Last month, the Defense Department’s inspector general issued a detailed report on conditions in the al-Hol refugee and detention camp in rebel-controlled Syria. In al-Hol, tens of thousands of women and children who once lived under the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State are now being held in dire conditions. Yet minimal security permits women to spread the Islamic State ideology uncontested — resulting in what some observers are calling “a reign of fear.” If the extremist group continues to exert influence in the region despite its lack of a physical stronghold, these women will bear responsibility.
Eighteen years since the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, violent extremism persists unabated. The United States has spent nearly $6 trillion to counter terrorism, yet the number of Islamist extremist fighters last year was 270 percent higher than it was in 2001. Globally, right-wing extremism poses a rising threat. In the United States, all but one terrorist killing last year was tied to right-wing extremism.
So far, U.S. national security leaders have consistently neglected one vital factor: the participation of women. According to our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, many extremists recruit and rely upon women as facilitators, martyrs and critical sources of income. Yet U.S. counterterrorism strategy often ignores the roles that women play in violent extremism — as both perpetrators and victims — and rarely enlists their participation in efforts to combat radicalization.
Women have been active participants in 60 percent of armed rebel groups over the past several decades. Women-led attacks are on the rise: the Global Extremism Monitor registered 100 distinct suicide attacks in 2017 (11 percent of all attempted suicide attacks that year) conducted by 181 female militants. Using social media, modern extremist groups are recruiting unprecedented numbers of women with targeted messages. Once radicalized, female extremists use social media platforms to take on greater operational roles in the virtual sphere.
Domestically, over the past 20 years, the number of female supporters of violent political organizations across the ideological spectrum has grown dramatically, from white nationalist militias to environmental extremist groups. Some, such as Islamic extremist Tashfeen Malik (one of the attackers in the 2015 massacre in San Bernardino, Calif.), have perpetrated deadly attacks on our homeland. Women also have a critical presence among American jihadists who have traveled to Syria. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a woman from Flint, Mich., was one of the first known American Islamic extremists to have been killed in Syria.
Women are not only perpetrators, of course. They are also victims who are exploited and used for material gain. Extremist groups from Boko Haram to the Islamic State to al-Qaeda benefit strategically and financially from suppressing women’s rights and the enslavement of women, allowing extremists to control reproduction, harness female labor and even generate revenue through trafficking.
Yet despite the growing role of women in violent extremism as both perpetrators and victims, U.S. counterterrorism strategies consistently omit women from terrorism prevention efforts. This cedes the benefit of their involvement to extremist groups while forfeiting the potential contributions of women as mitigators against extremism. Women are well positioned to detect early signs of radicalization, because fundamentalists often target women’s rights first. As security officials, women provide insights and information that can be vital in keeping the peace. And they are crucial anti-terrorism messengers because of the prominent role that many women play in their families and communities.
When it comes to protecting the homeland, U.S. law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system often suffer from the same blind spots. Radicalized American women tend to commit the same types of crimes and have about the same success rate as radicalized men. Yet they are less likely to be arrested and convicted for terrorism-related crimes, highlighting a discrepancy in treatment and leaving a security threat unaddressed. And when it comes to combating radicalization, women’s groups are rarely considered relevant partners in counterterrorism efforts, and their work remains chronically underfunded.
To help prevent and reduce terrorism, the U.S. government should produce intelligence reports analyzing the many and varied forms of support women provide to extremist groups. National security officials should invest at least $250 million in women’s efforts to fight militancy. Anti-terrorist communication strategies should include messages that target women, both those at risk of radicalization and those poised to mitigate against it. And the United States should improve the recruitment, retention and advancement of women across the security sector to bolster the capacity of forces to mitigate potential terrorist threats.
It is long past time for the United States to recognize the rise in women’s participation in extremism over the two decades since 9/11. As terrorist groups increasingly deploy women’s participation to their strategic advantage, our government can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which women can strengthen our counterterrorism efforts. The collective security of all Americans depends on it.
Jamille Bigio, senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. Rachel Vogelstein, the Douglas Dillon senior fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, served in the State Department during the Obama administration.