The recent arrest of a Virginia woman on charges related to her support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) highlights the growing phenomenon of female members and supporters of ISIS – a trend linked to ISIS propaganda and recruitment efforts aimed directly at women.
ADL documented eight female U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been suspected of involvement with terrorist groups in 2014 (only four were arrested; the others were minors). This is a sharp uptick: ADL documented only 12 female U.S. citizens and permanent residents arrested on terror charges between 2002 and 2013.
Six of the women believed to have engaged in terrorist activity 2014 are accused of involvement with ISIS. Estimates indicate that about 10% of the group’s Western recruits are female.
Heather Elizabeth Coffman, the most recent woman arrested in connection with her support for ISIS, had allegedly maintained several Facebook accounts on which she posted pro-ISIS messages and propaganda. Coffman claimed that she could facilitate travel to join ISIS for potential recruits, offering to connect them with terrorists abroad. She denied these activities in an interview with law enforcement and is charged with lying to federal agents about her involvement with ISIS.
ISIS messaging to women emphasizes their potential roles as the wives of fighters and mothers to the next generation of extremists. The terrorist organization has even established media wings aimed at women.
One such media outlet, Al Zora Foundation, publishes recipes and first aid suggestions together with posters of women in burkas declaring allegiance to ISIS. A recipe for dates with millet, for example, is provided as a “fast mild appetizer eaten with coffee that provides food for the muhajideen (fighters)…they are high in calories and provide the Mujahideen energy and strength.”
Al Zora has also provided advice to women seeking to travel to join ISIS. “How many female Muslims are distinguished from all female Muslims where her concern…and her life aspiration is the explosive belt?” asks one memo, followed by advice for these women to learn first aid, sewing, and cooking, and to participate in exercise and weapons training, as well as extra prayers and supplications that they can use to aid the fighters and teach other women upon their arrival in Syria. “Imagine with me, oh sister,” it states in the section on sewing, “if a mujaheed, a brother to you in Allah, is martyred and his jihadi clothes that he wore and in which he walked, trained, waged jihad, and afflicted the enemy of Allah, were made by your hands."
Another media outlet, Khansa Media, releases posters and banners with ISIS propaganda statements set alongside flowers and pink backgrounds. It has recently introduced a series of posters proclaiming the “virtues of women.” A video announcing the relaunch of Khansa media this September stated, “We send our message to [Iraqi Prime Minister] al-Maliki and his army that we are ready for him, and we will remain as assets and support for our husbands and our children,” followed by clips depicting women training with weapons.
Both Khansa media and Al Zora also regularly repost and retweet propaganda from ISIS’s primary media outlets. Sometimes they also add their logos to the corners of posters praising dead fighters and the glories of battle.
Multiple female supporters of ISIS also engage with the group’s content on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Ask.FM. These supporters post typical ISIS propaganda about fighting and beheadings alongside statements about modesty and extremist Islam. They emphasize their children (often their Twitter handles begin with the word “umm” which means ‘mother of’ followed by a child’s name) and everyday life, while providing tips to potential recruits and actively encouraging others to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the terrorist group.
Women engaging with terrorist groups is not a new phenomenon, nor is it ISIS specific. Two of the women arrested in 2014 who were not involved with ISIS are accused of supporting Al Shabaab, the Somali Al Qaeda affiliate. In previous years, women have been arrested for causes as diverse as attempting to establish a terror cell abroad to sending funds and aid to various terror groups to attempting to kill U.S. personnel abroad.