Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Although the fighting in Syria has been accompanied at every stage by warnings about the spread and growing influence of jihadist groups, it has shone a spotlight on a development which has taken everybody by surprise: the increasing involvement of female militants in the activities of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
Sisters in arms
The most famous example is perhaps that of a Saudi woman, Nada Ma’id Al-Qahtani, also known as Ukht Julaybib in reference to a female martyr and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who reportedly went to fight in Syria along with her brother.
In the wake of Qahtani’s announcement via social media that she would be traveling to Syria to fight on the front lines and take part in jihadist operations, Islamist activists took to social media to congratulate the Saudi national and call on other women to follow her footsteps. The ‘Nada call-up’ began to trend on social media websites, with Islamist Twitter activists hailing her and those like her as a new infusion of jihadist blood, likening her to Wafa Al-Shihri and Arwa Al-Baghdadi.
Wafa Al-Shihri is the widow of former Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Saeed Al-Shihri, who after being repatriated by Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo Bay fled to Yemen where he co-founded AQAP and continued his terrorist activities, ultimately being killed in a US drone strike in late 2012. Arwa Al-Baghdadi is the wife of another AQAP member, Anis Al-Baghdadi, who is also currently believed to be hiding out in Yemen. However both women are more than just the wives of Al-Qaeda members, with Saudi authorities accusing the two of organizing, financing and providing ideological support for the organization, in addition to issuing public calls for others to join Al-Qaeda.
Kunyas and noms de guerre are nothing new in the Arab world, from the world of politics where they are used as shorthand to the world of terrorism where they are used to hide one’s true identity. So just as Palestinian presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas are commonly referred to in the Arab world by their kunya titles, Abu Ammar and Abu Mazen respectively, Al-Qaeda former leader Osama Bin Laden was known as Abu Abdullah, and elusive Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh was known as Abu Dukhan (the Father of Smoke). However we are now seeing Al-Qaeda female activists—online or otherwise—adopt the same practice, with examples including Umm Al-Qaada (Mother of the Leaders), Bint Al-Asham (Daughter of the Bountiful), and Sayida Al-Qaeda (the Lady of Al-Qaeda).
Online Al-Qaeda female activists can now be found on social media websites and forums encouraging impressionable young men and women to join the cause. This is a kind of modern re-creation of traditional roles played by Arab women during ancient wars, where they would both encourage the men fighting in the battle and then wail and lament those who had been killed after the battle’s end.
Wafa Al-Shihri issued a call in May 2010 to Saudi women to join Al-Qaeda. In an article published by Al-Qaeda’s media wing, she wrote: “If your man is unable to defend and take care of you, come and enjoy the hospitality and protection of the best fighters in the Arabian Peninsula,” in what represented a major step forward in the evolution of Al-Qaeda’s female wing.
Not just cheering from the sidelines
Perhaps the most well-known of all Al-Qaeda’s women is Haylah Al-Qassir, better known in the media as Sayida Al-Qaeda, or the Lady of Al-Qaeda. Qassir, like many others, was introduced to extremist ideas through family connections, in this case husband Abdul-Karim Al-Humaid, a well-known Saudi ascetic. Qassir later divorced Al-Humaid and married prominent Al-Qaeda member Mohamad Al-Wakeel, who was killed in a shootout with security forces in December 2004 following a failed car bomb attack on Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry.
Prior to Sayida Al-Qaeda, considered by some commentators as “one of the most active and effective Al-Qaeda operatives in Saudi Arabia,” the role of women in Al-Qaeda had been restricted to preparing food and clothing for fighters, and encouraging others to take part in jihad. But Asharq Al-Awsat is in possession of information confirming that Qassir was not just a sideline supporter or activist for Al-Qaeda; she was a “highly effective and integrated member” of the group who was a major figure in terms of securing funding and new recruits, including Al-Qaeda members who would later go on to carry out suicide attacks. She has since been charged with a number of crimes, including aiding and abetting Al-Qaeda members, possessing weapons used in terrorist attacks, and inciting others to commit terrorist acts.
