Islamic State media released a video Friday that depicted at least five women fighting alongside male jihadist fighters.
The video showed the women armed with guns and being driven to battle in a truck flying the ISIS flag. The video also includes graphic footage of the bodies of Kurdish fighters and multiple suicide attacks filmed from above ground by drones.
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Experts say, that given the way ISIS has historically viewed the role of women, that this development speaks to the growing desperation of the group as its territory and reserve forces dwindle.
“I would say this is an act of desperation. ISIS is now reduced to about two per cent of the land they held in Syria and Iraq,” said Kenneth Gray, former FBI agent and lecturer at New Haven University who worked in counter-terrorism.
“There have been women jihadists in the past, but they have not been called out. Their role has been to have more children that are future ISIS fighters, to marry ISIS fighters and to indoctrinate future ISIS fighters,” Gray explained.
Iraq’s government announced in December that the fight against the Islamic State was officially over. Gray explains that ISIS currently holds about two per cent of its former territory in Iraq and Syria.
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“ISIS is losing control and it will continue to lose control,” explained Gray. Furthermore, the U.S. led coalition estimated in December that there were fewer than 1,000 ISIS terrorists in the major areas it used to control.
While this is the first time women have been depicted as fighters in an ISIS propaganda video, the call for women to join the militant ranks first came in October, 2017. In an Arabic language newspaper, the jihadist group told female supporters that it had “become necessary for female Muslims to fulfill their duties on all fronts in supporting mujaheddin in this battle,” the Independent reports.
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“In the past we’ve seen women recruited in different roles, but they have focused on male fighters and the women were recruiters or served as wives of the fighters,” explained Vesna Markovic, an associate professor of justice, law and public safety studies at Lewis University.
She went on to explain that while diminished reserves are likely the driving cause of this shift in ideology, jihadist groups do see some benefits to putting women on the front lines.
“Women get more press when they take up a fighting role, so it serves a dual purpose. Every time you see a suicide bomber in these areas, it’s just another day, another suicide bomber. But, if it’s a woman, suddenly all these news stories come out,” Markovic said.
Since January, 2015, ISIS has lost nearly all of its territory near Raqqa, Mosul and al-Qaim. According to the Associated Press, ISIS still controls a string of villages along the border of Syria and maintains a small foothold in Damascus.