ISIS claimed twin attacks in Tehran yesterday, killing 12 people and injuring over 39 at the parliament building and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The assault involved two suicide bombers and gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs. The assailants were reportedly dressed as women as they burst through parliament’s main entrance, causing some local sources to initially report an attacker as a woman.
The fact that the attackers were dressed as women reveals a recognition that having women commit attacks has its benefits, even if ISIS would not permit such a role for women.
The perverted ideology that the group adheres to maintains that women must be constrained to domestic isolation. Not only should they live hidden, restrained lives, but also their allocated roles are extremely confined. Raising children and tending to house work are the main duties of a woman under ISIS control; they are forbidden from emulating men, and they cannot engage in combat, unless attacked.
As this reality is known by security services, women are considered less of a security threat than men. Meaning that, by their very nature, they can evade the police more easily. Not only that, but women are harder for security services to physically search than men, appreciating that the police are more often than not male.
It is clear that ISIS is losing vast swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria. Its self-declared caliphate is shrinking as its image of ‘utopia’ is being drowned out by the reality of a disastrous defeat. The surge of foreign fighters has dwindled, civilians are fleeing despite the unknown they are careering into, and their finances are increasingly drained.
It is this reality that has caused analysts to speculate whether women will be used more in battle to either maintain territory, take new ground, or cause devastating havoc in one-off attacks. Will the tactical needs trump the group’s ideological rigidity?
While ISIS in Syria in Iraq has not been seen deploying female suicide bombers before, some of ISIS’ affiliates have done so, despite their subscription to a very similar ideology. Boko Haram, an ISIS affiliate active in the Lake Chad Basin, regularly deploys female suicide bombers. The first recorded use of female combatants by ISIS in Libya was in February 2016, and later in the year, women wearing explosive vests were used in a desperate attempt to try and maintain the group’s stronghold in Sirte. In December 2016, at least two women detonated their vests, killing four and injured more than a dozen others.
In other countries, female followers of ISIS, both acting alone and in cells, have emerged in the past year too. To name a couple, in September 2016, the first all-women cell in Paris behind a failed terrorist attack near Notre Dame Cathedral emerged. Thankfully, they were arrested before they committed any violence. This week in Canada, a woman threatened people with a knife while expressing support for ISIS.
Evidently women around the world adhere to the perverted ideology that ISIS peddle. They therefore must agree that there should be an imposition of an Islamic state, ruled by a strict and narrow minded interpretation of Sharia law under the leadership of ‘caliph’, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They seem to agree those who are ‘unbelievers’, or at least, those that do not agree with the absurd interpretation of extremists, deserve to die for their lack of submission – otherwise, they would not be planning attacks against these very people.
However, in many cases, and especially it seems in the West, women do not seem to be submitting to the dominance of men restricting them from partaking in battle to achieve these aims. ISIS’ imposed ‘modesty’ and ‘femininity’, or what you might equally call ‘imprisonment’, seems to no longer hold back women in a way it did before.
A difficulty with ISIS cultivating affiliates worldwide is it is difficult to police the way their ideas manifest in reality. For that reason alone, it is understandable when there are inconsistencies across groups or mutations over time. Although ISIS in Syria and Iraq still appears to abide by its ideology on women by not permitting them to fight on behalf of the group, the fact that the attackers were dressed as women in Iran shows they see the benefit of impersonating women. And as far as I’m concerned, it is only matter of time before ISIS begin directly deploying women.
But the problem of ideology or theological qualification remains. If the practices of the group shift, and women were to be used in battle, ISIS would no doubt face immense criticism from other jihadi groups. This happened when al-Qaeda’s own affiliate in Iraq deployed a female suicide bomber in 2005 in Jordan. ISIS, and other extremist groups, justify their existence and actions through religious scripture and scholarship. However, these groups pervert the nature of the scripture and scholarship to back up their horrific interpretation that causes widespread violence. As ideologues have unwittingly distorted religious scriptures already, I doubt that they will have any qualms in reconfiguring their stance in order to ensure victory over defeat.
This article was originally published in The Telegraph.