The Role of the Internet in the Jihadist Mobilisation of Women in Spain

The mobilisation of women for the jihadist cause emerged in Spain within the framework of the current mobilisation in Western Europe linked to the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the appearance of the so called Islamic State (IS) as a new vanguard of global terrorism.

The explicit call from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to women to make hijra, settle in the ‘Caliphate’ and contribute to its consolidation and expansion has encouraged around 550 Western European women to follow the path of jihad to the Middle East, some (21) with Spanish nationality or residence. In addition, between 2014 and 2016, another 23 women were arrested within Spanish territory for their involvement in terrorist activities linked to IS. (Prior to 2014 no woman had been prosecuted in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism).[1]

How did these women become involved with IS? The Internet certainly played a role.

Internet as a window of opportunity for recruiters and radicalisation agents

Before the emergence of IS the indoctrination of women in Spain used to happen in a very precise and close domestic sphere, largely via face-to-face contact with a militant relative. The Internet opened a window of opportunity for recruiters and radicalisation agents, expanding the scope of potential recruitments to a segment of the population  that would hitherto have been off-limits to them.

Through the Internet more women, but also a greater diversity of women—usually single adolescents and young women mostly second-generation Muslims but also converts—are able to directly access jihadist propaganda and get in touch with like-minded individuals, including radicalising agents. Thus, and in line with the campaign that IS has explicitly run on social media to persuade women to partake in consolidating the project of the sharia-law governed ‘pseudo state’ in the Middle East, women arrested in Spain for IS-related terrorist activities between 2014 and 2016 tended to become radicalised in online settings to a greater extent than men.

More than half of the women included in our study (55.6%) became radicalised in an exclusively online environment as opposed to 30.8% of men (Table 1). By contrast, the women who became radicalised exclusively offline (16.7%) are 6.5 percentage points less than the men who became radicalised just in a face-to-face process (23.1%). Although the predominant setting for women is exclusively virtual, for men it is the combination of online and physical encounters (46.2%) that predominates, which is also the case for almost three out of 10  women (27.8%).

Table 1. Individuals arrested in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism (2014-2016), by sex and environment of radicalisation (in %)
Environment WomenMenTotal
Online55,630,834,9
Mixed27,846,243,1
Offline16,723,122,0
Total(18)(91)(109)
Missing data54449
Source: Elcano Database on Jihadist in Spain (EDBJS)

As regards the online setting, the online spaces in which women underwent their processes of violent radicalisation were as follows: social media, for nine out of 10 detainees (93.3%), followed by messenger applications, used by eight out of 10 (80%) and, finally, forums and blogs, used by two out of 10 (20%) (Table 2). None of these online spaces were used in isolation, but were routinely combined with each other, each playing a different role within the process.

Table 2. Individuals arrested in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism (2013-2016), radicalized in part or in full online, by sex and space of radicalisation (in %)
Ambit of RadicalisationWomenMenTotal
Social Media93,382,384,4
Messenger app80,030,640,3
Other (blogs, forums, etc.)20,071,061,0
Total(15)(62)(77)
Missing data088
Source: EDBJS

What usually happens with online radicalisation is that initial contact is made through social media pages or personal profiles, where recruiters are searching for potential targets. As the relationship becomes stronger, the activity is channelled towards more private and secure settings such as chat apps installed on mobile devices, through which the young woman being radicalised receive all kinds of jihadist content, and take part in conversations about them, either individually or as part of a like-minded group. Sometimes, these groups created in messaging applications and social media reproduce the sex segregation that exists in more conservative and rigorous Islamic settings, with only women being admitted.

A striking feature of the indoctrinators, or radicalisation agents, in the virtual settings referred to above is the influence exerted by people considered to be ‘peers’ of the women. In other words, the relationship is not founded on a situation of hierarchical superiority, underpinned by the indoctrinators’ contacts, charisma, or social position. In fact, the indoctrinators are usually also females fostering a relationship of trust between them. This was the case for almost seven out of 10 women (66.7%) included in this study. Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) were involved in four out of 10 cases (41.7%). Lastly activists—charismatic users with contacts within the organisation concerned—played the role of radicalisation agent in less than two out of 10 cases (16.7%).

A good example of a radicalisation process in an online setting, employing various platforms and the participation of radicalisation agents, is that of a 24 year-old Moroccan woman resident in the province of Barcelona, who on a trip to her origin country with her child, while her husband was out of Spain for work reasons, started to visit various social media sites with jihadist content, on which she became ‘hooked’. On these platforms she came into contact with a Syrian FTF and his sister, who tried to radicalise her by means of constant messages endorsing the caliphate.

