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10 Reasons Western Women Seek Jihad and Join Terror Groups

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.& Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

As published in Homeland Security Today

PDF here

Abstract: This paper is based on the research interviews of 101 ISIS returnees, defectors, and ISIS prison cadres conducted by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). It examines the motivations that Western women, in particular, had for “seeking jihad,” i.e. joining ISIS and al-Qaeda related violent extremist groups. Namely, it delineates ten motivations sets for joining such violent extremist groups as well as the roles women played in such violent extremist groups. Understanding the influence of the socio-political and cultural contexts in the geographic locations in which Western women were and continue to be recruited, and the gendered phenomena of ISIS recruitment, can inform thoughtful prevention efforts and result in improvement in rehabilitation and reintegration outcomes for those who return from violent extremist groups like ISIS.


ISIS and al Qaeda have managed to attract hundreds of Western women into their ranks—from Europe, Canada, Australia, the Balkans, and North America. According to some estimates, 13 percent (4,761) of the total 41,490 travelers to the Islamic State were women. Approximately 17 percent (7,366) of the total 41, 490 have returned home, with women comprising only 4 percent among those who returned(256).[i]

Table One below serves to illustrate some estimates for Western women who have traveled to Syria and Iraq, as well as the percentages of women compared to the totals traveled.[ii]

While terrorism, and especially militant jihadi terrorism, is still a man’s game and run predominantly by men, many wonder how violent extremist groups like ISIS, known for its misogynist ideology and mistreatment of women, could draw record numbers of Western women into its ranks.

Recently, with the near territorial defeat of ISIS, Western countries were worried about the return of foreign fighters, particularly men who were weapons trained, ideologically indoctrinated, and battle hardened. However, the fear of a massive reverse flow of male returnees from the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria did not materialize, primarily due to many migrating to other theaters, being killed, or being imprisoned. Instead, it is women who are returning, or at least hoping to return home, as they and their children await their fates in prisons in Syria and Iraq or still inside the group seek means of escape. From our research interviews with women who have managed to return it’s clear that women faced more difficulties than men escaping ISIS as they rarely had access to funds, often had to have a male chaperone and could also fall subject to the sexual predation of the smugglers who were necessary to help them cross out of ISIS territory.

Some of the women, who travelled to Syria and Iraq, did so with children while others went seeking marriage, and both categories bore children inside of ISIS. According to one Iraqi official interviewed by ICSVE, of the 700 ISIS females currently held in Iraqi prisons, most had more than three children. As these women’s fates are considered and some of them begin to return home, it is important to understand why they traveled and joined ISIS in the first place, as well as their experiences inside the terrorist group.

Researchers at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have to date interviewed 101 ISIS defectors, ISIS returnees, and ISIS imprisoned cadres worldwide, with women comprising approximately 10 percent of the overall sample. In our field research, we have studied their trajectories into terrorism, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining, their roles and experiences living inside the terrorist group, and their reasons for leaving in the cases of those who left. While only a tenth of our interviews have been with women, all of our interviewees shared their knowledge about female ISIS members, including their motivations for joining and experiences inside the group.

While we will briefly discuss the roles women played in ISIS in the ensuing sections, as the topic was discussed in greater detail in other ICSVE reports, we will predominantly focus an examining the motivations that Western women, in particular, had for joining the group. In this regard, our research indicates that socio-political and cultural contexts as well as geographic location in which one is recruited help to explain why and how women decided to join. Understanding the reasons Western women joined ISIS can inform both thoughtful prevention efforts as well as more effective rehabilitation and reintegration interventions for those who return.

Experiences in the Group

Most ISIS women did not undergo the same weapons and shariah training that many of their men undertook. They also did not necessarily swear their bayat (oaths of allegiance) to the group. According to our interviews, Western women, were singled out to work in the ISIS hisbah,or morality police, or serve as Internet recruiters of both men and women. Not all accepted this invitation, as many were occupied raising small children at home. Some also served as teachers, medical workers, administrators, and even in combat roles. But generally speaking, their professional roles were strictly gender segregated and limited by the group. For the most part, ISIS women performed the roles of mother and wives and were encouraged to serve the state via procreation, meaning supporting their ISIS fighter husbands and training and indoctrinating the glories of the “Caliphate” to their offspring to fight for and support the Islamic State.

