The women and children of ISIS want to come home

At its peak, some 10 million people were living under Islamic State rule in the territory across stretches of Iraq and Syria.

About a quarter of the foreigners living under ISIS’s caliphate were women and children, according to a new study, which says these groups will pose a significant security threat as they return home.

Researchers from London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalisation built a database of the more than 40,000 foreign nationals who had joined the Sunni terror group’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria since it was founded in April 2013.


Analyzing data from all available government, academic and media reports, they found that 4,761, or 13 percent, of the 41,490 foreign citizens in the “caliphate” were women, and a further 4,640, or 12 percent, were minors.

Shiraz Maher, the center’s director, said the findings were significant because most attention on ISIS had previously focused on the group’s male fighters and leadership, rather than the quarter or so who were women and children. These two groups would now pose their own particular challenges to authorities in their home countries as they returned home from the shattered caliphate.

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“Women and minors are poised to play a significant role in carrying on the ideology and organization of IS now that the ‘caliphate’ has fallen, so it is essential that governments recognize these affiliates as two distinct groups who need their own unique responses,” he said.

At its peak, some 10 million people were living under Islamic State rule in the territory across stretches of Iraq and Syria, including extremists from 80 countries who had travelled to the war zone to support their vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state. But after years of concerted campaigns against the group including by a U.S.-led international coalition, the group’s territory has been reduced to small pockets in east Syria and northwest Iraq, while its supporters have either been killed, arrested or fled home.


More than 7,300 of the foreigners who lived under the caliphate had returned home or were in the process of being repatriated, according to the report.

The report’s authors Joana Cook and Gina Vale said that some of the ISIS women now posed a particular security threat due to the training they had undertaken in ISIS territory, which could also be passed to their children, and the increasingly militant ISIS messaging pressing women into frontline fighting roles.

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“Women and minors affiliated with and inspired by IS have already demonstrated their prominence as security threats, with numerous foiled and successful attacks plotted and carried out globally,” the report said.

While ISIS had initially kept women from battle roles, this had gradually changed in recent years. In late 2017, an ISIS publication declared that “jihad against the enemies” was obligatory for women, and just months later it produced propaganda footage of women fighting on the battlefield alongside men for the first time.

This shift in the role of women in ISIS’s operations had led to women playing an increasing role in carrying out terror attacks, whether in women-only cells, family cells or as lone wolf attackers, the authors said.

The threat of women linked to ISIS has been repeatedly demonstrated around the world in recent years. In Morocco in October 2016, 10 women were arrested for plotting a suicide attack, four of whom had married ISIS fighters over the internet. In January, a British teen who had tried to reach Syria to marry an ISIS fighter was found guilty of the UK’s first all-female terror plot; in May, a string of suicide bombings in the Indonesian city of Surabaya were linked to an ISIS-affiliated family.

The report also found that at least 730 babies had been born inside the “caliphate” to international parents, although the true number was probably higher. The authors said that this group needed nuanced consideration, including a rehabilitative, rather than punitive, approach from authorities when they returned.

“There is a risk that many IS orphans will become stateless and fall through the cracks of repatriation and rehabilitation efforts,” the report said.

Cover image: The wife of a suspected member of the Islamic State group holds her child as she waits on the western frontline to be questioned after fleeing the centre of Raqa, on October 8, 2017. Syrian Democratic Forces, Syrian fighters backed by U.S. special forces, are battling to clear the last remaining jihadists holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqa. (Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)