We should pay more attention to the role of gender in Islamist radicalization

One of the key current UK security issues is how to deal with British citizens returning from participation in ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Most of the hundreds fighting with ISIS were men and youths. But, dozens of British women and girls also travelled to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For some, online recruitment appeared to be an important part of their radicalization, and many took to the Internet to praise life in the new Caliphate once they arrived there. These cases raised concerns about female radicalization online, and put the issue of women, terrorism, and radicalization firmly on the policy agenda. This was not the first time such fears had been raised. In 2010, the university student Roshonara Choudhry stabbed her Member of Parliament, after watching YouTube videos of the radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki. She is the first and only British woman so far convicted of a violent Islamist attack.

In her Policy & Internet article “The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad”, Elizabeth Pearson explores how gender might have factored in Roshonara’s radicalization, in order to present an alternative to existing theoretical explanations. First, in precluding her from a real-world engagement with Islamism on her terms, gender limitations in the physical world might have pushed her to the Internet. Here, a lack of religious knowledge made her particularly vulnerable to extremist ideology; a susceptibility only increased through Internet socialization and to an active radical milieu. Finally, it might have created a dissonance between her online and multiple “real” gendered identities, resulting in violence.

As yet, there is no adequately proven link between online material and violent acts. But given the current reliance of terrorism research on the online environment, and the reliance of policy on terrorism research, the relationship between the virtual and offline domains must be better understood. So too must the process of “radicalization” — which still lacks clarity, and relies on theorizing that is rife with assumptions. Whatever the challenges, understanding how men and women become violent radicals, and the differences there might be between them, has never been more important.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You note “the Internet has become increasingly attractive to many women extremists in recent years” — do these extremist views tend to be found on (general) social media or on dedicated websites? Presumably these sites are discoverable via fairly basic search?

Elizabeth: Yes and no. Much content is easily found online. ISIS has been very good at ‘colonizing’ popular social media platforms with supporters, and in particular, Twitter was for a period the dominant site. It was ideal as it allowed ISIS fans to find one another, share material, and build networks and communities of support. In the past 18 months Twitter has made a concerted – and largely successful – effort to ‘take down’ or suspend accounts. This may simply have pushed support elsewhere. We know that Telegram is now an important channel for information, for example. Private groups, the dark web and hidden net resources exist alongside open source material on sites such as Facebook, familiar to everyone. Given the illegality of much of this content, there has been huge pressure on companies to respond. Still there is criticism from bodies such as the Home Affairs Select Committee that they are not responding quickly or efficiently enough.

Ed.: This case seemed to represent a collision not just of “violent jihadists vs the West” but also “Salafi-Jihadists vs women” (as well as “Western assumptions of Muslim assumptions of acceptable roles for women”) .. were these the main tensions at play here?

Elizabeth: One of the key aspects of Roshonara’s violence was that it was transgressive. Violent Jihadist groups tend towards conservatism regarding female roles. Although there is no theological reason why women should not participate in the defensive Jihad, they are not encouraged to do so. ISIS has worked hard in its propaganda to keep female roles domestic – yet ideologically so. Roshonara appears to have absorbed Al Awlaki’s messaging regarding the injustices faced by Muslims, but only acted when she saw a video by Azzam, a very key scholar for Al Qaeda supporters, which she understood as justifying female violence. Hatred of western foreign policy, and support for intervention in Iraq appeared to be the motivation for her attack; a belief that women could also fight is what prompted her to carry this out herself.

Ed.: Does this struggle tend to be seen as a political struggle about land and nationhood; or a supranational religious struggle — or both? (with the added complication of Isis conflating nation and religion..)