ISIS Recruitment of Women

Violent extremism and radicalization of all types, whether right wing, anarchist, ethno-nationalist or militant jihadi, are profoundly gendered phenomena, and groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are no exception to the rule. Violent extremist groups tend to delineate gender roles and identities in a binary and idealized state: showcasing “real” men and “real” women, lionizing men in their macho, aggressive, and protective roles, and portraying women as following what ISIS believes to be their biological imperative to procreate, nurture, and dominate in the domestic sphere. In their recruiting efforts worldwide, ISIS propaganda pushed out images of hyper-masculinized men bearing weapons, emulating their gaming heroes, and protecting their females, while women were idealized as supporters and victims needing rescue, by “real” men, particularly from Islamophobic Western societies that ISIS claims wants to rob them of their dignity and Islamic heritage. In addition, women taking up arms and acting outside of these strictly delineated gender roles, were used to shame and deplore the lack of men willing to come to their defense, making it necessary for women to act as men.

Sexuality was also often used as a means of seducing both men and women into the group, with females promising themselves as sexual partners to men willing to travel to marry them. American, Mohammed Kweiss, who traveled to Turkey and married an ISIS “sister” and then traveled with her into the group, may have fallen prey to such seduction.[iii]Anna Erelle, the pseudonym of a French journalist, chronicled the seduction occurring to her online avatar on Facebook by a French ISIS fighter who contacted her the same day she posted his ISIS video. [iv]He offered her marriage, riches, a hot sexual life and love. She admits if she had really been the young, vulnerable woman she was pretending to be, he would have been devastatingly seductive. UK women traveling to ISIS joked about “jihotties” and appeared motivated in part by the adventure of traveling to marry “bad boys” and “real men.”

While ISIS is often viewed by the West as a highly misogynist organization, ISIS recruiters specifically targeted Western women to travel to Syria and Iraq with language that offered a conservative version of female empowerment in which they would be emancipated from Islamophobic societies and perhaps also freed from families that may have been overly controlling. In this regard, ISIS made multiple promises to potential recruits in Dabiq, their English language online propaganda magazine, including that they would find in travel to ISIS in Syria and Iraq the possibility to fulfill their religious duty, become important state builders, experience deep and meaningful belonging and sisterhood, and live an exciting adventure in which they can find true romance and increased influence.[v]

Likewise, some Western women who joined ISIS Tweeted, blogged, texted and otherwise communicated to the women in their country of origin that they were enjoying material benefits of homes, money and household items (all seized from their enemies), as well as being issued weapons (e.g. Kalashnikovs) and being given great power over others if they served in the ISIS hisbah. They also communicated about enjoying pursuing and building an idealized Islamic state free of marginalization, discrimination, or any of the Islamophobia they may have encountered before in their home countries. Likewise, they told about finding true love and living a life aimed toward the afterlife with all the rewards of death by “martyrdom”.

Female Reasons for Joining

After interviewing over 500 male and female terrorists—or in the case of dead suicide terrorists—their family members, close associates or hostages, Speckhard identified four usually necessary and sufficient factors to create a terrorist.[vi]These include the group, its ideology, social support for the group and its ideology, and individual vulnerabilities that break out by conflict zone and non-conflict zone.

In the case of Western women, they are living in non-conflict zones. All the same, Western women may be highly influenced by what is happening in conflict zones, especially given that groups like ISIS are adept at prompting responses and appealing to people’s idealism by bringing graphic video footage of war-scarred Muslims countries to cultivate their narrative that Islam, Muslim lands and Muslims are under attack from the West, hence the imperative that jihad is called for. Likewise, through its media arm, ISIS is also very good at publicizing in real-time the events occurring in the battle zones as well as the attacks they have undertaken, or even just claimed credit for, around the globe. Moreover, during the state-building phase of the so-called “Caliphate”, ISIS was adept at portraying it as a functioning state with real benefits and services to those who would come to join.

