The Altruistic Terrorist: The Humanitarian Pull for Women to Join Terrorist Organizations

By William Hartley, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University

The issue of extremist travellers heading to regions controlled by terrorist organizations is one that has plagued many countries, including Canada. In the recently released 2016 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada, Public Safety Canada acknowledges that by the end of 2015, approximately 180 Canadians had travelled abroad to support terrorist organizations. It also listed a particularly concerning emerging issue: the increased participation of women in these travels and terrorism related activities. According to the Report, about 20% of all Canadians who travel to join terrorist groups are female. Often, it is assumed that women travel to be male terrorist’s brides, however there is evidence that they also take part in training and combat, along with more supportive roles of aiding others who have migrated. While there are many possible reasons that women would wish to participate in terrorist organizations, recent publications are citing altruistic or humanitarian reasons as those that seem to be having the greatest pull. Targeting these driving factors would be an effective way to reduce the participation of women in terrorist activities.

The Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV) recently released an analytical report entitled Radicalization Leading to Violence in Schools in Quebec: Issues and Perspectives. In this study, the CPRLV explored the troubles that the College de Maisonneuve experienced, when 11 of its students either left or attempted to leave for Syria, the majority of which were female. Interviews with family members and friends of extremist travellers found that there was “a distinction between the girls and boys, in that the former spoke about going to Syria more in terms of providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of war, while the latter might also wish to fight and take part in the war.”

This issue is most likely due to a combination of factors. In the CPRLV’s report, they outline a potential process that radicalized women could go through, which would push them to travel abroad for terrorist organizations, including, ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).  After segregating and distancing themselves from the world they live in (from family members, school, etc.), and adopting a strict, exclusive interpretation of Islam, they begin to believe that the so-called ‘caliphate’ is the only place they can practice ‘pure Islam’. Due to this belief, they travel to that region to aid their struggling brothers and sisters. In conjunction, the center acknowledged that several future doctors and nurses travelled or attempted to travel abroad, stating that: “[t]he opportunity to put a passion for humanitarian work into practice by applying previously-learned skills”, was a factor in their desire  to travel abroad. This, in combination with potential discrimination and stigmatization experienced at home, helps in understanding why they may decide to leave their home country, and travel abroad. They falsely believe that travelling to terrorist controlled regions in Syria was a humanitarian effort and altruistic action, and this combination of factors contributed to it.

This altruistic belief is one that must be targeted, if we wish to lower the rates of women leaving to join terrorist organizations abroad. When attempting to deradicalize, and reintegrate women into the Canadian society, this altruistic perception must be altered. This action is a major issue and one that should not be disregarded, as when helping out abroad, they are not only providing active support to terrorist organizations, but also giving them credibility, along with potential ammunition for propaganda efforts to recruit other foreigners.

The Canadian government has committed (first in its mandate letter for the Minster of Public Safety Ralph Goodale , and later in various reports including the 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada) to the creation of an Office of Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator. This office is intended to focus on conducting research related to countering radicalization to violence, along with providing support initiatives and community outreach. One possible method of reducing women’s interest in humanitarian efforts for terrorist organizations would be to redirect it to more accepted efforts. These can be used as outlets to put their expertise to use (if it is an education-related activity), or simply to channel their altruistic tendencies for efforts that are more inclusive to their societies and that will promote cooperation within their communities.

It is important to note that this is not a factor that is dependent on any particular religion, terrorist group or cause. Whenever there is a situation where Canadian citizens feel obligated to help a particular situation abroad, these altruistic feelings can potentially become a factor. This could be for a future movement that is a threat to Canada, but independent from ISIS or any terrorist group/motivation we know today. That is why by focusing on this altruistic aspect and the knowledge that it is a particular attraction to women, we can potentially reduce this increasing issue of female participation in future terrorist activities.

Street Photography – Syria” by Beshr Abdulhadi is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

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1 reply

  1. Will, interesting. Have you looked at the cluster at “College de Maisonneuve… when 11 of its students either left or attempted to leave for Syria”, an obviously disproportionate number of individuals from the same institution. What were their motivations? Peer pressure explains some of it, and can “idealism” be separated from “altruism” in your study?

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