Only a small percentage of these women joined the Islamic State for ideological reasons. All the others followed their husbands who decided to become mujahideen, or were forced to marry ISIS fighters. Today, at least geographically, the so-called Islamic State proclaimed in 2014 in the north of Syria and Iraq by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi no longer exists; however, the “women of ISIS,” or “wives of ISIS” as they are commonly called, are still paying a high price—often the ultimate price—for choices that often were made by others for them.
At least 4,500 women arrived in Syria and Iraq after 2014, from all over the Islamic world and several Western countries, with the intention of moving permanently, with the rest of their family, to the territories controlled by the men of the “Caliphate.” Many of them are now widows and have young children. They seem to be a bothersome presence, which governments would like to get rid of, one way or another.
The “Westerners” who arrived from Europe are facing less serious risks than others: sometimes they return to their home countries, where, after a criminal trial, they are punished with only a few years in prison.
The “Arab” women, however, have it much worse in Iraq and in the courts in northern Syria, outside the control of Damascus: there, according to online news outlets from the Middle East, they undergo summary trials, which on average last about ten minutes. For instance, in Iraq, the accused women are taken from the detention camps and brought before a panel of three judges. The court calls forth the name of the accused for the crime of terrorism, and indicates her country of origin.
After a quick examination of the documents, the judges turn to the woman, locked in a cage guarded by police officers, and ask her if she pleads innocent or guilty. No indictment is read out, and no cross-examination or statement by the defense lawyers is allowed. These summary trials are not public, and no representatives of the defendant’s country of citizenship are present—not to mention any members of organizations fighting to protect human rights.
If the woman is lucky, she is sentenced to life imprisonment. Usually, the punishment is death by hanging, and the sentence is carried out immediately. The children are made to suffer the loss of both parents: their fathers usually dead in combat or in a bombing, and their mothers hanged for nothing more than having lived in the Islamic State. They are ultimately sent off to the home countries of their relatives who are willing to receive them.
According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London, over 10 percent of the foreigners who joined ISIS were women. Some ended up “sex slaves” offered to the fighters, while others were simply housewives who took care of their children.
Last August, 1,700 “ISIS women,” together with their children, were captured by the Kurdish peshmerga forces in the region of Tal Afar, Iraq, and taken to Baghdad. The unaccompanied children were sent off to orphanages.
Most of these women are still imprisoned, awaiting identification or trial. Among these is Nuh Suwaidi, one of the most notorious cases. The 24-year old woman left Cologne, Germany, to follow her jihadist husband Mahmoud, first to Iraq and then to Syria. She told the story of how she reached Iraq after going through Turkey and of her life in the “Islamic State.”
“I don’t even know where I was,” she said. “My husband left two days after we arrived and joined a group of militants. I did not know where he was going or for how long. He came back a week later for one day, and this happened again and again for a year. Meanwhile, the ISIS fighters taught me to shoot and also published a picture of me, but I never took part in armed operations.” Suwaidi now fears that she will be sentenced to death, despite being a German citizen.
The Arabic online media outlets explain that the fate of many of these women depends on the attitude of their home countries. In many cases, these countries are only willing to take back the minor children, abandoning the mothers to their fate before the judges in Iraq and northern Syria.
Russia, Chad and Indonesia are the most lenient states: in addition to the children, they are often willing to receive the mothers, who will then stand trial. Overall, there are at least 1,200 children who have been born in the territory controlled by “Caliph” al-Baghdadi in Syria.