Ten Motivational Sets for Western Women Joining

From our in-depth interviews of former ISIS members and their family members, and also studying the case trajectories of many others written about in the scientific literature and in the press, ICSVE researcher have found that given a careful analysis of cases that ICSVE is aware of and has worked with, that at least ten clear motivational sets emerge into which Western women joining ISIS fit. While none of these categories are mutually exclusive, and overlap most certainly does occur, they each give a good explanation of the various ways groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are able to play upon the vulnerabilities of Western women and motivate them to join. Faced with the return of such women, the categories offer insight into the needs and vulnerabilities in their lives that may need to be addressed, in addition to all the trauma they have undergone from their time living under ISIS, and the possibility of them also potentially being ideologically indoctrinated, weapons trained, and dangerous.

The ten categories are listed below in Table Two and discussed herein with examples given for each.


True Believer– The true believer believes that the terrorist group represents the true Islam, and in the case of ISIS, seeks to help build its Caliphate. This type of woman is also often tired of conflicting social demands put upon her by her family and subgroup to live purely, while the mainstream marginalizes and discriminates against her for expressing her Muslim identity.

Umm Mohammed, a 32-year-old Dutch of Moroccan immigrant descent and an ISIS wife was interviewed by ICSVE researchers in October 2018 in a detention camp in Syria. She recalls living in Holland and hearing about the Islamic State. “I believed that every Muslim has an obligation to live where they can practice their Islam. Their propaganda was very strong. ISIS was strong. Western media also was a big hype. ISIS took over half of Iraq in three or four days. I wondered, maybe this is the state that that Prophet foretold would come?”

Umm Mohammed, her husband, and their three children traveled by car to Syria. Upon arrival, her husband was taken immediately to shariah and weapons training while she and her children were taken to Raqqa and put in an ISIS women’s house. She recounted, “[When we got to ISIS territory,] we had to give our passports, our phones, tablets, etc. That was unexpected. They separated men from the women and took us to Raqqa. It was a big shock.  For me and the other women, it was basically a prison. It was really bad, I felt regret directly.”

Natasha, a thirty-year-old Russian ISIS wife interviewed by ICSVE in October 2018 in a detention camp in Syria, recalled how she converted as a young woman. “I took Islam because I knew there is a God. But my parents were not happy. They thought that Muslims are terrorists,” she added.  Her parents eventually accepted her new faith, but when Natasha married a Muslim who was also new in the faith, the two of them were convinced by friends to travel to the Islamic State. She stated, “We went to Raqqa thinking it will be the real Islam, but instead it was very hard. We were new Muslims, so we had not seen what is the real Islam.” Natasha and her husband both immediately regretted joining. However, ISIS tried to force him to fight for the group and beat him when he refused. Natasha stated, “I was taken to Raqqa for two months and put in a women’s house. It was a prison really. You couldn’t go out. It was terrifying [under ISIS]. First of all, the bombardments. And you couldn’t trust the people next to you. Many were informants for ISIS.” The couple eventually found a way to escape but ended up arrested by the YPG and are both now in detention camps in Syria awaiting their fates.

Salma, a 22-year-old Belgian interviewed by ICSVE in August 2018 in a Syrian detention camp recalled how her father was searching for an authentic Islamic life, having first tried Tunisia, but having been disappointed. She explained how she naively followed him into ISIS, “My Dad, he wanted to live a really Islamic life. My Dad came first [to the Islamic State] and he called me [in July 2015]. He just said life is better here. You can wear your whole hijab and we’re not oppressed here.”  Within a short time of being there, Salma agreed to marry and got pregnant. In the same time frame, all three family members began to realize that ISIS was an un-Islamic, brutal and corrupt organization, and they tried to escape. Their two attempts were both thwarted, with the first ending in her father’s imprisonment and torture, followed by her husband also being arrested for refusing to fight with ISIS. Their second attempt to escape ISIS ended in tragedy for Salma. “[When we tried to escape ISIS,] they started shooting on us. Theykilled all the men. [My father] died in front of me. I got a bullet in my back and a bullet [in] other places.” See ICSVE’s counter narrative video of Salma’s story here.

Both of these women expressed their desire to return home but are uncertain if their governments will take them back. While they are true believers and still follow Islam, they did not appear dangerous. Salma, for instance, will never return to ISIS given they killed her father.