Elizabeth: Nobody yet understands exactly why people ‘radicalize’. It’s almost impossible to profile violent radicals beyond saying they tend to be mainly male – and as we know, that is not a hard and fast rule either. What we can say is that there are complex factors, and a variety of recurrent themes cited by violent actors, and found in propaganda and messaging. One narrative is about political struggle on behalf of Muslims, who face injustice, particularly from the West. ISIS has made this struggle about the domination of land and nationhood, a development of Al Qaeda’s message. Religion is also important to this. Despite different levels of knowledge of Islam, supporters of the violent Jihad share commitment to battle as justified in the Quran. They believe that Islam is the way, the only way, and they find in their faith an answer to global issues, and whatever is happening personally to them. It is not possible, in my view, to ignore the religious component declared in this struggle. But there are other factors too. That’s what makes this so difficult and complex.

Ed.: You say that Roshonara “did not follow the path of radicalization set out in theory”. How so? But also .. how important and grounded is this “theory” in the practice of counter-radicalization? And what do exceptions like Roshonara Choudhry signify?

Elizabeth: Theory — based on empirical evidence — suggests that violence is a male preserve. Violent Jihadist groups also generally restrict their violence to men, and men only. Theory also tells us that actors rarely carry out violence alone. Belonging is an important part of the violent Jihad and ‘entrance’ to violence is generally through people you know, friends, family, acquaintances. Even where we have seen young women for example travel to join ISIS, this has tended to be facilitated through friends, or online contacts, or family. Roshanara as a female acting alone in this time before ISIS is therefore something quite unusual. She signifies – through her somewhat unique case – just how transgressive female violence is, and just how unusual solitary action is. She also throws into question the role of the internet. The internet alone is not usually sufficient for radicalization; offline contacts matter. In her case there remain some questions of what other contacts may have influenced her violence.

I’m not entirely sure how joined up counter-radicalization practices and radicalization theory are. The Prevent strategy aside, there are many different approaches, in the UK alone. The most successful that I have seen are due to committed individuals who know the communities they are based in and are trusted by them. It is relationships that seem to count, above all else.

Ed.: Do you think her case is an interesting outlier (a “lone wolf” as people commented at the time), or do you think there’s a need for more attention to be paid to gender (and women) in this area, either as potential threats, or solutions?

Elizabeth: Roshonara is a young woman, still in jail for her crime. As I wrote this piece I thought of her as a student at King’s College London, as I am, and I found it therefore all the more affecting that she did what she did. There is a connection through that shared space. So it’s important for me to think of her in human terms, in terms of what her life was like, who her friends were, what her preoccupations were and how she managed, or did not manage, her academic success, her transition to a different identity from the one her parents came from. She is interesting to me because of this, and because she is an outlier. She is an outlier who reveals certain truths about what gender means in the violent Jihad. That means women, yes, but also men, ideas about masculinity, male and female roles. I don’t think we should think of young Muslim people as either ‘threats’ or ‘solutions’. These are not the only possibilities. We should think about society, and how gender works within it, and within particular communities within it.

Ed.: And is gender specifically “relevant” to consider when it comes to Islamic radicalization, or do you see similar gender dynamics across all forms of political and religious extremism?

Elizabeth: My current PhD research considers the relationship between the violent Jihad and the counter-Jihad – cumulative extremism. To me, gender matters in all study. It’s not really anything special or extra, it’s just a recognition that if you are looking at groups you need to take into account the different ways that men and women are affected. To me that seems quite basic, because otherwise you are not really seeing a whole picture. Conservative gender dynamics are certainly also at work in some nationalist groups. The protection of women, the function of women as representative of the honour or dishonour of a group or nation – these matter to groups and ideologies beyond the violent Jihad. However, the counter-Jihad is in other ways progressive, for example promoting narratives of protecting gay rights as well as women’s rights. So women for both need to be protected – but what they need to be protected from and how differs for each. What is important is that the role of women, and of gender, matters in consideration of any ‘extremism’, and indeed in politics more broadly.

Ed.: You’re currently doing research on Boko Haram — are you also looking at gender? And are there any commonalities with the British context you examined in this article?

Elizabeth: Boko Haram interests me because of the ways in which it has transgressed some of the most fundamental gender norms of the Jihad. Since 2014 they have carried out hundreds of suicide attacks using women and girls. This is highly unusual and in fact unprecedented in terms of numbers. How this impacts on their relationship with the international Jihad, and since 2015, ISIS, to whom their leader gave a pledge of allegiance is something I have been thinking about.

