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More female extremists leaving Canada to join Islamic State: report

15-year-old Amira Abase, left, Kadiza Sultana,16, centre, and Shamima Begum,15, left England in a suspected bid to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in February. Dozens of Canadian women are suspected of doing the same.
15-year-old Amira Abase, left, Kadiza Sultana,16, centre, and Shamima Begum,15, left England in a suspected bid to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State in February. Dozens of Canadian women are suspected of doing the same. AP Photo/Metropolitan Police

The number of Canadian women who head overseas to join extremist organizations like the so-called Islamic State is growing, a new government report indicates, but one expert says they are often left disappointed after they arrive.

The federal report, released on Thursday, says that in some cases, Canadian women have even taken their children to conflict zones.

The participation of women in terrorist organizations in itself is not new, said Lorne Dawson, co-director of the University of Waterloo’s Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. But the increase in their numbers in Canada is noteworthy.

“They are going, almost always, because they’ve established some degree of online relationship with women in Syria and Iraq, or with men, but usually more with women,” Dawson said.

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The women who lure them are often mediating between the Canadian women and extremist men who are interested in marrying them, he added. The targets are typically quite young, and are seduced by talk of a life abroad “that has great meaning and purpose, and about proper moral order,” Dawson said.

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“We are talking about kids who are struggling with very significant identity issues, and a desire to do something dramatically meaningful with their lives, to put it in simple terms.”

Once they arrive, however, Dawson said that – like their male counterparts – young women from Western nations may find that circumstances are far harsher than they were led to believe.

“There is disillusionment that happens,” he said. “But often by the time that disillusionment sets in they’re been married to a foreign fighter and often even have children.”

Numbers increasing

Dawson said the Waterloo team has identified 10 women that had gone to Syria or Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State, also known as Daesh. The government appears to be tracking more than that, however. It has estimated that one-fifth of the at least 180 people who have left Canadian soil in support of a terror group are female. Not all of them would be IS recruits, however.

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Thursday’s report, titled “2016 Public Report On The Terrorist Threat To Canada,” says it is often unclear what roles are performed by women once they arrive at their destinations.

It notes the most common assumption is women travel abroad to marry terrorists, but some may occupy secondary roles within extremist groups, while in other cases appear to be training and taking part in combat.

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The fact that IS openly supports the rape, abuse and oppression of women probably doesn’t matter much to its female converts, Dawson said.

“They’re not thinking of the feminist component of it,” he noted.

“They’re thinking in terms of the higher religious moral order … and personally participating in something that they think will be revolutionary and world-transformative. So it is seen on their part, if we get into their mindspace, it’s seen as an act of empowerment.”

That act can have deadly consequences. In June, British medical student Rowan Kamal Zine El Abidine died in a coalition air strike in Iraq. The 22-year-old doctor had reportedly travelled to the region and joined IS in March 2015.

Then, earlier this month, relatives of British high-schooler Kadiza Sultana said they feared she is also dead after fleeing home and joining the terror group.

— With files from the Canadian Press