Avenger– The avenger is angry over geopolitics, discrimination, marginalization and secondary traumatization, and believes the group can address these issues and will change the world for the better. Generally speaking, the avenger imbibes heavily of terrorist rhetoric, coupled with consumption of graphic images from the conflict zones that convince her of injustice. She is angered enough to take action by joining the group and seeks to act on behalf of victims to revenge for death, harm, arrest, torture, loss of land or resources, or other grievances.

Bangladeshi third-generation immigrant Roshonara Choudhryfits this category quite well. As a top undergraduate communications student at Kings College in London, Roshonaraencountered the sermons of Anwar al Awlaki on the Internet. Gradually hooked by Awlaki’s claims that Muslims have an individual duty to fight jihad and angered over the U.S. Coalition’s invasion and war in Iraq, Roshonara slowly began withdrawing from her daily life. She downloaded Anwar al Awlaki’s videos and watched them carefully as she undertook her own version of hijrah, or withdrawing from the “unbelievers” she was living amongst.[vii]Even though about to graduate, she quit university with the claim that one of its school departments was wrongly supporting Israel’s aggression against Palestinians. Likewise, as she became convinced that she needed to take action on behalf of beleaguered Iraqis suffering under the Western coalition’s invasion of Iraq, she researched which local Parliamentarians had voted for the war. Deciding against traveling to the battle zone to carry out her jihad, she took two kitchen knives and went out to meet Labour MP Stephen Timms in his office, where she plunged a knife in his stomach twice. In going over her case, police were unable to find any other active links to terrorists other than Roshonara’s avid consumption of Awlaki videos. Apparently, his poisonous cocktail of hate and online urging to avenge for the wrongs done to Muslims spurred her into action.

Joiner– Seeks to belong, relates to the “fictive kin” of the Muslim ummah, and seeks love, sisterhood, protection, and fellowship of the group. American Shannon Conley likely fit this category in the first stage of her radicalization and movement toward joining ISIS. A convert to Islam at age 17, she donned a nikab, changed her name, and started perusing Internet chat rooms. Online, she searched for a new life and how to fill in her new identity. Shannon also found the writings of the ISIS and al Qaeda ideologue, Anwar al Awlaki, who although already killed in a drone strike, was still alive and well on the Internet preaching his message of hate. Shannon became convinced of his hateful messages. In joining extremist chat rooms, she also came to learn more about the plight of Palestinians and other Muslim victims in conflict zones, which brought her into the militant jihadi narrative of Islam, Muslim lands, and Muslims being under attack by the West.  As a result, Shannon deepened her belief that as a new Muslim convert, it was her individual duty to act on their behalf. When questioned by the FBI, she admitted that had she considered carrying out a VIP attack inside the U.S. While she abandoned that plan, she was ultimately arrested after falling in love over Skype with an ISIS fighter and trying to board a plane to travel to marry him and join the group.[viii]She ended up serving a four-year prison term in a maximum-security facility. As she continued into ISIS, Shannon also fits the category of Avenger and Romantic.

Becoming Someone– Seeks significance and purpose in life. She is also on a quest for a positive identity and a mission in life.

Jamila, a 24-year-old German, whose father was an immigrant to Germany from Kosovo and her mother from Turkey, was an ISIS wife interviewed by ICSVE in October 2018 in a detention camp in Syria. She fell into ISIS while searching for her identity as an immigrant descent and Muslim woman living in Germany. During the interview, she recalled, “I was living in a very good family. We don’t have any problems with money. My parents give me everything. I was sewing. I was a well-known dancer. I finished high school. I was working as a secretary. I wanted to be a teacher of calculations. Then, I met a woman who told me, ‘Come, you are Muslim.’ I never entered one mosque. My family did not have this practice.”

“She also said that I am a Muslim. I should go,” Jamila recounts. “At the mosque, I saw a child reciting the Quran. He was 3 years old. I felt ashamed. You are Muslim and don’t know Quran? [I wondered]. I began to learn.”

Jamila experienced Islamophobia from those who did not accept her donning a headscarf:  “When I wore my hijab, everyone [in Germany] was like, ‘Oh my God, why does she have this underwear on her head? I have a German passport, I was born in Germany, I studied there, and people tell me to go home.”

