For decades, terrorist organisations have targeted women for recruitment. Deployed as suicide bombers for Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Tamil Tigers, and Hamas – to name but a few – women have also died serving in frontline roles. Yet we are now faced with a new group of female terrorists that are proving difficult to prosecute. These are the women who joined Isis and now want to return home, often with their children in tow.
New pictures of Shamima Begum, released this week, serve to underscore this point. Begum’s story captivated the British public when she left the UK with her two friends to join Islamic State in 2015, aged 15. After the collapse of Isis, she was discovered in a refugee camp in northern Syria in 2019. Her subsequent interview with the Times created a national furore, when she declared that seeing a severed head in the bin ‘didn’t faze her at all’. She has since apologised, and like the dozen or so other British women living in limbo in Roj camp in Northeast Syria, now declines to speak to the media.
With Begum’s new Western clothes and hair free from the niqab, it is difficult not to see her change in wardrobe as a shift in mindset. But as her British citizenship has now been stripped (an option also deployed against white men such as Jack Letts) we may never know, in a British court at least, whether she has truly seen the error of her ways.
The best response to a crime is a punishment proportionate to the offence. Yet herein lies the complexities of prosecuting women who are a part of terrorist organisations. The Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill currently making its way through Parliament would increase the maximum penalty for three offences from 10 to 14 years: membership of a proscribed organisation, supporting a proscribed organisation, and attending a place used for terrorist training. Increasing sentences, however, fails to address the problem of finding sufficient and admissible evidence to prosecute.
It is true that women who were part of IS were often active as online propagandists and recruiters. But their involvement in other types of activities, including violence, was less prominently documented online because their role was to serve as wives and mothers. While social media evidence has been successfully used in several cases against women returnees who were shown to be inciting terrorism online, these cases often come with legal complexities.
While a small number of women have been prosecuted for recruitment and fundraising, it is hard to establish whether the extent of a woman’s association with IS was voluntary or coerced. Many women who left camps, such as Shukee Begum who claimed IS was ‘not her cup of tea’, have suggested they were duped into joining the organisation. It will be equally difficult to determine whether their belief in the ideology has actually changed upon leaving.
Further adding to this complexity is the lack of clarity around whether new and amended laws, such as attending a place used for terrorist training, can be applied retrospectively. And when it comes to the far-right – repeatedly cited as the UK’s fastest growing threat – offences on attending a place for terrorist training become even less useful. Irrespective of gender, members of far-right organisations are more likely to stay at home in Britain than travel to a ‘caliphate’, like members of IS did. You won’t see much citizen stripping of these terrorists, if at all.
One alternative approach could be to couple terrorism-related offences with other charges, such as those related to war crimes, to prosecute those women who want to return home. These could include inhumane and degrading treatment of people, particularly against the Yazidi population. Jennifer W., a German covert to Islam, went on trial in Munich in April 2019, with a charge sheet that included murder, war crimes, and membership of a terrorist group. Other charges that could be introduced by the government include child recruitment into an armed group, parental abduction of minors, or neglecting the duty of care and education of children by taking them to a place of harm.
When it comes to the role of women in terrorist organisations, gender bias can cut both ways. Women are either seen as victims that are ‘groomed’ or duped into joining a group, or vilified for their support for terrorism, which is seen as a transgression of gender norms. The use of women in terrorist organisations is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Investigations and prosecutions must keep up with new constraints by adopting hybrid approaches to face a problem that will keep knocking on Britain’s door, asking to come home.