In the aftermath of the assault on Mosul, we have gained significant insights into the scale and substance of the brutality experienced by civilians during the occupation by ISIS and the effects of sustained siege and the military onslaught on the city’s residents. A steady stream of reporting has drawn attention to the treatment and fate of ISIS fighters captured while the Iraqi military and their allies secured the city. The overwhelming images of women and children coming out of the city show fleeing refugees, abandoned families, lost children and women who have experienced a range of brutal human rights violations. Women fighters and collaborators are also being identified in the military mop-up. The Associated Press (AP) reports that women from Chechnya, Russia, Iran, Syria, France, Belgium and Germany have already been arrested. Their status and treatment brings new attention to women’s roles as combatants and enablers of violent conflict and extremism. Western women who joined ISIS, and are now being identified among the ranks of those detained, pose particular legal challenges for both host country and their countries of origin.

Another AP story, which surfaced last week, illuminates some of these complexities. According to the story, a French woman and her four children were reportedly captured, and the mother is now facing potential prosecution in Iraq for collaborating with ISIS. The location of the children’s father has not been determined. The AP story outlines that:

Two Iraqi intelligence officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the woman is being investigated in Baghdad and could face terrorism charges for illegally entering Iraq and joining IS, and that the French government wants the children handed over to France.

French consular officials have been pushing for permission to see the family since their arrest earlier this month — but the French government has shown no interest in having the woman brought home.

Leaving the specifics of this case aside, reports of alleged collaboration are very difficult to substantiate and the factual determinations often remain murky. Alleged collaboration with non-state actor groups in highly fraught conflict or post-conflict contexts is always uncertain terrain. The evidence basis for arrest and detention is not always robust because the conditions of evidence gathering are chaotic. The basis upon which individuals may be accused of support to ISIS (or other organizations) can be highly individualized, open to manipulation, or highly opaque, leaving plenty of scope for revenge, ill-informed or sectarian enforcement. It remains to be seen whether the legal process pursued by the Iraqi courts hold to reasonable standards of evidence gathering, as well as enforcing legal standards that conform to fair trial provisions under international human rights norms. Providing reasonable legal standards for determining membership in non-state organizations, collaboration, and the applicable thresholds and legal responsibility for actions undertaken as a collaborator or as a member of an illegal organization, have proved notoriously difficult to enforce fairly in other jurisdictions. Separate to these generic issues are the specifically gendered dimensions of collaboration or membership in non-state terrorist organizations.  

These gendered dimensions include the somewhat problematic set of factual challenges that follow when women accompany spouses who engage in violence or join ISIS. In these contexts, there are complex issues of presumption (i.e. should we assume that a woman who follows has made a decision to ‘join’ an organization per se or is she following familial or spousal obligations/pressures to remain with a spouse?). Other issues include consent and assuming derivative responsibility as a spouse to a member of an illegal or extremist organization. When thinking about consent, it is worth considering the extent to which the choice of leaving a relationship and/or a geographical location might be meaningfully exercised when the threat of violence or ongoing hostilities make it practically impossible to leave. Moreover, there will doubtlessly be cases in which there may have been an original consent to accompany a spouse or join a potential partner overseas, but that material changes in circumstances will have negated that consent over time. However, it would be naive to presume that all women in such circumstances have been coerced or subject to threats to remain or participate in the group. We should never presume that a women is innocent of engaging in violence or support to violence merely because she is female and/or a mother. Those two features do not make women (or any person) incapable of exercising autonomy in joining an extremist organization or lending support to them in a myriad of ways.

These arrests in Iraq also expose the multiple challenges facing the country of nationality when a female fighter and her children are identified. While there has been extensive policy and media coverage of returning male fighters, little or no concentrated attention has been paid to returning (and potentially radicalized) female combatants from territories overseas. The obvious point, of course, is that the state’s obligations to its citizens overseas (e.g. in terms of consular support and access) are no different whether the citizen is male or female.

However, returning children invariably create a set of intersectional relationships with the mother, based on presumptions that one would ideally wish to ensure continuity of access to the mother, even if the mother in question has been incarcerated or is facing legal process. More pertinent is the question of how to engage radicalized women when and if they return to countries of origin. Little consistent thought has been given to the gender dynamics and gender specificity of de-radicalization programs (with some notable exceptions). There is parallel good practice to be gleaned from Demilitarization, Demobilization and Reintegration processes in the aftermath of conflict, where women have been demobilized and reintegrated into communities having been members of paramilitary and non-state actor groups (see e.g. FARC demobilization). As yet, the read-across from these specialized practices is limited. The arrests in Iraq underscore the importance of preventing violent extremism among women, and to have processes in place to re-intergate such women when they return to their countries of origins. The dangers of failure here are significant and have distinct security implications for states addressing the return of both male and female fighters.

Image: Getty/Spencer Platt