There are many local aspects of the Nigerian conflict that do not translate – poverty, the terrain, oral traditions of preaching, human rights violations, Sharia in northern Nigerian states, forced recruitment.. In gender terms however, the role of women, the honour/dishonour of women, and gender-based violence translate across contexts. In particular, women are frequently instrumentalized by movements for a greater cause. Perhaps the greatest similarity is the resistance to the imposition of Western norms, including gender norms, free-mixing between men and women and gender equality. This is a recurrent theme for violent Jihadists and their supporters across geography. They wish to protect the way of life they understand in the Quran, as they believe this is the word of God, and the only true word, superseding all man-made law.

Read the full article: Pearson, E. (2016) The Case of Roshonara Choudhry: Implications for Theory on Online Radicalization, ISIS Women, and the Gendered Jihad. Policy & Internet 8 (1) doi:10.1002/poi3.101.

Elizabeth Pearson was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Assessing the Ethics and Politics of Policing the Internet for Extremist Material

The Internet serves not only as a breeding ground for extremism, but also offers myriad data streams which potentially hold great value to law enforcement. The report by the OII’s Ian Brown and Josh Cowls for the VOX-Pol project: Check the Web: Assessing the Ethics and Politics of Policing the Internet for Extremist Material explores the complexities of policing the web for extremist material, and its implications for security, privacy and human rights. Josh Cowls discusses the report with blog editor Bertie Vidgen.*

*please note that the views given here do not necessarily reflect the content of the report, or those of the lead author, Ian Brown.

In terms of counter-speech there are different roles for government, civil society, and industry. Image by Miguel Discart (Flickr).


Ed: Josh, could you let us know the purpose of the report, outline some of the key findings, and tell us how you went about researching the topic?

Josh: Sure. In the report we take a step back from the ground-level question of ‘what are the police doing?’ and instead ask, ‘what are the ethical and political boundaries, rationale and justifications for policing the web for these kinds of activity?’ We used an international human rights framework as an ethical and legal basis to understand what is being done. We also tried to further the debate by clarifying a few things: what has already been done by law enforcement, and, really crucially, what the perspectives are of all those involved, including lawmakers, law enforcers, technology companies, academia and many others.

We derived the insights in the report from a series of workshops, one of which was held as part of the EU-funded VOX-Pol network. The workshops involved participants who were quite high up in law enforcement, the intelligence agencies, the tech industry civil society, and academia. We followed these up with interviews with other individuals in similar positions and conducted background policy research.

Ed: You highlight that many extremist groups (such as Isis) are making really significant use of online platforms to organize, radicalize people, and communicate their messages.

Josh: Absolutely. A large part of our initial interest when writing the report lay in finding out more about the role of the Internet in facilitating the organization, coordination, recruitment and inspiration of violent extremism. The impact of this has been felt very recently in Paris and Beirut, and many other places worldwide. This report pre-dates these most recent developments, but was written in the context of these sorts of events.

Given the Internet is so embedded in our social lives, I think it would have been surprising if political extremist activity hadn’t gone online as well. Of course, the Internet is a very powerful tool and in the wrong hands it can be a very destructive force. But other research, separate from this report, has found that the Internet is not usually people’s first point of contact with extremism: more often than not that actually happens offline through people you know in the wider world. Nonetheless it can definitely serve as an incubator of extremism and can serve to inspire further attacks.

Ed: In the report you identify different groups in society that are affected by, and affecting, issues of extremism, privacy, and governance – including civil society, academics, large corporations and governments

Josh: Yes, in the later stages of the report we do divide society into these groups, and offer some perspectives on what they do, and what they think about counter-extremism. For example, in terms of counter-speech there are different roles for government, civil society, and industry. There is this idea that ISIS are really good at social media, and that that is how they are powering a lot of their support; but one of the people that we spoke to said that it is not the case that ISIS are really good, it is just that governments are really bad!

