Women In ISIS: Prison Study Reveals Face Of Female Jihadists

'He clutches a magic wand as if it's his only hope.'
A view of Beirut’s notorious Roumieh prison
Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli

BEIRUT – Few women have ever gained access to Block B of Beirut's notorious Roumieh prison. This is where Lebanon holds radicalized criminals. It is also a place where suicide bombings have allegedly been planned, and has been called an "operations room" for the so-called Islamic State by Lebanon's interior minister. So when Maya and Nancy Yamout first began interviewing convicted jihadists in the prison, the Lebanese sisters aroused both confusion and suspicion among guards and prisoners alike.

The Yamouts' interest began with a university project, but it took the support of the former minister of justice to get them inside Roumieh. It was unheard-of for two young women, even professionals, to attempt such a project. The sisters are forensic social workers, which means they tackle issues relating to law and legal systems, such as recommendations about mental status, child custody or neglect.

"It was strange for ISF Internal Security Forces to see us in prison … we were asked, ‘Why do you want to do this? Go pick another topic,"" Maya says. Even the ISF guards who helped them showed no interest in their interviews.

Seven years on, after a Master's thesis about The Role of Forensic Social Work in Terrorism and its impact on society, the pair have become prison regulars. Apart from lawyers and family members, the sisters are the only civilians the Block B prisoners meet. They regularly interview more than 70 inmates – about 10% of the block's total population – from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Russia and Sudan. Roughly half are said to have been de-radicalized, and are finishing their prison time. Prisons are key recruiting centers for radicalization, putting Maya and Nancy into a potential cauldron of violent extremism.

We remind them of their mothers or sisters

For the two women in their late 20s, gaining the confidence of Block B prisoners, many of whom fear retribution from other inmates for speaking, was no easy task. But Maya and Nancy say they use the same techniques as jihadist recruiters: trust, respect and empathy. In some cases, their gender was an advantage. Nancy says: "We reminded them of their own sisters or mothers."

Instead of cigarettes, the pair bring in trays of maamoul biscuits with fruit or nuts. "The sense of smell is very evocative and powerful," says Nancy. "Cigarettes will remind the prisoner of jail, jihad and the guards interrogating them; sweets will bring them back to their family life before jihad."

Through their interviews with the men in Roumieh, the sisters gained a unique insight into the multiple roles women have in maintaining and propagating the extremist ideology, and how they can play a vital part in de-radicalization. "Women are key in continuing the ideology, they have an active role in ISIS, although it does not come out in the propaganda," Nancy says.

The public perception of women in ISIS is generally limited to the all-female al-Khansaa brigade, known for its snipers and skills with IEDs explosives. There are also the many accounts of "ISIS brides." But far from acting solely as "wives," the women who support ISIS often help with logistics and smuggling jihadists from one place to another.

Such was the case with Jumana Hmayed – the only woman the two social workers interviewed directly. She was jailed for transporting bomb-rigged cars into Lebanon and was freed as part of a 2015 prisoner swap for kidnapped Lebanese soldiers. In her case, according to the sisters, the real motivation was financial.

According to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, women who join these extremist organizations think they are being progressive. They see themselves as "part of a social movement. They are dedicated to the cause and really believe in it."

He cites the example of Marika Salouit, who was recruiting women through the Nymbar al Jihad website in Afghanistan. But women's role is not confined to recruiting others of their gender: They also play a part in shaming men to join.

Though no official estimates exist of the number of women who have joined ISIS or al-Qaeda, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, author of "The Female Face of Jihadism," puts the number at roughly 550 western female jihadists, and thousands from the Middle East and North Africa. "In Tunisia alone, 700 are believed to have joined ISIS while in the West, the French and British constitute the highest contingent," she says.

As mothers, sisters and wives, women help to spread jihadist ideology. And ISIS fighters have noticed. They specifically appeal to women to join, making war appear glorious while trivializing violence. Umm Ubaydah, believed to be a Western woman in Manbij, "gives advice" to other women planning on traveling to Syria to join ISIS, where "their contribution comes in the home and through reaching out to other women online," New York magazine reported.

Dr. Yazbeck expects "women's role as recruiters and facilitators is going to continue, and is currently evolving on the battlefield." She cites recent incidents involving female snipers seen in Sirte, Libya, as well as in Mosul, along with the foiled attack near the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris last September.

As ISIS suffers losses in the battle for Mosul, it is reaching into new territory for support. "ISIS is now trying to lure women nurses and doctors to join them; they need these people now with these skills on the battlefield in Mosul," Aymen Dean, a former al-Qaeda recruiter turned informant to British intelligence, told Syria Deeply.

ISIS recruiters are extremely smart

He also explained how the real recruiting is now done via video sharing, not on Facebook or Twitter, and via one-on-one phone apps such as Telegram or Whatsapp. Technology has increased the reach of recruiting exponentially, which only heightens the urgency of the job of in-person de-radicalization by people like the Yamout sisters.

"ISIS recruiters are extremely smart," says Nancy. The ‘fishers' in Lebanon, as she refers to them, are astute and know how to target multiple groups, which is why it is so difficult to stop them. Jihadist groups often become substitutes for gainful employment. But it's not just about money. With weapons, the group offers the illusion of power, and with ideology offers an identity and sense of belonging. It's a broad appeal that cuts across social classes.

The motives of the interviewed individuals can be grouped into four categories: "psychopaths," ethnic and geopolitical reasons, religion, retribution. Despite this broad range, the sisters can measure success in de-radicalizing an inmate by observing changes throughout their interviews, Maya says.

Though "in prison they can't show they changed in an overt way because they are afraid that the prisoners might be abused by other fanatic inmates," most released prisoners contact the social workers, giving them an opportunity to observe any real changes. So far, results from rehabilitating two prisoners and conducting group therapy for another four have been positive. But not every case is a success; Maya says some of the prisoners who contacted them did not want to change, and two such men returned to Syria and Turkey.

The sisters' successful cases, however, could play a key role in deradicalizing others by offering a voice to those who have deradicalized, Yazbek said. Returnees are seen as legitimate and they know how to talk to their own communities, she explained. Someone considering joining a jihadist group is more likely to trust a "returnee" than an institutional officer. Offering them a sense of purpose and a different option is key.

The sisters' work with people both before and after radicalization has highlighted the need to focus on those who have been successfully deradicalized. Armed with insights from years of interviewing prisoners in Roumieh, they founded Rescue Me, an NGO dedicated to crime prevention and combating radicalization, operating where the community needs them most, with teens and children in particular, and implementing programs targeting schools and dropouts.

"We need to focus on the success stories and shed light on them," says Nancy. "Not only on negativity, we must spread this knowledge."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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