Jamila fell under the influence of extremists. She also married another conservative Muslim. The two of them became convinced that their best way to follow their newfound religion was to travel to ISIS. Jamila explained how it all started with her husband’s friendsinciting him to come to Syria, further adding,  “Then their wives came and tried to talk me into it. They said, ‘This is our religion. You are new in your religion. If you want to know more about your religion, you need to go to ISIS. Because there is the home of the real Islam. They will teach you everything from A to Z.’ So, I said to my husband. ‘Why don’t we go? I love my religion.” Her husband agreed, and they departed to Syria to live under what they believed to be an Islamic State.

Jamila, too, was very disappointed immediately after entering ISIS territory: “They put me in a woman’s house in Raqqa. All around [were] masked men with Kalashnikovs. I was shocked.” At that time, Jamila discovered she was pregnant. She recalled wondering, “How will I raise my child here? No food, dirty, sleeping with no mats, no bed, I sleep on my clothes. [When we tried to escape,] ISIS police said, ‘I will kill you in front of your husband.’ Then they put him in prison and threatened him, ‘We will cut your head and put it next to your wife and do the same to your wife.’”

Now, Jamila, her young child, and her husband are separated in two different detention camps in Syria.

Adventurer– She looks for fun, romance, adventure, sexual and otherwise. She follows men who display heroism and masculinity –”jihotties.” Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15 (at the time) of Bethnael Green Academy school in London fit this particular profile.[ix]In 2015, they ran off to Syria to join ISIS. They were lured by descriptions and promises of glory and honor of being the wife of a jihadi while living in an ideal Islamic State. Marrying a jihadist, or the lure of romantic adventure, served as an appealing prospect for the schoolgirls. They viewed their travel to Syria as a romantic journey and an extension of teenage rebellion, where they would have a choice in Syria and make an active decision to leave provided they chose so.[x]  Similarly two schoolgirls in Austria followed the same path. Both of them ended up killed in ISIS territory.

Romantic– Falls in love or is seduced into loving. She follows her heart into the group. In 2014, Daniele Green, an FBI translator for the Detroit FBI office with a top-security clearance, was tasked with helping to investigate Denis Cuspert, a German rapper prior to joining ISIS, where he became a key ISIS operative and prolific online ISIS recruiter.[xi]However, Daniele fell in love with Cuspert and slipped away to Syria to marry him. Later, when she came to her senses, she managed to escape Syria and return to the United States.

Materialistic– She seeks material rewards. She joins for a salary, a better housing, and a better life. She is also motivated by criminal gains. In Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan, villagers told ICSVE researchers about a grandmother who enlisted her daughter, daughter-in-law, and their children into traveling to Syria believing that ISIS was paying salaries and giving signing bonuses for joining. The grandmother and her extended family were profoundly disappointed. Months after leaving, only one of the grandsons made it back, after having been smuggled out of ISIS, with a note from his grandmother. The note contained a message cautioning the remaining family members that they had been deceived and were hopelessly lost. Similarly, Kosovar women encouraged their husbands in their travel to join ISIS and followed them for the salaries they hoped to earn and housing benefits, etc. which far outstripped what they could earn at home.

Submissive– Adheres to traditional roles. She obeys husband, brother or father, and follows them into violent extremism. In addition, those coerced by blackmail, rape, dependency, etc. are included in this particular category. S.A., a thirty-four-year-old Kosovar who had survived war in the nineties and was married in her late twenties after finding a more conservative version of Islam, told ICSVE researchers in June of 2018 how she followed her husband blindly into ISIS. Recounting how he had offered to take her to Montenegro to find better paying jobs for each of them, she claimed he took her to Turkey instead, where he admitted his real plans to travel into and join ISIS. The two were traveling with their two-year-old daughter, a grievance for which S.A. still finds it impossible to forgive him, despite the fact that he died serving ISIS. She also stated that while he went off to train and fight for ISIS, she lived in the ISIS-run women’s house with other ISIS women, with whom who she could not communicate. Each time her husband returned from fighting, she begged him to take her out of ISIS, but he refused. Being a small-town girl from Kosovo, she had no idea how to escape or return home—despite her frequent pleas to her husband to take her home. According to her claims, her husband had prearranged for her to be returned home in the event he died, as she made it home with the assistance of ISIS fighters.

