suffered under extremist groups to deliver cautionary tales.
“Women victimized by violent extremism can voice compelling narratives to counter the allure of the movement,” Alexander wrote. “Women who renounce their support for jihadi groups may offer potent perspectives that inform the public and deter individuals on their path to extremism.”