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ISIS: How Do American Women Become Radicalized?

Women don’t make up a very large number of migrants to the Islamic State. Altogether, they total between 10 and 15 percent. But since 2015, the number of women who have been radicalized to religious terrorism has increased while the number of men has declined.

In order to understand what drives the radicalization of women, John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professors Lauren R. Shapiro and Marie-Helen Maras examined court documents pertaining to 31 U.S. women who joined ISIS following radicalization. They published their research in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

Using social learning theory (SLT) — or the concept that people learn new behaviors by observing others — the authors split the women into three categories: self, dyad, and group. Those in the self category started and stayed alone during the radicalization process; those in the dyad category typically started and stayed with one other person; and those in the group category typically started as a dyad and joined a group.

Women who fell under the dyad or group classification cited another individual as prompting their interest in radicalization, whereas those in the self group cited sympathy or identification with the cause. For all three, the internet played an immense role in their radicalization process. They used platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and others to communicate. “The Internet has become ISIS’ most important personal tool for recruiting women, communicating with sympathizers, and group members, and spreading propaganda to elicit funds, induce fearmongering, and encourage followers to fulfill the group’s needs,” the authors write.

Typically, women didn’t take on “operational” roles — as in actually fighting — but were restricted to providing financial support, helping with education (spreading propaganda, and motivating possible recruits), and even traveling overseas.

Since SLT maintains that behaviors are learned, Shapiro and Maras argue that radicalization can be unlearned. But it takes a strong network that would ideally include deradicalized women. They concluded, “Specifically, it is important to partner with the local Muslim community consistent with their culture, whose imams, leaders, and members can become a meaningful part of the social network the women need, as well as serve as models for the ideology and behavior consistent with mainstream Islam.”

Beyond SUM

Work By

Lauren R. Shapiro (Associate Professor, Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management) | Profile 1
Marie-Helen Maras (Associate Professor, Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management) | Profile 1