Essay by Rita Katz.The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
As the Islamic State’s sphere of control — the territory it controls militarily — continues to dwindle, the world anticipates that the self-declared caliphate will resort to ever more desperate and brutal measures to survive. More brutal, perhaps, than the well-documented atrocities already committed in its name: violent repression including enslavement, murder and rape. With its territory shrinking, to continue waging its war, the Islamic State increasingly relies on deadly attacks like Tuesday’s in New York City, alleged to have been committed by an Uzbek national living in the United States pledging fealty to the Islamic State.
The organization also recently declared it permissible for women to become warriors, an unprecedented declaration that makes the idea of “desperate” measures seem like an understatement. The outlaw regime, known for its ideological justification of extreme violence directed toward women, now appears willing to rely on women to help save it.
In an Oct. 5 article titled “The Duty of Women in Waging Jihad against the Enemy,” in issue 100 of the Islamic State’s weekly newspaper, Naba, women were called on to prepare themselves as “mujahidat,” female holy warriors, “to fulfill their duty from all aspects in supporting the mujahideen in this battle”:
This wasn’t a musing in a casual forum. Naba is an official organ of the Islamic State, with articles often written by its top officials to broadly communicate policy. Even the Islamic State’s notorious publication, Rumiyah (published in numerous languages, including English) is heavily composed of translations of articles already published in Naba. The call for women to become, in effect, combat reservists can be read then as an official Islamic State directive — one that runs afoul of well-known, established Islamic State protocols. That is the only way to interpret this new language.
From Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s formation in 2003 of what would eventually become the Islamic State, to the declaration and establishment of its “caliphate,” to until very recently, the group has made a strict and consistent pitch to women. Specifically, Islamic State propaganda and the messaging of a community of unofficial online recruiters have characterized the role of Islamic State women as submissive but essential to its caliphate: obeying one’s husband, taking care of the household and mothering the next generation of Islamic State soldiers.
Indeed, on Oct. 4, just one day before the release of Naba’s 100th issue, the Islamic State published a video typical of this characterization, showing the male children of a slain Uzbek fighter. Briefly leaving the focus on the boys following in their father’s footsteps, the video’s narrator described women’s “crucial role” in the Islamic State’s war:
Other guidance sets out a similar vision. Issue 12 of Rumiyah, from August, specifies that a woman’s “default” role is to “remain in her home.” Issue 9 included an article titled, “The Woman is a Shepherd in her Husband’s Home and Responsible for her Flock.”
Female Islamic State recruiters like Aqsa Mahmood, once a prominent Islamic State immigrant from the United Kingdom, have talked up the benefits for women of Islamic State life — mentioning everything from job opportunities to the right to drive a car — but have remained clear when describing the limits for women in advancing the Islamic State’s military aims. In 2014, Mahmood, also known as “Umm Layth,” posted on her recruitment-purposed Tumblr:
That same year, Welsh Islamic State fighter Aseel Muthana (a.k.a. “Abu Farriss”) was asked on his Ask.fm why women weren’t allowed to fight. He stated:
He also wrote:
The Islamic State has also been wary of claiming responsibility for attacks performed by women in its name. When the group claims an attack — whether coordinated or inspired by it — the group frequently refers to male attackers as “soldiers of the Caliphate,” “mujahideen” or other honorifics.
However, when claiming responsibility for the San Bernardino massacre via its ’Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State described attackers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik as “supporters of the Islamic State” — avoiding referring to Malik, a woman, as a “soldier of the Caliphate” or “mujahid.”
Similarly, when claiming responsibility for an attack by three purportedly Islamic State-pledged women in Mombasa, Kenya, on Sept. 11, 2016, the Islamic State likewise referred to them as “supporters of the Islamic State.”
Now, though, the Islamic State is at least rhetorically starting to set forth a new permissible role for women, stating in Naba 100, in a historical context:
The article cites the example of Nusaybah bit Ka’ab, a historic figure in Islam recognized for her participation in the Battle of Uhud. First only tending to soldiers, she saw the prophet Muhammad and others being encircled by enemy forces, and decided to take up a sword to aid them in the battle.
The meaning, for Muslim women living under the Islamic State’s jurisdiction, is clear: time to fight.
It also suggests that Islamic State-sympathetic women living in the West should carry out lone wolf attacks, given the Islamic State’s recent charge to adherents, issued in Rumiyah and elsewhere, to “escalate” attacks against enemies “to a greater level.”
But what “context” justifies this new call to arms, aimed at women, when the Islamic State has been in a state of war since its inception? Have its leaders genuinely developed a cohesive doctrinal rationale, or has this struggling group concocted new policy rationale, now that it finds itself short on troops?
As the Islamic State’s fighting strength wanes and with its ranks likely low in morale, its leaders could have opted not to waver from what they profess as their core ideology. Instead, the group, that projects itself as beholden only to a nonnegotiable, divinely-inspired dogma appears to have allowed itself an ideological lapse. This, as much as any battlefield setback, may be one of its most devastating wounds.
Rita Katz is a terrorism analyst and the co-founder of the Search for International Terrorist Entities Intelligence Group.