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Don't Give Jihadi Brides Victimhood Status. Try Them.
A woman looks on as she waits to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after leaving the Islamic State (IS) group's last holdout of Baghouz, in the eastern Syria, March 1, 2019. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Don't Give Jihadi Brides Victimhood Status. Try Them.

Nina Shea & Farahnaz Ispahani

As the Islamic State caliphate’s last redoubt of Baghouz falls to U.S. allied forces, more than 50,000 women and children have recently streamed into camps run by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Among them is a 24-year-old Hoda Muthana, a former Alabama student and a three-time jihadi bride. This summer, a United States federal court will decide her appeal concerning whether she and her 18-month old son are American citizens and whether they can resettle here.

Wherever Muthana ends up — in a Syrian Democratic Force evacuation camp, an Iraqi detention center, or the U.S. — Washington should ensure that she and other women who flocked to ISIS face charges. They threw their support behind a terror group that the U.S. government officially designated as responsible for religious genocide against the Middle Eastern Yazidi, Christian, and ethnic Shiite minorities. These minorities will struggle for generations to recover, and they yearn for justice.

Muthana may no longer shout Allahu Akbar while flashing the IS sign, an index finger pointing upward for monotheism, but she rushed to join ISIS’s caliphate in its early months in 2014 and stayed until its bitter collapse. She enthusiastically answered ISIS’s call to be a wife for its militants and a mother for its next generation of holy warriors, and she played an important administrative role in the caliphate.

An extensive 2018 Netherlands intelligence study found that “in many cases, jihadist women are at least as dedicated to jihadism as men and they … form an essential part of the jihadist movement.” That is demonstrably true for Muthana. On her social media posts, Muthana served as an IS propagandist under the name “Umm Jihad” (mother of jihad). Wake up u cowards she incited, “go on drive-bys and spill all of their blood.” She urged truck-ramming attacks against American veteran parades, like the 2016 Bastille Day gathering in Nice, France. She joined IS’s al-Khanssaa Brigade, a female religious police unit led by Western women and known for lashing local Sunni women with cables for dress-code infractions.

Al-Khanssaa also enforced the caliphate rulings on slave houses – the emblematic institution of ISIS’ genocide. The survivors among 6,000 Yazidi and some Christian victims of IS slavery have testified firsthand about them. Yazidi advocate Pari Ibrahim related: “ISIS brides would lock [the Yazidi slaves] up and beat them. They would shower the girls, put them in nice clothes and put makeup on their faces to get them ready to be raped.”

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad, a Yazidi who escaped enslavement, wrote in her book “Last Girl” that IS women were often “crueler than men” and would “beat and starve their husbands’ sabaya [slaves], out of jealousy or anger or because we are easy targets.” Iraqi Christian Rita Ayoub, liberated from enslavement in 2017, told of being beaten daily until bloody by a Moroccan jihadi bride in Syria, in an effort to force her to convert to Islam. Mingled among the Baghouz evacuees are more of their dazed Yazidi women and children slaves. ISIS wives have even been found concealing guns under their robes as they exit Baghouz.

Despite this, there’s a growing human rights movement that views jihadi brides as part of an undifferentiated class of oppressed women. Some assert that as a sub-class of ISIS’ victims, they merit government protection and housing, jobs and health care under the U.N. Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. (Minor girls who were groomed could fall into this category, but Muthana was of majority age when she joined IS.)

Ratified by the U.S. in 2005, this protocol was aimed at criminal prostitution gangs. Its vague wording, however, could allow foreign ISIS women to be defined as “trafficked victims”: They were “transferred” across Turkey-Syrian borders by ISIS for “the purpose of exploitation” and “deceived” by ISIS’ “fraudulent” claims of family life in an Islamic utopia. The trafficked woman’s “consent” to the intended exploitation can be “irrelevant” if she had unspecified “vulnerabilities.” And imperfect victims — those with “unsavory affiliations” and who “committed crimes in conjunction with their trafficking” — are not disqualified. In other words, the women’s reliance on ISIS to smuggle them into the Islamic State negates their responsibility for their subsequent misdeeds.

This patronizing argument based on gender could find support in American courts. The U.S. government has focused on ISIS men while underestimating the role of their wives. The Justice Department tends to charge women who “ provided material support of ISIS “ from within the U.S., but with few exceptions it ignores the crimes of women, American or not, who went to the caliphate.

One exception was Sally Jones, a 40-something British rocker and Muslim convert who, in 2013, went to Syria to marry a 21-year-old ISIS hacker and then joined the Islamic State. After posting online a hit list of American military personnel, they became known as “Mr. and Mrs. Terror.” Jones claimed credit for posting the address of the Navy SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden and she was part of the al-Khanssaa Brigade. In 2016, the U.S. added Jones to its terror list and, in 2017, reportedly killed her in a drone strike, the first targeting a woman.

Another was Umm Sayyaf, the Iraqi wife of IS’ chief financier. She organized sabaya, institutionalized sexual enslavement, and personally managed the serial rape of 26-year-old American humanitarian Kayla Mueller. Kayla died enslaved in 2016 but we know of her ordeal from two Yazidi teenagers who were chained with her in the Sayyaf home. Umm Sayyaf also told American interrogators of jihadi wives who gathered intelligence for IS and aided jihadi operations.

But even there, the U.S. was reluctant. In May 2015, Umm Sayyaf was captured in a U.S. Delta Force raid targeting her husband and, incredibly, was released without charge. In 2016, U.S. federal prosecutors, pressed by Sen. John McCain, eventually charged her with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization that resulted in an American death. She is now held in Iraq.

That neither Jones nor Umm Sayyaf held rank within ISIS did not exonerate their complicity in crimes of terror and human rights abuses.

The real victims of IS deserve justice. Specifically on the issue of jihadi brides, Ibrahim told us: “What we Yazidis want is for a court somewhere to recognize that these people are guilty of more than just terrorism, that they have committed genocide or crimes against humanity.” Last year, President Trump signed a law to help them get just such an accountability.

The ultimate travesty would be to now confer the jihadi brides with victimhood status that absolves them of all responsibility for the heinous crimes committed by ISIS. Muthana and other jihadi brides should face charges and fair trials.

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