Updated: Jan 31, 2021
The plan to use women to launch the Islamic State's next incarnation involves female returnees teaching the glories of the caliphate to their offspring.
The woman’s secret flight from the caliphate took place more than six months ago, aided by a smuggler who helped her sneak across the Syrian-Turkish border one spring night. But in spirit, this red-haired exile from the Islamic State never truly left.
She covered herself in black from head to toe to greet a recent visitor to the small Moroccan house where she stays, and removed her veil only when assured that her guest, also a woman, was alone.
Over sips of mint tea, she spoke admiringly of her militant husband and the comrades she met in the Islamic State’s all-female brigade. Calling herself Zarah – she declined to give her family name because she had traveled to Syria in secret – she vowed that her children would someday reclaim the Islamist paradise she believes was stolen from her family.
“We will bring up strong sons and daughters and tell them about the life in the caliphate,” she said, fingering her teacup through black gloves. “Even if we hadn’t been able to keep it, our children will one day get it back.”
Zarah’s blunt-spoken fealty to the Islamic State was remarkable, given the physical and legal perils facing Islamic State residents who seek to return to former homes. But counter-terrorism officials fear that the sentiments expressed by the Moroccan woman may not be so unusual.
In recent months, women immigrants to the Islamic State have been fleeing the caliphate by the hundreds, eventually returning to their native countries or finding sanctuary in detention centers or refugee camps along the way.
Some are mothers with young children who say they were pressured into traveling to Iraq or Syria to be with their husbands. But a disturbing number appear to have embraced the group’s ideology and remain committed to its goals, according to interviews with former residents of the caliphate as well as intelligence officials and analysts who are closely tracking the returnees.
From North Africa to Western Europe, the new arrivals are presenting an unexpected challenge to law enforcement officials, who were bracing for an influx of male returnees but instead have found themselves deciding the fate of scores of women and children.
Few of the females fought in battle, yet governments are beginning to regard all as potential threats, both in the near term and well into the future. Indeed, as the loss of the caliphate has appeared ever more certain, Islamic State leaders in recent weeks have issued explicit directions to women returnees to prepare for new missions, from carrying out suicide attacks to training offspring to become future terrorists.
“There were definitely cases of women being dragged off to ISIS, but there are others who have been radicalized, including some who went on to assume important roles,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, a nonprofit organization that conducts field research on Islamic State deserters and defectors.
One Kosovo native interviewed by the center admitted that she returned home only because she was in the final weeks of pregnancy and wanted better medical care.
“She came out to have her baby but said she wanted to go back,” Speckhard said. “And, she said, she wanted both her kids to grow up to be martyrs.”
For months, terrorism officials have been expecting a wave of returnees from the caliphate. But not this one.
In Morocco, the North African kingdom whose coastline faces continental Europe from across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, just over 1,600 male fighters have traveled to Iraq or Syria since 2012 to join the Islamic State, along with a nearly equal number of women and children, according to figures compiled by the Soufan Group, a private firm that advises governments and corporations on security matters.
The flow of recruits from North Africa and Europe slowed to a trickle last year as U.S.-backed forces cut off the group’s supply lines and closed in on its final strongholds, and relatively few of the male fighters have come home, despite fears of a mass exodus as the caliphate neared collapse.
Instead, foreign consulates in Turkey have been besieged by hundreds of women and children – the wives, mothers and offspring of Islamic State fighters – seeking permission to return home.
Scores of Moroccan women have successfully returned – including some, like Zarah, who slipped in and out of the country unnoticed – and dozens more are waiting in detention centers in Turkey while their cases are reviewed.
Moroccan officials acknowledge that the women pose a dilemma for policymakers and law enforcement: the country is obliged to accept custody of its citizens, but there is no set policy on how to deal with them. Returnees who committed crimes will go to jail, but the law is less clear on how to treat wives and mothers with no record of violence or history of direct participation in extremist causes.
“All the women tell us the same story: their husbands went because of the financial benefits and they followed them because they had no choice,” a senior Moroccan official said in an interview, insisting on anonymity in discussing the country’s security challenges.
Most of the women who have returned so far appear intent on resuming their old lives and putting the Islamic State behind them, officials say. But the fear among security experts is that some of the returnees continue to hold radical views and will seek to indoctrinate family members.
“There are, first and foremost, their children, who they are supposed to bring up the way ISIS would want them to,” the senior official said.
Several recent Moroccan returnees interviewed by The Washington Post all seemed relieved to be home, describing an increasingly harrowing existence inside a caliphate strained by shortages and daily airstrikes and bombardments. Each agreed to talk about their experiences on the condition that their family names or locations not be revealed, citing fears of reprisal by Islamic State sympathizers in Morocco or arrest by the authorities.
“We were afraid of the rockets and bombings – my children would run into the corner and cry,” said Umm Zaid, who fled from Syria with her four children in July.
The family had immigrated to the Islamic State’s eastern al-Khayr province in 2015 thinking that “life might be better there,” she said. But once inside the caliphate, she found herself mostly confined to her house and feeling suffocated by the Islamic State’s strict codes.
Her husband, an employee in the local alms department, decided that the family would return to Morocco, but someone learned of his escape plan and betrayed him. The husband was arrested, while Umm Zaid and her children joined with other Moroccan families in fleeing north toward the Turkish border.
