When women become terrorists

Dr.G. Shreekumar Menon

Indians, especially Keralites, read with disbelief, shock and awe, the story of 22 year old Merrin Jacob Pallath, a Catholic girl from Kerala, working as an engineer in IBM Mumbai, her secret conversion to Islam and becoming Mariyam, clandestinely shifting to Afghanistan along with her converted husband, and, enrolling as members of the ISIS affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Her foray into terrorism, left her widowed twice, and burdened her with two children. Presently, she is held as a prisoner in an Afghan jail. What a downfall for a professionally educated young girl, leading a smart life in Mumbai, condemned to lead a sub-human existence in a jail in barren Afghanistan!  Three other women converts from Kerala sharing a similar fate are Sonia Sebastian alias Ayisha, Raffeala, and Nimisha alias Fathima Isa.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) had filed a charge-sheet in 2017 after a group of 21 men and women from Kerala, left India in 2016 in batches to join the ISKP in Afghanistan. They crossed over to Afghanistan on foot from Iran.

Sonia Sebastian, an engineering graduate, from Kasaragod, converted and married Abdul Rashid Abdulla, and went on to hold secret classes in support of Islamic State (IS), and later went to Afghanistan.

Of Hindu-Nair background, Nimisha Sampath, a student of Dentistry and belonging to a Nair family, who are among the 10-odd that are trustees of the famous Attukal Bhagavathy Temple, at Trivandrum, converted to Islam, and became Fatima Isa. She discontinued her course, about three months before getting her degree, and married Bexen Vincent, who had converted to Islam from Christianity. His brother Bestin, also converted to Islam and married Merrin Jacob alias Mariyam.

Raffeala was married to Dr. Ijas Kallukettiya Purayil, a physician from Kasaragod, and they left India, with their minor son via Hyderabad airport in June 2016 to join ISKP in Afghanistan. He was one of the IS terrorists who stormed a prison in Eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad in August 2020, but was killed by Afghan security forces. Raffeala is currently lodged at Kabul’s Badam Bagh prison along with her two children. Ten Indian women, widows of ISIS terrorists are currently held in Kabul’s Badam Bagh Prison.

There exists a static perspective of women as victims and men as perpetrators, but recent years have witnessed suicide attacks perpetrated by women suicide bombers. The roles that women are assigned in a terrorist organization range from support to actions and now often include positions within logistics, recruitment, suicide bombers, and operational leaders. The growing trend of women suicide- bombers has the general public and counterterrorism specialists concerned because of its implication that women will be key players’ in future terrorist attacks, as evidenced by the May 2022 murders of six people in the Al-Hawl displacement camp in the city of Hasaka, in Syria. This camp presently holds more than eight thousand female jihadists and wives and widows of ISIS come from more than 60 countries around the world, have been living in the camp since the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in March 2019. According to Save the Children, about 7300 children live in the camp under the guardianship of their ISIS-affiliated mothers who are rigorously indoctrinating them with ISIS ideology and instilling in them the desire to avenge their fathers who were killed or taken prisoner during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the American-led international coalition.

In order to uphold ISIS ideology and norms within the camp, these women have formed their own religious police units known as “Hesba” that administers severe punishment including murder, to local and international aid workers as well as to women in the camp who attempt to sever their ties to the terrorist organization. (The Crisis of Female Jihadists in Al-Hawl Displacement Camp: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 14th 2022) 

Among the ranks of the world’s most deadly female terrorists isSamantha Louise Lewthwaite also known as Sherafiyah Lewthwaite or the White Widow, who had masterminded over 400 deaths including slaughter of 148 people at a university in Kenya. The 32-year-old Samantha Lewthwaite, a graduate of London University and mother of four, is the widow of one of the London 7/7 suicide bombers, Germaine Lindsay. Her fourth husband was a Somalian warlord known as Sheikh Hassan.

