The number of French women joining the ranks of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria is on the rise, say figures reported in the French media on Thursday, a sign of the increasing importance placed on female recruits by the organization.
French authorities have long been concerned by the number of the country’s citizens undertaking the journey to the Middle East to wage jihad, particularly should they then return to France to commit terrorist acts on home soil.
The dangers of this were made apparent in the terror attacks on Paris in November last year, with several of the perpetrators French nationals who had fought in Syria.
Until recently, the vast majority of French nationals making the trip to Syria have been men. But figures from a confidential report by intelligence agencies seen by France Info show that women now make up more than a third (35 percent) of French citizens travelling to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group, up from just 10 percent in 2010.
And the numbers are still rising. As of September last year, 164 French women were thought to have made the journey to join the IS group, France Info reported. By December that number had risen to 220.
The figures also reveal that one-third of the female recruits are converts to Islam, rather than raised Muslim, compared to just one sixth of French males fighting with the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
According to Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, the figures seem credible.
“It confirms a trend that has been ongoing since 2013,” he says.
French and other foreign women travelling to IS group’s Middle East strongholds are, however, likely to fulfill a very different role within the jihadist organization’s self-proclaimed caliphate to their male counterparts fighting on the front lines.
“They don’t fight, they don’t have the right,” says Nasr.
Instead, their most likely role will be as wives to jihadist fighters – men they may well have already committed to marrying before leaving for Syria or Iraq and will meet in person for the first time upon their arrival.
French journalist Anna Erelle described in her book “The Skin Of A Jihadist” how an Islamic State group member in Syria attempted to recruit her online in 2014, believing she was a 15-year-old girl interested in jihad.
“It’s my job to recruit people, and I’m really good at my job. You can trust me. You’ll be really well taken care of here. You’ll be important. And if you agree to marry me, I’ll treat you like a queen,” the recruiter told her.
But rather than peripheral figures confined to carrying menial tasks under the Islamic State group women instead form a key part of the organization’s vision of a functional Islamic state, says Nasr. “It is wrong to think they just handle cooking in the kitchen or they are just there to have children. They have an education role, teaching in schools. We also see many women acting in medical roles, both for the IS group and other Islamist groups. “They are preparing the next generation of jihadists. The IS group believes they are building a new model of society and in any model of society women are needed.
In the eyes of the jihadists, Western women are particularly useful in this role.
“Western women who join jihadists groups tend to be very motivated for ideological reasons, more so than women who are already on the spot in Syria or Iraq,” says Nasr.
Another role awaiting some Western women travelling to Syria is membership of the Khansaa Brigade – an all-female religious police force that operates in territories controlled by the IS group, tasked with enforcing its strict interpretation of Islamic teachings.
Infringements such as wearing make-up or dressing in a way that does not sufficiently hide their body shape can invoke the wrath of the Khansaa Brigade for women in Mosul or Raqqa, with whippings, beatings and worse among the punishments reportedly meted out.
According to reports from former members, foreign women are well represented within the Khansaa Brigade’s ranks.
That women are crucial to the Islamic State group’s strategy is evidenced by the apparent effort the organization has put into recruiting Western women and girls.
One known tactic is to use social media accounts allegedly maintained by Western women who are married to jihadi fighters to convince others to follow them to Iraq and Syria.
“By creating content specifically targeting female jihadi supporters, the [Islamic State group] is able to establish a pipeline to assist Western women in traveling to Syria … and contribute to the formation of their new society,” a 2015 report by the SITE Intelligence Group said.
For those women who do make the journey to join up with the jihadist group, it is often a one-way ticket, with reports of those wanting to return home again being prevented from doing so or even killed – as in the case of Austrian teenager Samra Kesinovic, reportedly beaten to death after trying to flee Syria.
Shukee Begum, a British woman who travelled to Syria to be with her husband, told the UK’s Channel 4 News in an interview in October how she would “love to go back to the UK”.
“This is what I want to make clear as well to other women thinking of coming into [Islamic State group] territory – that you can’t just expect to come into [its] territory and then expect that you can just leave again easily. There is no personal autonomy there at all,” she said.
It is a warning that vulnerable young women in France and elsewhere seem not to be heeding.