Gender, Insurgency, and Terrorism: Introduction to the Special Issue

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Small Wars & Insurgencies






‘A four-year military operation to flush out the Islamic State from its territory in Iraq and Syria ended as the last village held by the terrorist group was retaken in March 2019 … ’.1 In the months that preceded this final takeover in Baghuz, Syria, ISIS was dwindling in strength. Over a thousand fighters and civilians, including many Islamic State militants’ wives and children have fled.2 One thing among many that stood out was the fact that Western women, who once traveled to Iraq and Syria wanted to return. Such accounts of Western women who joined ISIS, the muhajirats are regularly featured in news reports now. American Hoda Muthana was 20, when she left Alabama to join ISIS. Kimberly Gwen Polman, 46 studied legal administration in Canada before joining ISIS and had dual US and Canadian citizenship.3 Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old woman who left Britain in 2015 to join the ISIS wanted to return home in February 2019 as IS was losing its foothold in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, she and two of her classmates from Bethnal Green in east London flew to Turkey from Gatwick airport and then boarded a bus to the Syrian border. They were known as the Bethnal girls and became the face of young women drawn to jihadist girl-power subculture.4 A pertinent question that arises out of these cases is – why these women joined the ISIS and were willing to travel to Syria and Iraq?

While Islamic State propaganda has changed in the recent years to allow and celebrate female participation in military roles, pointing towards an ideological appeal, it does not give us the entire picture while deciphering the motivations of why Western women joined ISIS. In October 2017, the movement’s newspaper called on women to prepare for battle, by early 2018 the group was openly praising its female fighters in the video.5 The video showed a woman holding an AK-47 and the narration described her as, ‘the chaste mujahed woman journeying to her Lord with the garments of purity and faith, seeking revenge for her religion and for the honor of her sisters.’6 There are clearly different motivations for some women compared to others to join such organizations. Participation of women in ISIS is also tactical to a large extent and the move to allow female combatants depicts a sense of desperation.7 While motives for joining ISIS are important to understand the inner workings of the group, another area of concern is related to counter-terrorism. As pointed out by Mironova, some government security forces are not always prepared to respond to the changing nature of combatants in ISIS.

Since 2011, at least 25 known cases of jihadist women with a connection to the US have emerged and they serve a variety of roles. The cases are diverse in demographic data, suggesting that an overarching profile of female jihadist is not applicable.8 These cases have renewed the discussion of understanding gender in terrorism and insurgency, not only in the context of ISIS but, in a broader context, applicable to different terrorist groups in various regions of the world also. This special issue focuses on gender, insurgency, and terrorism from different angles in various conflict regions in the world and looks at the diverse terrorist and insurgent groups.


Copyright and Open Access: http://sherpa.ac.uk/romeo/issn/0959-2318/