Jihad, Counter-Terrorism and Mothers

Women have had a limited presence in counter-terrorism discourses. When women come into view during conversations about terrorism they typically do so as the wives, daughters, sisters, and sometimes mothers of terrorist actors, or as the archetypal victims of senseless terrorist acts whose effects on the most vulnerable (women themselves) underscore the unacceptability of terrorism. The marginalization of women as combatants and their active engagement in non-state groups has been made more visible by high-profile and spectacular terrorist acts, including suicide bombings related to wars in Chechnya and elsewhere. Despite these appearances, women remain marginal to the conversations in which definitions of security are agreed upon and generally peripheral to the institutional settings in which security frameworks are implemented as policy and law. However, recent efforts to focus on radicalization and address the emergence of extremism in western democracies including the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, are brining a particular sub-set of women into public and policy space. These are the mothers of radicalized young Muslim men.

The Wall Street Journal recently brought attention to the UK campaign aimed mostly at Muslim mothers in a story focused on the experience of one British mother:

Majida Sarwar searched the bedroom of her 21-year-old son five days after he left on what he said was a university-sponsored trip. Mrs. Sarwar found a frightening six-page latter, addressed, “DEAR MUM PLEASE READ,” that sent her to the police …

Mrs. Sarwar and her husband worked with the UK authorities to help retrieve their son and his boyhood friend from an al Qauda-linked rebel group fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The article shows the increased attention UK authorities are paying to the role of women as ‘early warning systems’ for radicalization and as a means to keep young men out of Islamic State and similar organisations. At the macro level, the U.K’s Prevent Strategy articulates the core idea that “[w]omen can be a particularly effective voice as they are at the heart not only of their communities but also of their families…” 

At the micro-level the policy can often boil down to encouraging families generally and mothers specifically to monitor online forums, to check and oversee internet use, and to pay attention to greater expressions of religious practice by their children, as well as the articulation of strong views on the Syrian and other conflicts involving the Islamic State. Mothers are also are seen as having the relational capacity to bring young men back after they have traveled overseas being the ones who are most likely to remain in touch with their children, and thus in the strongest position to exert emotional and social pressure on the adult child to return home.

But, concerned governments alone are not the only ones targeting women and making appeals to motherhood. Terrorist organizations have demonstrated remarkable sensitivity to deploying gender-specific appeals to women as a recruitment tactic. Recent high profile cases involving the recruitment of three young women in the UK to the Islamic State in Syria underscore the point. The appeal to action includes feminist appeals for equal participation, the offer of redemption to women who have violated the gender norms of their own societies, revenge, nationalism, and religious precept. Specific mobilization efforts directed at the mothers of potential jihadists indicate that some organizations specifically hone in on the mothering dimensions of mobilization, at the very least to quell mothers’ objections to their sons’ involvement in violence or their vulnerability to harm and death. Indeed, as Farhat Haq notes there is a deep and “paradoxical relationship between women and contemporary religio-political movements that advocate the retraditionalization of women’s role as they actively mobilize women in public arenas.”

British efforts to engage mothers in countering extremism reveal the complexity and sensitivity of this terrain. In the Sarwar case, once the young men returned home, they were arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison, thus far the most punitive sentence for traveling to fight in Syria. The mother in this case clearly expected that her cooperation and active support to the return would result in a more lenient sentence. The UK’s policy, and specifically the prison sentences handed down in the Sarwar case, highlight the potential for backfire that can undermine the fragile trust between the police and the communities they seek to engage in countering extremism.

There is no easy answer here. More often than not, once an individual has left the country to engage in jihadist action overseas a crime has already been committed. The letter of the law accordingly dictates that if they return by means of an active family intervention the law enforcement logic runs up against the broader political goals of engaging Muslim communities, supporting their trust in the law and legal process, and offering the possibility of rehabilitation for the fighters who have returned. Engaging women as mothers runs another set of risks, not merely alienation and noncooperation if the fighter returns to significant punishment but also that we once again oversimplify the personal and social contexts in which these women live in ways that fail to appreciate the complexity of the roles they play in their families and communities. The targeting of mothers runs risks of placing women at greater risk of marginalization and exclusion when the state and communal understandings of the intervention and its meaning and value are different. Invoking the symbolic capital of motherhood to bring young men home or restrain their engagement in jihad puts these women firmly in the official spotlight. It subjects mothers to greater external and internal scrutiny precisely because the state has a utilitarian interest in harnessing the ‘motherhood’ card to its own political ends. When women hold lower social and cultural status within targeted communities such actions and exposure runs multiple risks. They include family and communal alienation, the strong possibility of being out of step with dominant community position on the methods used to counter extremism in Muslim communities and the grave risk of stepping outside of the boundaries of their accepted gender roles at home and within communities. In whatever realm we engage women in the insurgency and counter-insurgency sphere, we should remain wary of the sway of the apparently simple solution. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity. Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).