Researchers behind a new report argue that recruits are drawn to terror groups like ISIS and Boko Haram specifically because they offer opportunities to commit sexual violence.
An ISIS fighter in Raqqa, Syria. Photo by Handout / Alamy Stock Photo
A new report from a British think-tank illustrates how extremist groups like ISIS justify and promote rape and slavery in order to attract recruitsa—especially those with a history of sexual violence. Researchers from the Henry Jackson Society argue in the report that sexual violence and violence against women is a core tenet of terrorist organizations like Boko Haram and ISIS, and a key factor in their financing and recruitment strategies.
The researchers analyzed academic literature, legislation, terrorist propaganda, victim testimonials, and reports from human rights organizations to gain a better understanding of how sexual violence contributes to terrorism.
According to the report, sexual violence is woven throughout the ideology of terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS. It is a highly profitable industry, with women being sold among fighters or back to their relatives for lucrative ransom payments. In one instance, ISIS made between $127,000 and $244,000 in ransom from 16 hostages alone. The report warns that the terror group may increasingly turn to human trafficking and kidnapping as a source of income as its financial returns from oil fields and taxation continue to drop.
But terrorists use sexual violence for more fundamental reasons: It is key to their policy of aggressive expansion. By sexually enslaving women and forcing them to convert to Islam and bear children, ISIS creates the next generation of recruits. And terrorists know that, due to the social stigma around rape experienced by sexual violence survivors in many Middle Eastern nations, victims can be relied on to keep quiet about the grave abuses they've suffered.
Watch: Malala on Refugees, Advocacy, and the Girl Power Trip
"They [ISIS] use this stigma to continue doing things," explains report author Nikita Malik. This socially enforced silence is exacerbated by the absence of formal protections for victims under the law in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Nigeria. "In these countries, generally the national laws are weak on sexual violence. Marital rape is not recognized, for example."
The researchers argue that many ISIS recruits are drawn to the terror group specifically because it offers opportunities to commit sexual violence. The report highlights ISIS fighters with prior histories of rape, like British recruit Ondogo Ahmed, who fled to Syria after being convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. The promise of sexual slaves, the report argues, effectively creates a pull factor for such men.
"In the terrorist ideology, violence against women isn't just for financial gain, like it is with human traffickers," Malik says. "There's this added dimension of it being seen as a good thing [that] this is happening.
"A lot of the propaganda we come across legitimizes violence against women as a way of punishing kuffar [Arabic for 'unbelievers']; punishing women because they deserve it; because they aren't Muslim women. The only way to stop the slavery is by converting to Islam. By forcing her to convert to Islam, you're helping her leave behind a lifetime of sin and disbelief."
This violence is passed down through generations when captive women are forced to bear children to ISIS fighters. "I would go as far as to say that violence against women as an ideology is necessary to create a new generation," Malik adds.
While many high-profile terrorists have reported histories of domestic abuse—like Rachid Redouane, the London Bridge attacker, and Westminster Bridge terrorist Khalid Masood—Malik believes that further research is necessary to determine whether domestic violence can be seen as a predictor of future terrorist behavior.
She also says that organizations need to work closer together to investigate terrorist ideology to prevent future threats. "At the moment, the security space and the criminal justice space are quite segmented," Malik explains. "I think it's important for smaller organizations who work in the domestic violence and terrorism sector to work more closely together."
Most importantly, she says sexual violence needs to be taken more seriously by the government and the law. "We need to give sexual violence more prominence [under our laws], because it's an incredibly important part of the toolkit that terrorists use to justify what they do," Malik concludes.