The prominent role played by women is something that characterizes AQAP in particular and has been a feature of this branch of Al-Qaeda since its inception. First ever AQAP emir Yusef Al-Ayeri, who was killed in 2003, highlighted the important role of women in the organization. In an open letter entitled ‘The role of women in jihad against the enemy,’ he stated that “if a woman is convinced of something, she is the greatest source of strength in a man’s [jihadist] performance, while if she opposes something then she is the biggest obstacle.”
The women of Al-Qaeda, particularly those affiliated to AQAP, have become a major force in online recruitment. However the role of the organization’s female members has progressively moved beyond this towards actual operations.
Since Al-Qaeda’s establishment, the group has sought to keep women away from front line activities, whether in Afghanistan or later in Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The first Al-Qaeda affiliated female suicide operation took place in Iraq after Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi announced that he would be utilizing female suicide bombers.
This is an issue that remains controversial among jihadists, with fatwas and counter fatwas being issued legitimizing and prohibiting this phenomenon. Although AQAP emir Ayeri significantly expanded women’s role in jihadist operations, he was opposed to women physically taking up arms in the fight.
In the same open letter addressing women, he wrote: “We don’t want you to enter the battlefield during strife; we want you to emulate our female ancestors in their incitement to jihad, their preparedness for this, their patience, and passion in taking part in any activity for the sake of the victory of Islam.”
“Know that if you hold men back from jihad—whether they are your sons, husbands or brothers—this is a slight against God’s will,” the statement added.
Despite this, however, we are now seeing an increasing number of women, such as Ukht Julaybib, physically taking part in Al-Qaeda’s battles.
A group of women calling themselves ‘The Companions of Jinan’ recently issued a statement defending Ukht Julaybib’s decision to take up arms in Syria. The statement said: “A woman’s decision to fight on the battlefield is a private matter. Women have the freedom to fight so long as they do not engage in sinful activities.”
“Jihad is not a duty for a Muslim woman, but if she does perform it then she will be rewarded, even if her role is to provide medical care to injured fighters,” the statement continued.
The statement ended by criticizing men who sought to prevent women from joining the fight: “Man is not called on to make decisions on those matters he does not know how to rule over legitimately, so it is necessary for Muslims not to speak about legal matters, or to rule on issues outside of their experience.”
What is strange here is that this statement, issued by a pro-Al-Qaeda group, contradicts the views of some of the organization’s most prominent leaders. In addition to AQAP emir Ayeri’s views on the matter, a famous fatwa by one of the organization’s most well-respected clerics, Abu Mohammad Al-Maqdisi, also rules against the issue of women taking up arms. In his recent book, entitled A Series of Papers from the Notebook of a Prisoner, Maqdisi writes: “A sane, reasonable brother should not expose his family to the authority of God’s enemies, especially since many of them have no religion, protection or concept of chivalry.”
Specifically in relation to women in Syria, he writes: “If a brother asks a female family member to accompany him to the fields of jihad in Syria in a way that is oblivious to their wellbeing, then he is of the most careless people. Such carelessness does not befit a mujahid.”
“A brother should not be reckless and ask [the female members of] his family to go to the battlefields, as there is a danger that they could fall into the hands of defectors before arriving in the country, or even worse into the hands of the [pro-Assad regime] Shabiha militia,” he continues.
It remains to be seen, then, how the role of women in Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups will develop in the future. Nothing has been heard of Ukht Julaybib since the furor provoked by the announcement of her traveling to Syria.
It would be ironic, given the criticism Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers face in the West for their attitudes towards women, if its female members were to emerge as some of its most steadfast operatives. The fact that a debate over allowing women to take on a wider selection of front-line roles in many Western militaries is ongoing at the same time makes this doubly so.
However, one thing remains certain: Al-Qaeda’s component parts will remain a deadly threat to its enemies thanks in part to these women’s efforts—whatever form those efforts take in the future.