In the aftermath of the battle for Mosul last month, pictures emerged of a terrified and dust-covered 16-year-old Caucasian girl being led away by the jubilant Iraqi forces who had captured her. German authorities subsequently confirmed that the girl was Linda Wenzel, from Pulsnitz, near Dresden, who had been radicalised online before travelling to Syria to join Islamic State (IS) in July 2016. She was found in a tunnel system with four other German women and a badly malnourished baby, before being transferred to a jail in Baghdad.
The capture of Wenzel has highlighted the role of foreign women and their children in IS’s conflicts. As many as a hundred women are believed to have left Britain for IS territory since 2013, and more than 500 from Europe as a whole.
Until now, much of the media focus has been on the male members of IS. They travelled in the greatest numbers and were responsible for the terror group’s most heinous crimes. But as the IS project crumbles in Syria and Iraq, it is the fate of the women and children that presents one of the biggest challenges to local authorities – and Western governments.
Several complex legal questions must be resolved. For example, the 16-year-old British schoolgirl Amira Abase, who travelled to Syria along with two friends from Bethnal Green in 2015, married an Australian fighter called Abdullah Elmir. They had a baby before Elmir was killed in battle.
Where does this leave the child if Abase is now killed or captured? Since neither the British nor Australian governments recognise the child as their citizen, it is, in effect, stateless and condemned to life in the lawlessness of a state – Syria – that is unable to ensure its well-being.
This is not an exceptional case. Hundreds of children have been taken from Europe to IS territory by their parents, while scores of others have been born there to foreign extremists. What happens to these children will be an important marker for the long-term disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of vulnerable people caught up in the brutal wars in Syria and Iraq.
IS will not give them up easily. What makes the terror group unique in its use of child soldiers is its brazenness. When children were used in other conflicts – such as in Cambodia or Sierra Leone – their commanders sought to downplay or even conceal their role. Not so for IS. Fighters have regularly given children star roles in their propaganda.
British children have featured in at least two execution films. The son of Sally Jones was 11 years old when he appeared in an IS video dressed in camouflage alongside several other children. Grown men kneeled before them, wearing orange overalls, accused of being spies. They were then executed with a shot to the back of the head. Jones is a convert to Islam who took her son to Syria in 2014 and married a British fighter from Birmingham called Junaid Hussain, who was later killed in a drone strike.
Another British woman, Khadija Dare, from south London, also converted and travelled to Syria, where she married a Swedish fighter. The couple had a son called Isa, who appeared in an execution video, pushing a button that detonated a car full of explosives. Inside were Kurdish fighters accused of fighting against IS. Dare has expressed her desire to be the first female IS executioner. That moment may be fast approaching.
Until recently, women had largely been tasked with working in schools or hospitals, indoctrinating children or helping wounded soldiers recover. But when the situation in Mosul became increasingly desperate this year, IS launched a wave of female suicide bombers against the Iraqi army.
Omar Hussain, a fighter who uses the nom de guerre Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, wrote on the semi-encrypted Telegram messaging service that the same will happen in Syria. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to push into Raqqa, the main IS stronghold in the country.
British women are not yet thought to have become suicide bombers, but it is only a matter of time until they do. Our research at King’s College London shows that women are often more ideologically motivated as IS recruits than their male counterparts.
Appeals to men are often based around simplistic and emotive binary choices. The focus on masculinity and camaraderie is coupled with stories of martyrdom and its virtues. In 2015, the average British male fighter in IS lived for just nine months before being killed.
By contrast, only a handful of Western women are confirmed to have died with IS, killed in drone strikes that targeted their husbands. The absence from combat suggests that women’s motivations for joining IS are different to men’s and involve a much more considered understanding of its ideology.
This goes against much of the popular narrative framing the women as passive and unsuspecting victims of IS propaganda. In the majority of cases, these women have demonstrated a zealous commitment to the ideology of the terror group. They are among the so-called caliphate’s truest believers.
Iraqi authorities believe that Wenzel, the 16-year-old German girl, was a member of the Khansaa brigade, a brutal wing of IS responsible for ensuring that “morality” codes are imposed on women.
What will happen to Wenzel and the other foreign women of IS – who, unlike the men, are more likely to be captured than killed – is uncertain. Some European governments have been reluctant to prosecute female returnees. Others, including Britain, have opted for prosecutions. What is clear is that the women’s problems – and, more importantly, those of their children – will not go away when IS does.
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia