[Hailey Robinsmith] Female Radicalization in Canada: Motivations and Security Challenges

Radicalization into violent extremist groups is on the rise in Western democratic countries. This has serious implications for both national and international security, and serious attempts at curbing the trend need to be implemented immediately. As terrorist attacks continue to be employed by violent extremist groups against civilians, it is becoming increasingly clear that the security system many states have been accustomed to employing needs a second look. The terrorism that is prevalent in modern times is heavily an Islamist form of terrorism. ‘Violent Islamist extremism’ has been listed as the preeminent threat to Canada’s national security, and will, therefore, be the focus of this paper. Groups such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) not only plan and carry out violent and deadly attacks but increasingly utilize new forms of technology and social media to promote the group’s ideology abroad and recruit new members. More than any other time in history, citizens of Western democratic states are increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by these groups. This can be seen in the rising numbers of men and women, some as young as 13, making the trek to Syria to join ISIS’ proclaimed caliphate. While men have typically been the target of terrorist recruiters and academic studies alike, women are increasingly being radicalized and leaving their Western lives to join terrorist organizations that historically have had little respect for women’s rights.

The focus of this paper will be to investigate the motivations behind female radicalization and the national security implications of the rising number of women in Canada that are joining terrorist groups overseas. This will include the identification of factors that contribute to female radicalization, an assessment of the implications of female radicalization for Canada’s national security, and the development of recommendations for further prevention of radicalization and recruitment into terrorist groups. The paper will ultimately conclude that the potential return of radicalized women to Canada from abroad necessitates action on behalf of the government, security, and law enforcement agencies to establish programs that are capable of legally responding to, supporting, and reintegrating these women back into Canadian communities without furthering the risk of domestic terrorism.

The first part of this paper will focus on explaining current problems that radicalization into violent extremist groups, namely terrorist groups, is creating in Canada. This will show that Canada, like many other states, has faced recent terrorist attacks on and against their territory, as well as cases of citizens joining terrorist groups overseas. It will explain the breakdown of those involved and show specific cases of women in Canada who have participated in these actions. Trends of women’s involvement internationally will also be explored to show the growing need for prevention in this area. This section will also look at the roles that women are playing in these terrorist organizations – from jihadi brides to suicide bombers.

Hailey Robinsmith holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and a BA from Simon Fraser University. Her research interests have primarily focused on international security and defense with a special focus on terrorism, radicalization, defense policy, international human rights law, and the ethics of war. This paper is an excerpt if you wish to read the whole essay please email us.

The next section of the paper will look at the various factors that could explain the rise of radicalized women in general. Factors to be examined include the role of recruiters, especially women recruiters, and why they are focusing their efforts on recruiting women into their organizations. The role of social media has been a well-publicized tool in terrorist organizations’ recruiting campaigns, being especially effective in recruiting the younger members of society. Social media and its role in the radicalization of women will be examined. Motivating factors of radicalization that will be explored include identity, integration, political frustration, religion, personal motivations, and romanticism. This section will conclude by comparing the expectations of those women and girls who become radicalized to the realities of those who have gone overseas to join ISIS, and the dangers they pose upon their return.

The final section of the paper will analyze the implications of radicalized women for Canada’s national security. Challenges for law enforcement and government policy will be examined, including the intelligence challenges faced in identifying radicalized, or radicalizing, women. This section will then recommend a number of initiatives and strategies aimed at filling the gaps in Canada’s approach to female radicalization and meeting the challenges presented by it. An especially important concern that will be addressed is the need for effective reintegration support and programs for radicalized Canadian women returning home from their life in a terrorist group. Failure to establish this support increases the risks to Canadian communities in the coming decade through various ways and means. The conclusion will sum up the findings of the factors that play a role in female radicalization and the different risks and implications these have for Canada’s national security.


Who is the Female Terrorist?

What is clear from a number of studies done on the radicalization of Western terrorists of both genders is that there are no concrete qualifications that can identify a person susceptible to radicalization. Previous profiles might have identified a radicalized female as young, unemployed, uneducated, leaving them resentful of their socio-political status and with too much free time to turn their anger into violence. While these factors might hold in some cases, they by no means encompass an overarching profile of ‘the female terrorist.’ Contemporary accounts have reviewed a number of known cases of women and girls joining terrorist groups and compared them across variable such as age, education, employment, marital status, immigration, religious connections, criminal history, and activism. What one study found was that out of 222 female terrorists, the majority were young, citizens of their home country, employed, educated to secondary level, and rarely involved in criminal proceedings. This particular study, done by Karen Jacques and Paul J. Taylor, found that female terrorists were close in age, had similar immigration statuses, and played similar roles in terrorism as male terrorists, but often had achieved a higher level of education, were less likely to be employed, and were less likely to have prior connections in the activist community compared to males. As a study with one of the highest number of female subjects, the results allow for a general understanding of the average female terrorist.

Using the available data, the age range of females involved in terrorism in the study extended from 12 to 66, with the mean age of 22.6 years, and with over 80% of female terrorists falling on the spectrum between 16 to 35 years of age. The majority of females had completed both secondary and post-secondary education, which according to Jacques and Taylor suggests a tendency of female terrorists to achieve a high level of education. Ninety two per cent of all terrorists within the study were employed or full-time students during their initial introduction to terrorism, with 72% of males being employed and 53% of females, making it ultimately comparable to worldwide trends of employment. In the sample of females, women were as likely to be married as single, but were more likely to be divorced when compared to men. 7 women within the group (~3%) were found to have converted to a particular religion prior to or during their radicalization process. This statistic was found to be similar to the 4.5% conversion rate found across 40 countries in Barro, Hwang, and McClearly’s analysis of religious conversion. Little to no criminal history was found within the sample, but 30% of women were found to have been raised within activist households, and 34% for men. Of those women raised within activist families, approximately 61% related their terrorist motivations to family influences.

Ultimately, this study done by Jacques and Taylor suggests that existing stereotypes of female terrorists as uneducated and unemployed are not true and that economic hardship is not a strong risk factor for radicalization or terrorist activity. The lack of criminal history may result from the unwillingness of convicted terrorists to confess to further or prior crimes; it may be due to the unnecessary attention from law enforcement that it would draw to would-be terrorists; or it may indicate that having a criminal background is unrelated to an individual’s terrorist aspirations. Compared to males, female terrorists were less likely to have converted to a specific religion, were less likely to be employed, and were less likely to be immigrants – indicating a more individual approach to radicalization and terrorist activity than in males where the statistics emphasized more collective terrorist activity. Additionally, one third of the female terrorists examined in the Jacques and Taylor study had family connection to terrorist groups, indicating that activism among family members can play a role in the motivations of some women or girls to seek out terrorism.

These findings are consistent with a number of other studies that examine the phenomenon of Western terrorism. The New York Police Department released a report entitled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” which found that many of those involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001, came from non-radicalized, middle class families, and were Middle Eastern students who were “not very religious, apolitical, and with unremarkable backgrounds. Most were fluent in English, Western-educated, and accustomed to the Western lifestyle.” Likewise, it has been found that terrorists with Western origins contradict the existing profile of the economically disadvantaged, uneducated, and unemployed terrorist. A number of studies state that terrorists active in Western countries tend to be from the second or third generation of immigrant families and at least outwardly appeared to be well integrated into their communities. In addition, the number of converts to radical Islam has been growing.

As Jacques and Taylor assert in an additional study, with the inability to distinguish a clear profile for a female terrorist, it is possible that the effectiveness of a terrorist group’s recruitment campaign in radicalizing women and girls lies in their approach to using different strategies to target different motivations, thereby encompassing a wider range of potential recruits. A variety of these motivations will be examined in the following section.

Motivating Factors of Radicalization

This section will look at six of the most common motivating factors associated with the radicalization of Western women and girls – identity, integration, political frustration, religion, personal motivations, and romanticism.


As has already been noted, the demographics that describe a Western, female terrorist are not extraordinary and are not subject to extreme pressures such as poverty or suffering. Rather, the average Western, female terrorist grows up in a relatively peaceful society, but may struggle with finding their identity within that society, especially as they transition from adolescence or young adulthood to an independent, adult life. Young women in particular are still in the process of forming a social identity and their current social status may feel incomplete and uncertain. Some women or girls may find themselves drawn towards extremist Islam as a result of existing religious backgrounds or kin connections, despite the opportunities for upward growth in their Western society. For Muslim females, this may exist as tension between traditional values and liberal values, which may be imposed by their families and their friends on either side. ISIS has adapted parts of their recruitment campaign to offer young women and girls struggling with their identity an alternative path – one that offers stability, acceptance, and a sense of belonging to a global cause so that they no longer have to struggle with the tension between Western, liberal values and traditional Islamic ones.

Other young women may be attracted to a global cause out of boredom with their “normal” lives and see joining ISIS as an act of empowerment, individuality, and meaning. Similarly, pressure from their peer group to join the “jihadi cool” culture can drive young women to seek a sense of belonging and identity within the culture. The process of seeking an identity and finding one within radical Islam is not reserved solely for the young. Women who find themselves at a crossroads in life due to extenuating circumstances concerning their economic situation, social position, political ideology, or personal reasons may be more vulnerable to an identity upheaval and become drawn to the empowering feeling of purpose and belonging to a global cause.

Those women and girls who grow up as the second or third generation of immigrant families in a Western country may feel tension between their dual identities. Attempting to manage their Western identity with that of their Muslim identity can result in a feeling of crisis when confronted with conflicting ideals and expectations. This may result in extremist thinking if there is a strong dichotomy drawn between different groups resulting in an “us” versus “them” mentality. Extremist behaviour or attitudes may further result from the concept of ‘relative deprivation’ if these women or girls compare the conditions of the group that they identify most strongly with to other groups, and subjectively perceive the material, social conditions of their group as being disadvantaged and suffering from injustice. Feelings that result from relative deprivation, such as anger and frustration, can lead an individual to question their previously held beliefs and distance themselves from society making them open to the influence of criminal behaviour or violent radicalization. It is important to note that these individuals may be in either an advantageous or disadvantageous position within society while simultaneously experiencing group-based relative deprivation. This group-based relative deprivation is more commonly associated with the collective action found in terrorist groups than personal deprivation.


A lack of integration into society is another prominent factor in cases of radicalization. The NYPD report on radicalization states that Europe has failed to integrate those who make up the second and third generation of immigrant families and has thus contributed to a rise in the vulnerability of young Muslims to violent extremism. The lack of integration felt by these individuals contributes heavily to feelings of tension between their religious identity and their  secular Western identity, making them vulnerable to extremist ideology and rhetoric. Through social media accounts of Western ISIS recruits, women explain their feelings of alienation they encountered in their home country. Umm Haritha, as noted earlier, is one such example as she describes her experience wearing a niqab in Canada as “degrading and embarrassing.” Umm Ubaydah is another foreign female recruit to ISIS who expressed her wish to live in the Islamic State because it is a society that “abides by the law of Allah” – an enticing alternative to the negative attitudes she faced in the West. Alienation and isolation from one’s community can also increase perceived differences between one’s social group and other groups, which can in turn encourage negative attitudes towards those other groups. This can also contribute to feelings of relative deprivation as examined earlier.

Individuals who become isolated as a result of a lack of integration into their community are also at a higher risk of engaging in violent extremism due to their detachment from less radicalized, more moderate members of society. The time an individual spends with a group of violent extremists impacts their socialization because in many cases the longer they associate with radical ideas they may no longer be open to more moderate views. Likewise, those more moderate members of society may also not wish to associate themselves with the individual who now holds extreme views, thus extending their isolation and reinforcement of extreme attitudes.

Group-think is another factor at play in cases where an isolated or alienated individual seeks out groups that hold radical views. The NYPD report states that these groups “appear almost essential to progressing to the Jihadization stage – the critical stage that leads to a terrorist act.” Group-think acts as a force-multiplier for radical ideology as it equips individuals with greater access to training, skills, tools such as firearms, and the financial and motivational support that is necessary to carry out an attack.

Political Frustration

Perceived group-based relative deprivation can be strongly influenced by the political conditions faced by specific groups. Violent extremists who subscribe to radical Islam perceive the existence of their group to be under threat from Western policies at home and abroad. A number of wars point to the suffering and persecution of Muslim populations through Western interventions, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The judgment that Western policies are at the heart of the suffering of Muslims worldwide is a strong motivating factor in the process of radicalization. The way domestic counterterrorism policies are perceived by individuals in a community is another important factor. Whole communities can feel threatened by anti-terrorism policies when they feel unfairly discriminated against on the basis of religion, culture, or ethnic origin. The infamous ‘war on terror’ may be perceived by some as a specific ‘war on Islam’ which contributes to the tension that may already exist between one’s Muslim identity and their Western identity. These perceptions and beliefs become dangerous at the point that an individual feels that violent retaliation or revenge is necessary to stop, or to bring attention to, the injustice they feel is being brought against their group.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda have constructed their narrative to emphasize the injustices that Muslim communities across the world have suffered at the hand of Western states. Their recruitment campaigns reflect this narrative, portraying Muslims, Islam, and Islamic territory as being under attack from the West. The images and facts they present to their audience often show the real war-time suffering of Muslim populations across the Middle East, which lends credibility to their argument in the eyes of their supporters. Individuals who identify with this narrative often oppose domestic or foreign policies as the basis of this suffering and injustice. Muslims who lack such a belief, and are satisfied with their social and political condition, make up the more moderate members of their communities who usually lack the violent or radical attitude felt by those in the radicalization stage.

Women and girls are just as likely as men to face these injustices with the added burden of inequality and subordination felt in strongly patriarchal societies. The frustration, dissatisfaction, and inequality felt by women and girls in these societies may make them vulnerable to radicalization if they construe the terrorist narrative as offering them empowerment and personal freedom. The entirety of women who are unhappy with their subordinated status in society are not necessarily more open to radicalization as it is also possible that their dissatisfaction may catalyze them into changing their personal circumstances through self-development and community dialogue, but vulnerability to radicalization and recruitment exists in those who reluctantly conform to their subordination.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS promote the opportunity for women to participate in building the ‘Islamic State’– a state and society free from Western corruption and discriminatory policies that lack respect for women. Rather than seeing it as ‘joining a terrorist group,’ ISIS markets this as an opportunity to create a pure state governed by Shariah law where women can practice Islam honorably and without discrimination. Under this narrative, women are able to participate and contribute to a society as opposed to the exclusion and limited opportunities they may face in traditional societies in their home country. An extreme view of female liberation understands participation in suicide attacks as the ability to “fulfill traditional male duties and [have] the chance of being honored by the society they are living in.” The feeling of injustice, suffering, and subordination, whether real or perceived, can be an extraordinary catalyst towards radicalization and recruitment for women and girls.


Religion is a motivating factor in a number of cases of radicalized women. Some women believe that the West is waging war on Islam and that it needs to be protected. Traveling abroad to join a terrorist group is also part of hijra – the religious duty to migrate and contribute to the building of the caliphate – a way for women to carry out their own jihad. Peresin notes that religious motivation is most often cited by women as the most important factor in their decision to radicalize, though she states that religious motivation alone is not enough to explain the commitment to hijra by Western Muslim women, which can only be understood with a combination of motivating factors. A study done by Skillicorn, Leuprecht, and Winn shows that “belief in the salience of religion is associated with both high levels of religious activity and support for terrorist groups” and that “younger age is correlated with both higher levels of religious activity and support for terrorist groups.” That is not to say that religion itself is a risk factor, but that those who believe that their religion “justifies or necessitates violent actions is likely to increase the risk of being engaged in violent extremism.”

As for conversion to Islam, statistics show that the greatest source of religious conversion in Europe stems from European women marrying Muslim men. Western women who convert to Islam may have only a superficial understanding of the religion, or they may have been exposed to or influenced by, those with a more violent interpretation of Islam, such as their husbands. In these cases, women in the process of radicalizing may be drawn to the terrorist narrative which perpetuates images and speeches that show Islam as being under attack by the West and calls on men and women alike to defend it. One exemplary instance of this narrative occurred in 1998 with the issuing of a fatwa – a ruling on Islamic law – by Osama bin Laden that stated it was the individual duty of every Muslim, in any country, to kill Americans and their allies, both civilians and military. Islam as a religion is not necessarily violent, but there are undoubtedly individuals whose interpretations of it believe that it justifies the use of violence in its defense. Women who subscribe to this interpretation, along with any combination of other motivating factors, are more vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment to terrorist organizations. Women who have been radicalized and recruited use these beliefs to further justify their migration to the caliphate and domestic roles within it as a religious duty.

Personal Motivations

Personal motivations encompass a variety of beliefs and ideals held by individual women, in addition to those already mentioned. Compared to male involvement in terrorism, female involvement is more frequently attributed to personal motivations than to religious motivations. The act of hijra by some women occurs because of a perceived humanitarian mission to help those affected by conflicts, such as those in Syria or Iraq. A Scottish Muslim woman, Aqsa Mahmood, joined ISIS as a jihadi bride in an effort to help suffering Syrians. Humanitarian sympathies for suffering or persecuted Muslims can contribute towards a vulnerability to radicalization when paired with political frustrations as mentioned earlier. The terrorist narrative of the war on Islam and Muslims, anger over foreign policies, and frustration with gender-based oppression can heighten one’s perception of suffering and injustices around the world, and make migration to the caliphate appear to be a way to contribute humanitarian help. The women who fall under this category tend to idealize their role in the caliphate and overestimate the freedom and contributions they will be able to make once they arrive in the Islamic State.

Alternatively, the process of radicalization for many women may be triggered or inflamed by the need for vengeance. The loss of male family members due to suicide operations, counterterrorism interventions by the ‘enemy,’ or failed missions can act as motivation for women to seek revenge. It can also manifest itself as a sense of duty to take up where the male left off. Personal or family honour may also motivate women to pursue terrorism as a means of regaining lost or tarnished dignity as a consequence of strict social, religious, or cultural rules. Personal motivations may vary amongst radicalized, or radicalizing, women, but they tend to work in conjunction with additional motivating factors to sway women towards the pursuit of radical beliefs and attitudes.


Naïve and romanticized notions of what joining a terrorist organization entails can be attributed to the decisions of some women or girls to migrate abroad. Especially prevalent among young females, the notion of marrying a “heroic” foreign fighter can be attractive enough to encourage teenage girls to leave their Western life and join groups such as ISIS. The notion of having a brave, heroic husband is exponentially attractive to the naïve when combined with the promise of a free house, financial rewards, and many Western comforts. Other romanticized ideals of moving to the caliphate include a sense of adventure – an escape from a “boring” life and teenage rebellion – an attempt to assert individuality. These women and girls are labelled as naïve because many of them who leave the West for these reasons do not fully understand ISIS’s ideology, the significance of the caliphate, or the roles they are expected to fulfill. This also makes avenues of manipulation, especially via social media, more effective for recruitment. In many of these situations, however, relatives, friends, and acquaintances are the primary source of inspiration and recruitment for young individuals. However ideal their reasons for joining ISIS, Peresin notes that such motivation should not be construed as weak as it requires very strong motivation for women and young girls to leave behind their life, their family, and their friends and move to a conflict-ridden territory.


Security Implications and Challenges

While Canada has yet to experience a domestic terrorist attack carried out by a radicalized Canadian woman in the name of Islam fundamentalism, the security threat that these women pose should not go unconsidered. Canada’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been equipped to respond to and prevent terrorist attacks since the FLQ made its appearance in 1963. However, Western counterterrorism preparedness, in general, suffers from a cultural reluctance to assume popular involvement of women in terrorist organizations, especially those of the extremist Islamic variety due to their historic hostility towards women. As such, the potential of these women to be used for counterterrorism and counterintelligence purposes has been ignored, and their potential destructiveness remains unanticipated and underestimated. This cultural denial on behalf of Western states, including Canada, gives an advantage to terrorist groups who can use women in important roles while going relatively unnoticed. The continued use of women as recruiters for ISIS and other terrorist organizations should be especially concerning as the spread of propaganda along with the ease of access and concealment of online identities and activities is difficult to monitor and control.

As for Canada specifically, it is unlikely that the country hosts specific factors that influence the radicalization of women significantly in either direction when compared to other Western countries. Canada’s geography may make it less likely for an attack to occur domestically, given the ease of movement between states in Western Europe and the fact that the highest numbers of female radicalization come from countries like France, Germany, the UK, and Belgium. Canada’s liberal, multicultural society may not necessarily be a deterrent to female radicalization, or radicalization in general, but its history of passive foreign policy decisions may be less of a motivating factor than more aggressive states such as the US or UK. One counter-instance was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strongly one-sided policy in support of Israel and against Palestine. This could have been a motivating political factor in the radicalization of Canadian women at the time and may have provoked thoughts of domestic terrorism that failed to materialize. Canada’s new Liberal leadership has employed a more even approach to the Israel-Palestine issue and has replaced Harper’s ambassador to Israel, bringing hope that current and future radicalizing sentiments on the issue will be mitigated. Canada’s extensive 11-year involvement in Afghanistan and its currently minor but growing role in Syria and Iraq also stand to produce anger towards the Canadian state and its population by women with family in these states. Abating this anger and frustration towards Canada on behalf of these women is an especially important challenge in cases where relatives have been killed or wounded in war-time action.

Challenges for Canada exist in the ability to prevent, identify, evaluate, respond to, and reintegrate radicalized Canadian women. In the beginning stages of radicalization, women are unlikely to travel and do not participate in criminal or activist activities, making it hard for law enforcement or intelligence agencies to discover and monitor such individuals. In addition, not all radicalization leads to violent behavior, which creates a dual dilemma for law enforcement and intelligence agencies. First, a blanket profile of radical behaviour cannot be applied to the situation because radicalized individuals do not necessarily express their beliefs in the same way as others. This also holds the potential for discrimination claims based on racial or cultural profiling if an individual believes they are being targeted based on external factors. Secondly, radical attitudes and speech that are non-violent and do not promote violence cannot be legally impeded and present the dilemma of not being able to stop what may be a motivating factor for a radical individual more prone to violence and extremism.

Challenges regarding social media relate to privacy and censorship concerns and the lack of legal and cyber capabilities to permanently shut down or track online terrorists. The ability of terrorists to conceal and create multiple identities, encrypt messages, and hide their locations makes tracking and identifying every terrorist and their supporters almost impossible. States that take a more forward approach to criminalizing online support for terrorism, such as the UK’s Terrorism Act of March 2006 which criminalized the “encouragement of terrorism,” are subject to legal boundaries pertaining to free speech, the protection of historical narratives and legitimate group identities, and beyond.



Recommended Initiatives

This final section will recommend a number of initiatives and programs to address challenges in combating female radicalization in Canada. These recommendations will fall into 5 categories – gender-based initiatives with a focus on women’s rights; integrating immigrants and fostering respect and trust within Muslim communities; exit strategies, de-radicalization, and re-integration of returning female terrorists; comprehensive counter-narratives including the use of social media, education, and de-radicalized individuals; and ‘smart counterterrorism’ and policing.

Women-Focused Initiatives

One notable course of action being taken within a number of Islamic societies in Central Asia and Africa is the advancement of Islamic feminism, which emerged from the reinterpretation of Islamic religious sources with a focus on gender equality. Islamic feminism bases itself on gender-egalitarian and gender-progressive discourse to empower women in societies where patriarchal extremist discourse was, and is, heavily influential – such as Iran, South Africa, and Egypt. This phenomenon emerged in the 1990s in response to the struggle of women against established social norms and subordination in political and economic spheres in these countries. It focuses on creating more gender-equal societies and exposing the existing interpretations of the Quran as unfairly patriarchal. When confronted with extremism, Islamic feminism offers the legitimization of other roles and responsibilities beyond those offered by extremist groups. It is hypothesized that linking Islamic feminism with development assistance and concrete initiatives can help curb the appeal of extremist groups. Badran warns that although the message of Islamic feminism has been accepted in numerous communities, the actual term ‘Islamic feminism’ remains controversial in many of these societies and needs to be used with sensitivity within local communities. The phenomenon of Islamic feminism is one that should be supported in Canada.

To counter terrorist narratives and extremist ideology in Canada, especially within more traditional Muslim communities, Canada’s current and future outreach initiatives should use and encourage dialogue that promotes gender-progressive discourse. Offering roles and responsibilities in the creation of community programs or dialogues to Muslims of all ages could help foster a feeling of inclusiveness and respect while simultaneously offering alternatives to extremist options. Abroad, Canada’s security forces could use Islamic feminist rhetoric to promote values in those communities where it is assisting in the rebuilding and defence of societies vulnerable to extremism. The curbing and transformation of gender-based oppression has the potential to not only stop radicalization amongst women, but it also gives them the opportunity to play a role in preventing it through empowerment, development, and leadership at local levels.

In addition to challenging gender inequality in traditionally patriarchal societies, focus should be given to providing forums for debate on gender and law as well as inter-cultural dialogue, and legal literacy training for women and new immigrants. Giving women the opportunity to be aware of their rights and freedoms under both Islamic law and the laws of their home country can offer empowerment and protect against feelings of alienation and oppression. Doing so would help communicate understanding of new cultures and prevent isolation within vulnerable communities.

Engaging local Muslim women as active leaders in their communities – including through education, cultural and religious activities, and the media – can promote women’s empowerment not only to local Muslim communities, but to other communities within Canada, thus fostering greater respect and understanding of Muslim women throughout the country. Encouraging the leadership of women within and outside of their communities also promotes their further education in the political, economic, and social sphere of a society. It can also encourage women who have experiences with radicalization or extremism to speak out about their experiences and contribute to counter-radicalization initiatives within their communities.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) suggests that governments should endeavour to connect and interact with small women’s organizations at the grassroots level in addition to any larger organizations, as grassroots organizations have a better chance of interacting with individuals vulnerable to radicalization. Within this outreach, the OSCE recommends that governments identify and promote common goals in countering extremism and radicalization as ‘points of engagement’ with women’s organizations as such concerns are often not among the top priorities. The Canadian government should also listen to and attempt to correct concerns that these women’s organizations hold, as doing so may address factors of radicalization within these communities.

Furthermore, effort should be made to involve women, including Muslim women as well as women in general, in political and security sectors – especially those addressing armed conflict. The UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 On Women, Peace and Security stated the importance of including women in full and equal roles in the area of security. As a member of the United Nations (UN), Canada should seek to address and implement this resolution within its government and eliminate barriers among other levels of government. Rather than risk the adoption of radical and extremist attitudes, presenting alternative roles and responsibilities for women in the form of employment, dialogue, and recommendation allows them to avoid extremism and actively work against it. Women can work as policy makers and advisors, teachers, and community activists to address and counter-radicalization locally and nationally. This can also include giving feedback on current counterterrorism policy and its success or failure within different communities.

As the “EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism” states, respect for full human rights and fundamental freedoms is one of the foundations to countering terrorism and radicalization. Canada’s counterterrorism policy reflects this and can only be strengthened by the further inclusion of women at all levels of government and community outreach. Collaboration with grassroots women’s organizations, and support for women leaders in education, security, government, religion, and cultural domains will promote the voice and concerns of women in recognizing vulnerabilities to, and factors of, radicalization.

Integration and Trust within Immigrant and Muslim Communities

Helping Muslim Canadians feel at home within Canada is an essential part of counter-radicalization measures. As seen earlier, feelings of alienation and isolation that stem from a lack of integration into society are motivating factors for radicalization. Community outreach with the goal of developing sustained and strong connections with Muslim communities can play a preventative role. Not only should the outreach be directed towards community leaders, but women from all levels within different communities should be able to voice their concerns in order to gain a more comprehensive approach of the issues facing women. Efforts should be taken to ensure that Muslim communities do not feel as though they are being targeted or discriminated against based on their religion, culture, or ethnic origin. In this vein, governments in Ottawa should avoid extreme partiality towards one culture or group of people over another, whether at home or abroad. The Harper government’s strong support for Israel over Palestine is an example of how this partiality has the potential to create unnecessary risk towards radicalization based on feelings of injustice and frustration at Canada’s foreign policy. Outreach programs should focus on creating trust and cooperation while ensuring that all support and dialogue is a two-way street and that the communities are welcoming of the program. Culture and religion should be respected and observed in all communication, which should also avoid linking Islam to terrorism. The second part of this is to encourage existing Muslim communities to meet with new Muslim immigrants and assist with their integration into the community. This includes ensuring that Muslim women have access to the support of other women, education, and that they are aware of their rights and freedoms so they feel secure in their new country.

Families are an especially important resources for countering radicalization and should be utilised as such. Young women in particular usually have strong connections to their families, making them an important step in the prevention of radicalization. In cases of individual females radicalizing and joining terrorist groups, there is little evidence that their families are supportive of their choice, compared to families with multiple radicalizing members. In these cases, family members are usually shocked when they learn that their daughter or sister joined a terrorist organization and are desperate to bring them back home. Government units cooperating with communities can work with families who suspect that their daughter or sister is showing signs of radicalization. They can also work with families who are trying to bring back a female family member from abroad. This can include intelligence collection from Syria or Iraq, organization of return flights, and de-radicalization and reintegration once back in Canada.

Exit Strategies and Reintegration

De-radicalization is just as important as preventing radicalization when it comes to violent extremism. For Western women living in ISIS-controlled territory who regret their decision to move abroad, exit strategies need to be in place. To encourage their return, it is necessary to ensure that potential punishments for having joined the terrorist group are not excessively harsh. One suggestion is to show that severe punishment will not be a cause for concern for those who participate only in domestic roles as a jihadi wife and when no crimes are committed. Rather, strict punishments should be saved for those who carried out violent acts and crimes. Additionally, voluntary disengagement from terrorism and life in the caliphate could be grounds for penalty reductions. The criminalization of all instances of radicalization and migration to Syria would prevent those who truly do regret their decision from returning home, and could cost Canada critical intelligence and counterterror opportunities. To ensure that Canada develops the best disengagement and exit strategies for its needs and the needs of Canadian female former terrorists, consultations should be carried out with governments of other states who have experience in the area, with academics specializing in radicalization, with practitioners from a variety of relevant fields, vulnerable women, former terrorists, non-governmental organizations, and with victims of terrorism around the world.

Upon their successful return to Canada, attempts should be made to reintegrate these women into society. A number of academics suggest surveillance of the returning individuals including monitoring of social media accounts, re-education to embrace a more moderate Islam, and involvement in anti-radicalization campaigns as a witness that can attest to their negative experiences within ISIS. Families are also instrumental in providing stability and monitoring for signs of re-radicalization. Cooperation between law enforcement and families should thus be immediately established and continuously maintained in cases of returning female terrorists in order to keep the exchange of information regarding these individual women open. Further, education programs centered on reprogramming former terrorists with a moderate interpretation of Islam and correcting misperceptions about the religion have proven successful in past cases. In Egypt, experts from Al-Azhar University have de-radicalized members of the terrorist group Al-Jihad Al-Islami through ‘ideological revision’ – the process of being re-educated about Islam so that extremist misperceptions are corrected through dialogue and a promotion of moderation. If reintegration does not occur, returning women will likely become outcasts of society as they suffer from a marked criminal record, a loss of education and employability, health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and instability with personal relationships including family. To prevent re-recruitment, leadership opportunities for women in community-based counterterrorism and anti-radicalization programs is suggested to give de-radicalized women a role and social identity once they have returned in order to undermine exclusion and isolation.


Comprehensive counter-narratives need to be established and utilised across social media and in education forums to challenge the pervasive terrorist narrative that shows Islam and Muslims as being under attack from the West. Research into the impact of the terrorist narrative on different audiences can be conducted to discover different elements that can be controlled and countered. Out of the many elements of counterterrorism strategies, counter-narratives should be near the top of the list as they are simpler to address than other motivating factors or counterterrorism strategies explored in this paper, which are often long-term strategies. Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population can counteract a number of the motivating factors for recruitment such as political frustration and isolation. The “EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism” suggests working with community leaders including public figures, teachers, families, academics, religious leaders, and media and entertainment personalities who can influence public opinion and advance a positive counter-narrative.

These counter-narratives should encourage the development and spread of a reformist Islam. This would include the promotion of Islam’s ‘itjihad’ – independent thinking – as a way of questioning the traditional and repressive view of Islam promoted by terrorist groups. Also necessary is the advancement of Islamic feminist discourse that welcomes women as leaders that are capable of creating change and opportunities for both themselves and other women within Islam and outside of it. Counter-narratives that embrace the long-term development of reformist Islam have the potential to grab the attention of Muslim Canadians who are devoted to their faith but may disagree with the repressive ideologies of ISIS associated with traditional Islam. This can not only dissuade future radicalization, but can be used to establish Muslim Canadian leaders in the fight against terrorism and its leaders who would use radical Islam to call supporters to the battlefield.

Utilizing social media in this endeavour should be a priority for Canada. In current efforts to close accounts held by terrorists and recruiters, monitor subscribers and support, and gather information from chat rooms – those responsible for monitoring the social media accounts of women could hold a specialization in women’s psychology in order to establish an understanding of their mentality and create connections with them. The federal government of Canada can also create websites, blogs, video channels, forums, social media accounts, and video games aimed at promoting a positive counter-narrative in order to reach a broad set of demographics. Wright also suggests assisting allies in creating multimedia counter-narrative campaigns as terrorist propaganda is spread globally over the internet and should be a concern for all governments.

Former women terrorists present an additional opportunity in the creation and implementation of effective counter-narratives. Those women who became disillusioned with living in ISIS territory and escaped back to Canada can talk about their experiences abroad, why they decided to join, and why they made the decision to come back. This is useful for researchers to further understand the causal mechanisms behind the decisions of females to radicalize and the appeal of narratives, and create counter strategies targeted at them. It is also useful as an education experience for those women in the process of radicalizing who may hear these testimonies and become disenchanted with the realities of joining a terrorist group. Counter-narratives should be created differently based on their targets. Those targeted at women should be created with specific language and imagery that appeals to women and girls in Canada.

Lastly, establishing counter-narratives in the education process is critical to undermining the first stages of radicalization among youth. One suggestion is to educate students in middle school and above about how terrorist groups recruit and what signs to look out for, showing why the intentional targeting of civilians is never acceptable, and equipping students with problem solving skills that do not use violence. Other suggestions state that teaching children about human rights, acceptance of alternatives and how many parts of society are socially constructed, diversity and inclusion, and critical thinking can allow children and teenagers to examine and resolve disputes and problems without resorting to violence and with respect for all people in a community. Student activism including human rights advocacy, political public debates with government leaders, and plays and presentations about social justice to younger children can also support a counter-narrative amongst youth.

‘Smart Counterterrorism’ and Policing

As talk of the potential collapse of ISIS continues, law enforcement and security agencies need to be aware of the threat posed by female terrorists more than ever. Historically, terrorist groups that experience pressures such as collapse are more likely to use women for suicide attacks out of desperation for media attention, recruitment, and support. ‘Smart counterterrorism’ is one way to approach the added security threat this poses. It is a multi-agency approach to counterterrorism that includes government, federal departments and agencies, NGOs, the travel industry, the higher education community, and businesses. It calls on preventive, defensive, and offensive measures aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the population. This approach would not only allow information to be shared across multiple departments, but it would also extend the amount and scope of available information. This could allow different law enforcement, security, and intelligence agencies to cut down on repetitive procedures and tasks and increase the range of duties it can carry out in the name of counterterrorism. It is also important for Canada to ensure that law enforcement agencies conduct gender training and include women in the different levels and sectors of policing. This allows law enforcement to avoid human rights violations when dealing with women in the public, which has the potential to trigger radicalization in vulnerable individuals who are already near the tipping point. Further, Canada should be cautious in its approach to targeted killings in the name of counterterrorism. Collateral damage has the strong potential to contribute to the terrorist narrative of the West attacking Muslims and can anger national citizens over the choice of foreign policy.

Drawing on lessons from the New York Police Department, Canada could encourage its law enforcement personnel to pursue language training in a number of foreign languages to greater extend its ability to interact with Canada’s multicultural population.  A comprehensive and international database on female terrorism should also be established. An international database could contain intelligence from a number of different sources and countries on female participation in various terrorist organization including surveillance, methods of recruitment, factors of radicalization, interviews, statistics, and trends. This would help prevent cross-border flows of radicalized female terrorists and add to the pool of intelligence and knowledge on female terrorism for all countries involved. In regards to human intelligence (HUMINT), female assets should be employed in efforts to gain access and information on terrorist organizations due to their potential range of access to female terrorists.

While many of these suggestions and recommendations will not stop terrorist organizations from recruiting women the goal is to prevent further radicalization through: decreasing the vulnerability of women to motivating factors and eliminating all possible factors; equipping law enforcement, security, and intelligence agencies with as much relevant knowledge and tools as possible to increase effectiveness in preventing, identifying, evaluating, and responding to female radicalization and terrorism; and decreasing the ability of terrorists to utilise surprise and tactical advantage against Western countries and their law enforcement agencies.

Hailey Robinsmith holds an MA in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and a BA from Simon Fraser University. Her research interests have primarily focused on international security and defense with a special focus on terrorism, radicalization, defense policy, international human rights law, and the ethics of war. This paper is an excerpt if you wish to read the whole essay please email us.


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