Efforts to deliver an enduring defeat to the Islamic State may be in danger because of difficulties with bringing the terror group’s female members and associates to justice.
Describing the situation as dire, a new analysis from the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate [CTED] warns too few of these IS women are being held to account, as many countries have been reluctant to repatriate them.
“Women are the demographic group with the lowest overall rate of return from the conflict zone in Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic,” according to the CTED report issued Wednesday, based on a study of 80 U.N. member states.
“Within judicial systems, there is an urgent need for training and capacity-building on gender-sensitive approaches to investigations and prosecutions,” the report added.
Exactly how many women members of IS have been prosecuted or could be charged with crimes is difficult to say.
The CTED analysis said for many U.N. member states, “accurate information on the fate of women returnees was either unavailable or only partially available.”
Lack of repatriation
Many Western countries have consistently refused to take back anyone who traveled to join the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
Countries like Britain, Germany, Denmark, Australia and Indonesia, among others, have even gone as far as to strip nationals who traveled to join IS of their citizenship.
And repatriations of IS-linked women that have taken place have been piecemeal.
One study, by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, estimated that by July 2019, perhaps as few as 609 women who had traveled to join IS had returned to their countries of origin.
At the same time, based on U.S. estimates, as many as 18,000 IS-affiliated women continued to languish in displaced-persons camps like the al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, including 2,000 women who have renounced their previous citizenship.
Pleas by U.S. officials, as well as by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, for those women to be repatriated have largely been ignored.
Obstacles to collecting criminal evidence
And some analysts fear the longer they stay there, the harder it will be to ensure any of them answer for potential crimes.
“It becomes harder and harder to gather that evidence,” said Devorah Margolin, a senior research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“People become less cooperative,” she said. “Or memories aren’t as strong as they were when incidents first happened.”
And researchers like Margolin and those with CTED note that when it comes to IS, there is already a huge discrepancy in available evidence. While IS readily documented violence carried out by male fighters in its videos and other propaganda material, it rarely showed women in similar situations.
“There’s a very big division of the sexes, and part of that, specifically for a group like the Islamic State, is a removal of women from images,” Margolin said.
“That's not to say that under the Islamic State that there weren’t atrocities also carried out by women,” she added. “We know that women were part of the morality police, policing other women, and also part of the female sex trade of female slaves.”
Further complicating matters, the U.N. researchers found not all countries are even willing to consider the possibility that some of the IS women need to face justice.
"The tendency to view women as passive followers of their husbands continues to prevail,” the CTED analysis found. “[That], together with evidentiary challenges, contributes to low rates of conviction and/or shorter or suspended sentences."
The report found, in Western Europe and North America in particular, women linked to the terror group were likely to get more lenient sentences than IS-linked men.
Others seem to have escaped justice completely.
“In the Balkans, governments did not account for noncombatant support provided by female affiliates of the Islamic State, and most female returnees have avoided prosecution altogether,” Jamille Bigio, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VOA in an email.
Other countries, though, like Germany and Iraq, have reacted to the difficulty in obtaining evidence by taking a much different, much harsher tack.
"There is evidence of women receiving disproportionately harsh sentences compared to men, including life sentences or the death penalty for mere 'association' with ISIL fighters," the U.N. analysis found, using another acronym for the terror group.
A return to extremism?
Yet whether IS-affiliated women entering the justice systems of various countries are treated too harshly or not harshly enough, there is concern that over the long term, the likelihood that they will cling to or return to their extremist beliefs is high.
The U.N. analysis found that with so few women being brought to their countries of origin to face justice, little has been done to develop programs that could help some of them eventually reintegrate into society once their sentences are complete.
Bigio, who served on the National Security Council under former U.S. President Barack Obama, agreed.
“Prison and rehabilitation programs designed for men fail to address the underlying causes of women’s radicalization,” she said, noting that women who join extremist groups have often reported that “membership provided greater freedom than could be found in traditional society.”
And what many IS-affiliated women are being offered may not be a better alternative.
“Programs often fail to provide training in livelihood skills that could help women support themselves and their children, instead offering training in stereotypically feminine, low-wage activities such as hairstyling and sewing," Bigio said.