“We had to cross with our kids by foot,” she said.
Yet, months later, signs of the Islamic State’s influence persist. Most of the women interviewed continue to wear the conservative garb mandated by the Islamist militant group, including the niqab, a heavy veil that covers everything but the eyes.
“That’s my right; I can wear whatever I like,” snapped Umm Khaled, another recent returnee who brought three children home to Morocco, including one that was born in the Islamic State. “Allah gave the niqab to the women.”
Zarah was more candid in describing her initial attraction to Islamic State. She acknowledged that it had been her idea to move to Syria, and that she had persuaded her first husband to join the terrorist group soon after the caliphate was officially declared in 2014.
“I actually pushed my husband that we should travel,” she said. After arriving in Syria, her husband trained as a fighter and soon “became a martyr for the caliphate, thanks to God,” said Zarah, a woman in her late 20s with pale skin and long, henna-tinged tresses. “I loved him. But we all must make sacrifices for our beliefs,” she said.
Zarah eventually remarried and obtained a job in the Islamic State’s media service, where women who were generally barred from combat duty could serve a useful role in shaping the group’s propaganda.
She described being particularly inspired by Fatiha Mejjati, the 56-year-old widow of a Moroccan terrorist who rose to become the leader of the Islamic State’s al-Khansaa brigade, an all-female detachment that polices the group’s strictures against wearing makeup or showing bare skin.
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Mejjati’s reputation as a harsh enforcer of the group’s legal codes is supported by multiple witnesses and court documents that describe floggings of women suspected of breaking the rules.
Reached by The Washington Post through an intermediary, Mejjati said her “current situation” did not allow her to answer questions.
Zarah would soon join the brigade. She recalled how, in meetings, Mejjati would lecture other members about the obligations of serving as a woman in the Islamic State, including the duty to marry an Islamist militant and raise children to be soldiers of the caliphate.
“It was – and still is – our duty to have children and bring them up the right way,” Zarah said. She was unsure about the fate of her second husband, who had stayed in Syria to help defend an enclave that they both knew was probably doomed, at least in its current form. “We thought that even if they would try to destroy the caliphate, it will live on,” she said, “as long as we spread the idea of the Islamic State.”
For many of the women returnees, the obligations appear to extend beyond the nurturing of future terrorists. In recent months, a growing number of women have been tapped to carry out military operations, both inside the caliphate and in their home countries.
Since the founding of the caliphate, Islamic State leaders have traditionally discouraged women from serving as warriors or suicide bombers. But as the losses have mounted, the group has given female followers a broader mandate to kill.
In the most prominent recent example, commanders ordered dozens of female suicide bombers to throw themselves against advancing government troops in a last-ditch effort to defend Mosul, the Islamic State’s Iraqi capital. In September 2016, the group’s Syrian leaders guided a cell of five French women in a foiled attempt to carry out a terrorist bombing in central Paris.
An essay last month in the Islamic State’s official propaganda organ, al-Naba, sought to rally more women to the fight by invoking a famous female from Islam’s early history: Nusaybah bit Ka’ab, a 7th-century tribeswoman who took up a sword to assist the prophet Muhammad when he was surrounded by enemies in battle.
“It is not strange to the Muslim women today to have the sense of honesty and sacrifice and love for the faith, just like their predecessors of the mujahid women who supported Islam,” said the essay, according to a translation by SITE Intelligence Group, a private organization that monitors Islamist militant media.
Although the Islamic State never disallowed attacks by women, the group now appears to be openly encouraging them, said Rita Katz, a terrorism analyst and founder of SITE.
“The new call from ISIS will even allow husbands and fathers to push their wives and daughters to carry out attacks,” Katz said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase of women in ISIS-inspired or coordinated attacks in the West and elsewhere.”
Anticipating such a turn, several European governments have begun toughening their laws for dealing with women returnees. In Belgium, France and the Netherlands, prosecution and imprisonment are all but guaranteed for men and women who joined the caliphate and now wish to return home.
The Belgian government, after initially allowing some women and children to resettle in their former neighborhoods, is now preparing criminal proceedings against 29 female citizens who are seeking repatriation from Turkey, Iraq or Syria.
The prevailing perception of such women as victims has mostly vanished because of the political backlash over the March 2016 terrorist attack in Brussels, and recent well-publicized cases in which the children of returning families sought to radicalize classmates at school, Belgian counter-terrorism officials say.
The worry among European security experts is that some returnees will retain their radical views, even after spending time in prison. Such fears are bolstered by years of research that shows the difficulty of reversing the effects of extremist indoctrination, said Thomas Renard, a Belgian terrorism expert and senior fellow at the EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations, a Brussels think tank. The studies also confirm that mothers have proportionately greater influence when it comes to instilling radical views in children, Renard said.
“Since the returnees are mostly young women, there’s a possibility of still more children in the coming years,” he said, “and so there’s also a real possibility that these women will raise their children to accept a very radical version of Islam.”
Even with the imposition of stricter laws and mandatory prison sentences, some returnees could remain under the Islamic State’s sway for years to come, he said.
“We can safely say that when they come out of prison, a majority will not have de-radicalized,” Renard said. “And some will not have abandoned their allegiance to violent jihad.”