While often male security professionals—law enforcement and intelligence officials — refer to the “zombification” of females and the traditional norms dictating that conservatively religious women follow their husbands into ISIS, ICSVE researchers have found that these cases are not necessarily the rule.  Some women even in traditional roles still generally retain their agency but may decide to follow their husbands into ISIS believing their material lives will improve or that the Caliphate will offer both a better chance of pursuing a pure Islamic lifestyle.

Escape Artist– Runs away from real-life problems. She lives under difficult abusive and oppressive conditions at home and seeks to gain her independence from such conditions. Belgian Laura Passoni interviewed by ICSVE in January 2017, fit this category. Jilted by her Islamic husband and father of their toddler son, in a heartbroken state, Laura decided to create a new conservative Muslim Facebook profile of herself—letting it be known that she wanted a serious, believing partner. Instead, ISIS found her. A Brussels-based recruiter contacted her, and as Laura recalled it, he was adept at seducing her into the group and offering her answers to all her perceived problems: “He said women had status there and were considered precious. We women could go join ISIS to enjoy Paradise there. He said I would have a villa, that I would be rich. He really sold me a dream, that I would have all I wanted in Syria.” This recruiter also offered to take her as his second wife, which Laura declined.

She did find a suitable match, however. She found a young man who she married and travelled with into ISIS believing that ISIS would offer her escape from her problems in Belgium. The Belgian ISIS recruiter also promised to help her obtain a job as a nurse, enroll her young son into good schools, and provide her with free housing and other material benefits while supporting a stable and enduring Islamic marriage. She was disappointed on all counts, stating,  “All they said to me was a lie. It was not what I was promised. We women, are just there to procreate. We can’t go out alone. We can’t go shopping. We have no money. We have nothing. We have no rights. We were prisoners there.”

Laura’s profile also fits the materialistic and romantic categories to some extent. Her example could also be considered a success story of an ISIS returnee. Upon return, her two children were taken from her and put in the custody of her parents while she was prosecuted and found guilty. She received a stay of sentence stipulating that she cannot travel or be in contact with her husband, who received a four-year prison sentencefor associating with a terrorist organization.[xii]Laura later regained custody of her children and now goes around to high schools lecturing to students about avoiding violent extremist groups based on her own experiences inside ISIS. See ICSVE’s counter narrative video of Laura’s story here.

Redemption Seeker– Seeks to purify herself for past “sins”, “gangsta” lifestyle or debauchery in the past. In the extreme, this includes the suicidal, desperate and depressed woman who becomes convinced that dying, as a “martyr” is her best option for redemption and to escape her painful circumstances. The “gangsta” criminal type who converts, or reverts, to radical Islam often continues in her life of crime and continues to work her criminal network, now on behalf of the group, and often becomes a criminal leader as well.

Benedicte, a 28-year-old French ISIS wife, interviewed by ICSVE in August 2018 in a detention center in Syria recalled, “I was a party girl doing cocaine. Then I converted to Islam and I stopped everything. I found myself in Islam. My parents put me out of the home. They were beating me too. I wanted to escape. I started chatting on the Internet. A man told me, ‘This is Paradise here, and you have to come.’ It was a man who I wanted to marry.”

In some ways, Benedicte was also seeking an escape. Her time in ISIS was fraught with problems. She discussed how she and her husband wanted to escape from the group and how she fell under their suspicion:  “I was wrongly accused of putting a chip in the building to guide the aerial bombings. They said, I was a spy for France and told me, ‘If there is any doubt about you, we will cut your neck.’ In Raqqa, they were putting the heads of those they beheaded on sticks. I saw this. This is not Islam. It’s useless to come to ISIS.”

Beatrice, a 31-year-old Belgian and an ISIS wife interviewed by ICSVE researchers in August of 2018 in a Syrian detention camp explained her reasons for joining: “I had jahiliyyah(ignorance of Islam), so when I entered in Islam, I wanted to change my life. Because for me, it was very bad what I had done [before], smoking hashish, alcohol. I wanted Allah to forgive me. This is the dream of all Muslims. After, I learned a little about Islam and I heard about hijra[the extremist belief that Muslims should migrate to lands ruled by shariah law]. And [that’s when] I fell to ISIS.”