We shouldn’t ask government to participate in the social network: bureaucracies often struggle to be really flexible and nimble players on social media. In contrast, civil society groups tend to be more engaged with communities and know how to “speak the language” of those who might be vulnerable to radicalization. As such they can enter that dialogue in a much more informed and effective way.

The other tension, or paradigm, that we offer in this report is the distinction between whether people are ‘at risk’ or ‘a risk’. What we try to point to is that people can go from one to the other. They start by being ‘at risk’ of radicalization, but if they do get radicalized and become a violent threat to society, which only happens in the minority of cases, then they become ‘a risk’. Engaging with people who are ‘at risk’ highlights the importance of having respect and dialogue with communities that are often the first to be lambasted when things go wrong, but which seldom get all the help they need, or the credit when they get it right. We argue that civil society is particularly suited for being part of this process.

Ed: It seems like the things that people do or say online can only really be understood in terms of the context. But often we don’t have enough information, and it can be very hard to just look at something and say ‘This is definitely extremist material that is going to incite someone to commit terrorist or violent acts’.

Josh: Yes, I think you’re right. In the report we try to take what is a very complicated concept – extremist material – and divide it into more manageable chunks of meaning. We talk about three hierarchical levels. The degree of legal consensus over whether content should be banned decreases as it gets less extreme. The first level we identified was straight up provocation and hate speech. Hate speech legislation has been part of the law for a long time. You can’t incite racial hatred, you can’t incite people to crimes, and you can’t promote terrorism. Most countries in Europe have laws against these things.

The second level is the glorification and justification of terrorism. This is usually more post-hoc as by definition if you are glorifying something it has already happened. You may well be inspiring future actions, but that relationship between the act of violence and the speech act is different than with provocation. Nevertheless, some countries, such as Spain and France, have pushed hard on criminalising this. The third level is non-violent extremist material. This is the most contentious level, as there is very little consensus about what types of material should be called ‘extremist’ even though they are non-violent. One of the interviewees that we spoke to said that often it is hard to distinguish between someone who is just being friendly and someone who is really trying to persuade or groom someone to go to Syria. It is really hard to put this into a legal framework with the level of clarity that the law demands.

There is a proportionality question here. When should something be considered specifically illegal? And, then, if an illegal act has been committed what should the appropriate response be? This is bound to be very different in different situations.

Ed: Do you think that there are any immediate or practical steps that governments can take to improve the current situation? And do you think that there any ethical concerns which are not being paid sufficient attention?

Josh: In the report we raised a few concerns about existing government responses. There are lots of things beside privacy that could be seen as fundamental human rights and that are being encroached upon. Freedom of association and assembly is a really interesting one. We might not have the same reverence for a Facebook event plan or discussion group as we would a protest in a town hall, but of course they are fundamentally pretty similar.

The wider danger here is the issue of mission creep. Once you have systems in place that can do potentially very powerful analytical investigatory things then there is a risk that we could just keep extending them. If something can help us fight terrorism then should we use it to fight drug trafficking and violent crime more generally? It feels to me like there is a technical-military-industrial complex mentality in government where if you build the systems then you just want to use them. In the same way that CCTV cameras record you irrespective of whether or not you commit a violent crime or shoplift, we need to ask whether the same panoptical systems of surveillance should be extended to the Internet. Now, to a large extent they are already there. But what should we train the torchlight on next?

This takes us back to the importance of having necessary, proportionate, and independently authorized processes. When you drill down into how rights privacy should be balanced with security then it gets really complicated. But the basic process-driven things that we identified in the report are far simpler: if we accept that governments have the right to take certain actions in the name of security, then, no matter how important or life-saving those actions are, there are still protocols that governments must follow. We really wanted to infuse these issues into the debate through the report.

Read the full report: Brown, I., and Cowls, J., (2015) Check the Web: Assessing the Ethics and Politics of Policing the Internet for Extremist Material. VOX-Pol Publications.

Josh Cowls is a a student and researcher based at MIT, working to understand the impact of technology on politics, communication and the media.

Josh Cowls was talking to Blog Editor Bertie Vidgen.