In spring 2014 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria it instigated the largest mobilization of foreigners to a terrorist group in history. This included thousands of women from at least 80 countries. Women were active members and held diverse roles conducting activities such as recruiting, disseminating propaganda, fundraising, and in some cases calling for violence.
One of the significant changes that occurred under the Islamic State was the significance, scope and impact of these activities via the online sphere. This article will expand on some of these roles and what the online space meant for these, in doing so raising important considerations of the diverse roles women play in relation to extremism online more broadly.
One of the most visible roles that women took in the Islamic State initially was the online recruitment of other women and even men. This was done via both open platforms such as Facebook and Twitter when women would call for others to come join them in the Islamic State. This would also be through more expansive long-form essays such as personal blogs like Tumblr, Ask.fm, kik and so forth. Aqsa Mahmood was one of the most prolific examples of this and had a long-standing blog that chronicled her daily life in the Islamic State and the period leading up to this. Here, she would also take questions from other women and advise them on how to travel to Syria.
Specific measures taken to draw others to the Islamic State included positive portrayals of life under the caliphate, posting pictures of the comforts of everyday life available in what was an active conflict zone and images portraying a sisterhood in Iraq and Syria. Sometimes this would include pictures with weapons as was the case with the account of Zaynab Sharrouf who was suspected of posting a photo to Twitter with five women holding up guns. Women would also publicly shame men into travel, highlighting that as women they could make it the caliphate (sometimes alone or with children) then so could these men.
In Islamic State online propaganda, including English-language publications such as Dabiq and later Rumiyah, the organization would often have a specific section dedicated to the ‘sisters’ and women would be directly targeted in the Islamic State’s messaging. Such direction to women in official publications often highlighted limited roles for women in official propaganda. In fact, often it was in unofficial public postings that women would feature in images geared towards combat including with arms or weapons. However, this did not negate from the fact that women often reposted, reshared and otherwise disseminated official Islamic State propaganda.
Women such as Bird of Jannah, later identified as an Indonesian woman, created many catchy, attractive memes that were widely circulated on the internet. Using catch lines such as ‘Marriage in the land of jihad: Til Martyrdom do us part’ or personal stories about her life under the caliphate, she was widely recognized amongst Islamic State women online and helped encourage other women to participate in the group.
Women would also engage in fundraising online in support of the Islamic State, and for their own requirements as connected to the group. This not only included setting up gofundme accounts and other such drives, but even included the use of bitcoin and other crypto currencies to send money to members of the group. From al-Hol camp following the fall of the caliphate in January 2019, women even set up fundraising campaigns called “Justice for Sisters” to hire human smugglers.
Women have, in some cases, also been vocal proponents of violence. Early public statements by Islamic State women such as Sally Jones called for, and anticipated forthcoming attacks in the UK. She was also married to the hacker Junaid Hussein who released U.S. military personnel’s personal information. Others such as Khadija Dare also called for violence.
The roles that women affiliated with the Islamic State took online are diverse and contributed to the everyday functions and even successes of the group. The cases above encourage researchers and practitioners to be aware of the diverse roles that women play online, and how these contribute to the broader aims and structure of the group. It also encourages us to consider the gendered nature of these – how do opportunities and access online differ from those that may be available to women offline? Recruitment, online propaganda, fundraising and calls for violence are only a handful of these aspects to consider and prove important for considering both women’s roles, and gender dynamics online more broadly.