Brandee Leon is a freelance analyst of counter-terrorism and international relations, focusing on terror in Europe. She frequently covers women in terrorism. She has been published in Business Insider, The Strategy Bridge, and The Eastern Project. She can be found on Twitter at @misscherryjones. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of U.S. Women in Islamic State-related Cases
Date Originally Written: June 20, 2018.
Date Originally Published: August 13, 2018.
Summary: Since the inception of Islamic State, ten percent of the related cases in the United States have involved women. The roles of the women involved have varied, from material support to bomb-making. The numbers are small compared to their European counterparts, but there is a definite presence in the United States. But like those in Europe, they are not a group that should be ignored.
Text: George Washington University’s Program on Extremism (PoE) has been compiling cases of U.S persons involved in Islamic State(IS)-related offenses since 2014. As of April 2018, they have found that 160 individuals have been charged. This article’s analysis to date reveals that 16 of those cases have involved women. The following is an overview of those cases, as well as why they are worth paying attention.
According to the latest infographic put out by GWU PoE, 90 percent of those charged with IS-related offenses in the U.S. have been male. This is up from 86 percent as of December 2015. The average age for the women in the cases is 33, five years older than the overall average age of 28. The oldest woman was 55, and the youngest was 19.
Thirteen of the women are U.S. citizens, six of whom are U.S.-born. Other nationalities represented among the women include Bosnia-Hercegovina, Pakistan, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of the women have children. In one case, the woman’s sons had traveled to Syria in support of Islamic State.
The women involved tend to received drastically shorter prison sentences than the overall average: just 5.4 years compared to 13.4 years. One woman (so far) has been acquitted by trial, while another is still at large.
Most of the charges leveled against the women fell under 18 USC §2339, providing material support to terrorists or designated terror organizations. The next, most-frequent charge was 18 USC §1001(a)(2), providing false statements. Money laundering, transmission of a threat, and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government were among the other charges. Two women were charged with 18 USC §2332a (a)(2), use of weapons of mass destruction, which represents the only straightforward “operational” charges against IS-connected women in America to date.
Several of the women conspired with a romantic partner, whether via online contact with a purported member of IS, or with a husband or boyfriend. One woman actually traveled to Syria and married a well-known IS fighter.
Women in America who have been charged with crimes relating to the Islamic State tend to be slightly older than the male average. The women who have been sentenced to date have received significantly lesser sentences. Nearly all the women were charged with crimes relating to support rather than traveling to join the terror group. The women rarely act on their own, usually partnering with a significant other, either in person or virtually. While comprising just ten percent of the known cases of Americans in Islamic State related offenses, women are actively supporting the cause.
The numbers of American women getting involved with Islamic State are still small compared to the numbers of European women supporting the terror group. One estimate puts the number of European women traveling to join IS at over 500, with nearly 100 from Britain, and over 300 from France. The proximity to the Middle East and the larger Muslim population in Europe are likely factors in the numbers. U.S. women, however, could have greater ease of movement and agency, as some European countries are cracking down on Muslim women by way of headscarf and burka bans.
As the author has written before, the roles of women in these groups continue to evolve, and those in the business of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism will need to shed any preconceived notions of women-as-victim. Women are increasingly playing active roles in these organizations, and doing so voluntarily. Most of the focus of women and terrorism remains on European women, but as shown in this article, there is a presence in the U.S.
However small the number of U.S. women actively supporting IS, it does not mean they should not be taken as serious a threat as the men. As the group’s territory disappears, they will find other areas in which to operate. They group has repeatedly called on its supporters to attack locally if they cannot physically travel to Syria or Iraq. And most recently, the group has seemingly loosened its restrictions on women taking up arms for the cause. The Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies toward Muslims could also be a driving force. Whether the above mentioned factors mean there will be an increase in activity in the United States remains to be seen, but this is an issue deserving additional study, particularly regarding the motivations of Western women who choose to affiliate themselves with IS.
“To underestimate or neglect women jihadists would be a huge mistake for security services…– and one they may pay for in the near future.” – Abu Haniyah
 ISIS in America, https://extremism.gwu.edu/isis-america
 Seamus Hughes & Bennett Clifford, “First He Became an American—Then He Joined ISIS,” The Atlantic, 25 May 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/05/first-he-became-an-americanthen-he-joined-isis/527622/
 US Department of Justice, Collin County Couple Sentenced for Lying to Federal Agents, 13 February 2018, https://www.justice.gov/usao-edtx/pr/collin-county-couple-sentenced-lying-federal-agents
 “2 Women Arrested In New York City For Alleged ISIS-Inspired Terror Plot,” CBS New York, 2 April 2015, http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/04/02/sources-tell-cbs2-2-women-arrested-in-new-york-city-for-alleged-isis-inspired-terror-plot/
 “Shannon Conley, Arvada teen who tried to join ISIS to wage jihad, sentenced to 4 years in prison,” TheDenverChannel, 23 January 2015, https://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/sentencing-for-shannon-conley-arvada-teen-who-tried-to-join-isis-to-wage-jihad
 Joshua Berlinger and Catherine E. Shoichet, “Mississippi woman pleads guilty on charge that she tried to join ISIS,” CNN, 30 March 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/30/us/mississippi-isis-guilty-plea-jaelyn-young/index.html
 Tresa Baldas, “FBI translator secretly married Islamic State leader,” USA Today, 2 May 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/05/02/fbi-translator-secretly-married-islamic-state-leader/309137001/
 Shiraz Maher, “What should happen to the foreign women and children who joined Isis?,” New Statesman, 28 August 2017, https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2017/08/what-should-happen-foreign-women-and-children-who-joined-isis
 Brandee Leon, “Thinking about women’s roles in terrorism,” The View From Here, 12 June 2017, https://misscherryjones.wordpress.com/2017/06/12/thinking-about-womens-roles-in-terrorism/
 Brandee Leon, “Changing Roles? Women as Terror Threat,” The View From Here, 28 February 2018, https://misscherryjones.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/changing-roles-women-as-terror-threat/