Presently, believed to be in Yemen, she is understood to have recruited female suicide bombers, and also sent male suicide bombers as young as 15, high on heroin, to their deaths. As a teenager she was seduced by the teachings of extremist cleric Trevor Forrest, or Sheikh Abdullah el-Faisal, through whom she met Lindsay, who killed himself and 26 others in 2005. She has pledged to raise all of her four children, who have three different fathers, as jihadists. Interpol made her world’s most wanted woman terrorist after her involvement in a Nairobi Mall attack. There are unconfirmed reports that she had joined the Ukraine conflict, and was killed by a Russian sniper.

A famous name of a leading woman terrorist of India, is that of Asiya Andrabi, who founded the all-women separatist group, in Kashmir, the banned Dukhtaraan-e-Millat (DeM, daughters of the faith), in 1987. Andrabi married Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, a founding member of terror outfit Hizbul Mujahideen in 1990.

ISIS had the policy to recruit brilliant young women from around the world. A good proportion of the recruits were highly educated women, which is in opposition to the common view that portrays terrorists as uneducated. The Internet is used as an excellent recruitment tool for both men and women. The media attention that various terrorist organizations receive serves as indirect recruitment advertisement. Increased access to the Internet, as well as an increased proficiency, has allowed individuals within terrorist organizations to use this as another way to propagate their ideology as well as to lure susceptible minds to join the organization. Moreover, the propaganda literature, freely available on the internet, is no longer limited to the geographic region in which, the terror group operates, but is accessible throughout the globe.

ISIS’ women accounted for approximatively 20 to 30% of ISIS membership. The average age was under 25 years old. In terms of the total Western foreign fighters, women constituted 20%, and their number was between 550 and 2500. 40% of French recruits for ISIS were female, and this number represented 220 women in 2015. In 2016, at least 60 women left from the UK to join ISIS. 

An all-female policing unit called Al-Khanssaa was created by ISIS, to enforce stringent socio-religious practices such as strict dress codes among women recruits. Their main task was to ensure that women complied with the ISIS’s radical interpretations of Islamic law. It was a very violent outfit administered by fanatic women, inflicting harsh punishments on women, even for minor deviations from rigid dress codes to behaviour. Interestingly, the many top positions in the terror outfits were invariably occupied by Western women and not local women.

Many women worked as online recruiters and their job was to feed the jihadist propaganda to attract Western women recruits. Some were writers in ISIS’s online magazines that called on women to support male jihadists and to raise their children to believe in an extremist ideology. Some were employed as nurses or had jobs related to medical care or were in charge of facilitating marriages. ISIS used some women to terrorize other women, some others to recruit new members and others as sex slaves while using all of them to sustain and spread the ideology to the next generations. All the women who joined ISIS have come from different religious, financial, and social backgrounds.

The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 defines the context of Women, Peace and Security. It was ratified in 2000 but is still the standard reference for international institutions when examining women and peace, or women in conflicts. It advocates for the need to recognize the importance of the role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, and peacebuilding. It also urges governments to integrate a gender perspective in conflict resolution and prevention as well as to increase the role of women in decision-making at all levels. In terms of women’s human rights, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 stresses the necessity to protect women and girls in conflicts, as “conflict does not affect women and men in the same way or in the same proportions.” Finally, it stresses the ubiquitous nature of gender-based violence in conflicts. However, it needs to be emphasized that this Resolution failed to address the plight of the Yazidi women who were subjected to extreme sexual violence, despicable barbarity, and executions.

The strange formula of religious conversions and thereafter inter-religious marriage, culminating in terrorism, is happening clandestinely in India. As this has international ramifications, the Government needs to maintain a close and strict watch on the happenings. As a matter of abundant precaution, the Government should make it compulsory to register all religious conversions and inter-religious marriages, and share the information with the State Police/Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and National Investigation Agency (NIA). Neophytes proceeding to terror sensitive countries, can be apprehended before any dastardly crime can be committed. This information can be shared with intelligence agencies of other nations as well, who are bound to be affected by these non-State players.

The author, Dr Shreekunar Menon, is former Director General of the National Academy of Customs, Indirect Taxes & Narcotics, and Multi-Disciplinary School of Economic Intelligence.

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