Beatrice hopes to return home but notes that ISIS supporters are still active both in the camp in which she is detained and back home in Belgium. She stressed how she still fears them, adding, “[People in Europe still join and support ISIS] because they don’t know the truth. When we got there, we found out it was false. What is hard [about detention in Syria] is that we don’t know when we will go back, if we will go back. And what will happen with our children? If they will get sick, if they will have school here, because they [now] play with stones.”

Indeed, the issues of ISIS women returning home also involve their children, as most brought or bore children inside ISIS. Moreover, while the children detained in the camp have not committed any crime, including in cases like Beatrice, they are being held in detention camps without vaccinations, good schools or the opportunity to exercise their legal rights and return to their homelands.


ISIS has deftly managed to delude both men and women into its ranks, although in our experience interviewing both genders, it appears that women were often far more naïve in their hopes and dreams about joining the Islamic State. In fact, none we have interviewed ever expected to fight for it, and once inside it, most were more innocent in their roles. That said, we also came across some women who were sadistic and cruel in their actions, such as in the case of a woman who was flogging other women and biting them with metal teeth. In addition, some women strongly incited their men to fight. Many of the women, however, at least in their own recounting, supported their men when both parties became disillusioned about ISIS to stop fighting, even when their men were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and flogged as a result.

In any case, it is important to understand the motivations of Western women for joining and their experiences inside the group. While this is only a brief overview of the motivational factors of Western women joining ISIS, we must be thoughtful in how we respond. Given that ISIS continues to recruit, with an estimated 100individuals still attempting or traveling to Syria and Iraq each month to join, it is evident that preventive counter measures targeting Western women, as well as men, need also be developed.[xiii]Likewise, such counter measures need to creatively redirect women to fulfill the needs that the ISIS claims to be fulfilling, while also discrediting and delegitimizing the group’s claims to be Islamic, pure, and able to deliver a utopian Caliphate. Only by so doing can we begin to understand the attraction of the messages delivered by the Islamic State and other violent extremist groups.

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne; Shajkovci, Ardian (Nov. 20, 2018) 10 Reasons Western Women Seek Jihad and Join Terror Groups Homeland Security Today


[i]ICSR. (2018). From Daesh to ‘diaspora:’ Tracing the women and minors of the Islamic State,” available at

[ii]CTED. (2018). “ The Challenge of returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters: Research perspectives, “ available at

[iii]Speckhard, A. (2016). “ American ISIS defector—Mohamed Jamal Khweis and the threat posed by ‘clean skin’ terrorists: Unanswered questions and confirmations, The Huffington Post, available at

[iv]Moroz, S. (2015). “ The woman who betrayed an ISIS chief,” The Daily Beast,available at

[v]Wahlberg, L. T. (2017). “ Seven promises of ISIS to its female recruits,” ICSVE,available at

[vi]Speckhard, A. (2016). “The lethal cocktail of terrorism: The four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role,” ICSVE,available at; Anne Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant Jihadi terrorists, mass hostagetakers, suicide bombers & martyrs. McLean, VA: Advances Press; Speckhard, A., & Yayla, S. A. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. McLean, VA: Advances Press LLC.

[vii]Dodd, V. (2010). “ Profile: Roshonara Choudhry,” The Guardian,available at

[viii]Martinez, C., Cabrera, A. & Weisfeldt, S. (2015). “ Colorado woman gets 4 years for wanting to join ISIS, “ CNN,available at

[ix]The Daily Star. (2016). “ Why do British -Bangladeshi women join IS in Syria, “ available at

[x]Alibhai-Brown, Y. (2015), “ Girls and the lure of mad, bad men,” The Independent,available at

[xi]Glover, S. (2017). “ The FBI translator who went rogue and married an ISIS terrorist,” CNN,available at; Morley, N. (2017). “ FBI translator falls in love with ISIS terrorist she was assigned to investigate,” Metro,available at

[xii]Cigainero, J. (2016). “ Entering is easy. Leaving is not: Why this Belgian woman joined ISIS,” USA Today, available at

[xiii]Defense Post. (2018). “ Foreign fighters continue to join ISIS in Syria, US joint chiefs chair says,” available at

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