Shamima Begum: how Europe toughened its stance on women returning from Islamic State

Shamima Begum being interviewed by the BBC at a refugee camp in Syria. BBC News via YouTube

Around a year before Shamima Begum called for public sympathy for her return to the UK, another young woman was jailed in Baghdad for her role with the so-called Islamic State. Linda Wenzel is German and, like Begum, was 15 years old when she joined Islamic State in 2016.

In 2016 I was in Germany, trying to understand young women like Wenzel, for a five-country study on the gender dynamics of violent extremism with my colleague Emily Winterbotham, a senior research fellow at the RUSI think tank. We talked to communities and families affected by radicalisation in the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Canada.

These countries had diverse approaches to radicalisation. France produced counter-radicalisation strategies after the Paris attacks of 2015, while the UK and Netherlands have worked on policy to counter violent extremism since the mid-2000s. Both the Netherlands and UK permit deprivation of citizenship without criminal conviction – which is what has now happened to Begum.

We heard stories of people prevented from travel by police, as well as of both women and men who left for Syria and Iraq. Across the five countries we noted differences in how men and women were recruited, such as more cases of online approaches to women. We also saw how Muslim community anger was often reserved for the young men who fled to join Islamic State. Focus groups within Muslim communities often told us women were “naïve”, lacking in self-esteem, “tricked” by “lover-boys” they met online. They were seen as victims.

Back in 2015-6 this sentiment was mirrored in government policy. France, Germany and the Netherlands tended to treat women jihadists as “victims” of Islamic State. Recent research on returning foreign fighters in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands noted that back then women were “treated with more clemency” and routinely not prosecuted.

That position has changed, with toughening measures for both men and women across Europe. Countries including the UK, Netherlands, Germany and France now investigate and risk-assess both men and women returners. From a position where women and their agency in joining Islamic State were not recognised, the pendulum swung firmly in the other direction.

Hardening attitudes

The first reason why this shift happened was numbers. Countries have had to evolve to catch up with events on the ground. From the Islamic State’s announcement of a “caliphate” in 2014, Europe saw a significant minority of women travel – and women made up around 16-17% of the approximately 6,000 people who left Europe to join the caliphate.

In the case of France, which was new to counter-radicalisation strategies at home and where women made up around 28% of its returners, the shift in policy meant sharp changes to the law and procedures. Canada, which had fewer fighters, adopted a liberal response with few prosecutions of returners – both fighters and others. This prompted accusations from Canada’s opposition Conservative Party of a policy of “group hug sessions”.

A second reason for the hardening of attitudes to women who joined IS was increased knowledge of women’s role in Islamic State. Women were active propagandists, recruiters, ideologues, supporters of current warriors and producers of the next generation. They were involved in the abuse of other women, whether enslaved Yazidis, or in the al-Khansaa brigade, which policed women. Both Begum and Wenzel suggested they were only housewives. But for Islamic State, the wife is the key to the endurance – or baqiya – of both ideology and “caliphate”.

The perception of women’s threat was also explicitly influenced by cases involving women and a seemingly new phenomenon: the all-female jihadist cell. In 2016, three women were arrested in France after a failed attack near Notre Dame. This proved a game-changer for both public opinion and policy regarding returners, despite the fact that these women were radicalised in France. In the UK, another all-female plot was uncovered in 2017.

An increase in threat levels linked to male returners also had an influence on how women were viewed. In 2015, male returners were involved in the Paris attacks and the following year in attacks in Brussels. While women have not yet returned in large numbers, the fear is that women, newly recognised as ideologically committed, might also carry out an attack.

Camps have been set up for people fleeing Baghouz in Syria, Islamic State’s last enclave. Murtaja Lateef/EPA

The gender dimension

Both policy and public opinion are shifting from ignoring women in jihadist movements, to “adding” them in to counter-extremism strategies, and increasingly treating the threat they pose as equal to men. There is now an increased assumption in France, the Netherlands and Germany of parity in male and female potential for violence. However, it’s not enough to just to “add women” into existing strategies – governments must recognise the ways in which terrorist groups understand men and women differently.

This means acknowledging two important facts related to power. First, compared to men, instances of women perpetrators of jihadist violence are rare, not because women are “naturally” less violent, or do not support jihad, but because patriarchal jihadi ideology judges female violence highly transgressive. The second relates to the power imbalances in women’s radicalisation. Islamic State ran a systemised online recruitment campaign targeting women, with parallels to child sexual exploitation and grooming. Often older men sought out teenage girls. Women desperate to return emphasise their own victimhood. Some women radicalised to join Islamic State report experiences of sexual abuse, domestic or honour-based violence.

This doesn’t deny women agency or excuse them from complicity in Islamic State atrocities, but recognises the context within which their choices were made. It is more important now, in the current chaos of the end of the caliphate when many women may return to their countries of origin, including within Europe and North America, to recognise the complexity of what it meant to be involved in Islamic State.

Correction: This article originally stated that Linda Wenzel had been jailed in Baghdad a few days after Shamima Begum. It has been corrected to read that she was jailed in 2018, a year before.