As the process advanced, the young woman struck up a relationship with a second fighter, who in turn put her in contact with a military commander of an IS cell in the field to whom she ended-up getting engaged. She held also simultaneous conversations via various messaging apps with Wahhabi sheiks living in different countries in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, whom she queried about a range of religious precepts. She also communicated with a couple of activists in Austria, who gave her reasons for supporting jihad and the decision of a woman to travel alone and unchaperoned to Syria. This was ultimately what she did, in the company of her three year-old child, who was the offspring of her husband in Spain, from whom she was in the process of obtaining a divorce.

As far as the radicalisation processes of women in an offline setting are concerned, these mainly took place in private homes –a highly common setting among jihadists in Spain before and after 2013– and in places of worship and Islamic cultural centres. In this case the activity between the two settings was sometimes complementary in the sense that, after making initial contact in the virtual world, a physical encounter took place between the woman undergoing radicalisation and her agent or agents so that a stronger and more trusting relationship could be established, enabling the agent(s) to increasingly influence the attitudes of the woman on her path towards jihadist involvement.

In any event, the enormous influence of the Internet and social media on young Western women ensures that propaganda reaches them rapidly, directly, and in a language that resonates with them, resembling nothing so much as a marketing campaign. This has had a major bearing on the fact that violent radicalisation processes have become speeded-up and conclude just a few months after starting. All the women in this study for whom information is available completed their radicalisation processes barely a year or even less from the time they began.

The Active Role of Female Jihadists in Social Media

The Internet has been a useful tool in IS’s strategy to consolidate and expand its caliphate project by recruiting young women to be wives and mothers of the future generation of jihadists. The organisation simultaneously profited from women´s ability to persuade other females to follow their path, giving them a very active role within cells, groups, and networks (CGN) when finally they became involved.

So turning now to the individual roles played by each of these women once they concluded their violent radicalisation processes, and bearing in mind that normally two or more tasks were undertaken simultaneously, they tended to be concentrated precisely in social media activity.

Almost eight out of 10 (77.3%) were willing to travel to the caliphate and involve themselves directly in its construction. Other functions performed by the women arrested in Spain included recruiting and radicalising other women (accounting for 45.5%) and spreading propagada over social media and the Internet (22.7%). Also notable were those engaged in praising their terrorist organisation online (18.2%). All these tasks were also performed by a significant number of men, who also undertake a variety of additional roles however, including operational, training, leadership, and coordination duties.

Table 3. Individuals arrested in Spain for activities related to jihadist terrorism (2014-2016), involved with others, by sex and individual functions within their cells, groups or networks (CGN) (in %)
Individual functions within their CGNWomenMenTotal
Foreign Terrorist Fighters77,347,752,6
Recruitment and radicalisation45,572,067,7
Propaganda dissemination22,740,537,6
Exaltation of terrorism18,233,330,8
Training28,824,1
Direction and coordination4,523,420,3
Operational16,213,5
Logistics9,07,5
Financing4,58,17,5
Total(22)(111)(133)
Missing data11112
Source: Elcano Database on Jihadist in Spain (EDBJS)

While women had taken on an active role in this online domain, it was still men who formed the core leadership of the CGN. A good example of the active but secondary role of women is provided by the Kibera network ­dismanteled by the National Police in seven phases during 2014-2015. Despite being in charge of online recruiting and indoctrination of other women on Spanish soil, the women were on the receiving end of instructions from the network leaders: two men based in Morocco.

As we have seen, women features their own distinct patterns of radicalization and involvement in jihadist terrorist organisations, in both cases closely linked with Internet. This necessarily entails taking counterterrorist and preventive measures, especially in the online setting, a particularly sensitive environment, adopting a gender-based approach.

[1] The full text of the article ‘There is no life without jihad and no jihad without hijrah’: the jihadist mobilisation of women in Spain, 2014-16″ can be read at the Elcano Royal Institute website: http://www.realinstitutoelcano.org/wps/portal/rielcano_en/contenido?WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/elcano/elcano_in/zonas_in/ARI34-2017-GarciaCalvo-Jihadist-mobilisation-women-Spain-2014-2016

Dr. Carola García-Calvo is an Analyst on the Program on Global Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute and Associate Professor in the Department of International Relations at Comillas Pontifical University. She is also a VOX-Pol Summer School alumna. Follow her on Twitter: @carolagc13