Cruel Intentions: Female Jihadists in America

Authored by: Audrey Alexander

Categories: Violent Conflict
Sub-Categories: National Security Forces and Armed Groups, Violent Extremism
Country: United States
Region: North America
Year: 2016
Citation: Alexander, Audrey. Cruel Intentions: Female Jihadists in America. Washington, DC: George Washington University Program on Extremism, 2016.

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Executive Summary

The self-proclaimed Islamic State and other jihadist actors have identified several unique roles for Western women in their radicalization and recruitment efforts. This report finds that, while few conduct violent plots, many disseminate propaganda, donate resources, or travel abroad to offer their support. A recent surge in relevant legal cases suggest that the rate of American female involvement in jihadist movements is on the rise. This report uses a wealth of primary and secondary data to examine the efforts of 25 jihadi women in America from January 2011 to September 2016. The cases offer a tremendous diversity of demographic data, suggesting that an overarching profile of the American female jihadist is indiscernible. Individuals hail from 14 different states and range from 15 to 44 years old, with an average age of 27. Women align themselves with a range of organizations including, but not limited to, the Islamic State, al-Shabaab, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Commonalities among the 25 cases inform a framework that sorts women’s contributions into three overlapping categories: Plotters, Supporters, and Travelers. Plotters design, attempt, or carry out domestic attacks. Supporters garner material support within U.S. borders, disseminate propaganda, or conceal information about impending threats to advance the agenda of jihadist groups. Travelers migrate in order to participate in the movement directly. While a few appear to act alone, many conduct activities in pairs, trios, and clusters alongside friends, siblings, and romantic partners. Online and offline dynamics complement one another and remain influential among jihadi women in America. Social media platforms are an especially common medium through which women are active, highlighting a vital opportunity for online detection and disruption. These findings contribute towards the development of policies to respond to this threat, which must be met with a varied response. Moreover, the diverse backgrounds of these cases render monolithic approaches ineffective. Though legal redress is the primary means to mitigate the threat, complementary strategies that offer alternatives to arrest, explore de-radicalization, and emphasize prevention are necessary steps to counter violent extremism by women.