'Sweden should target women extremists more'

The Local Sweden
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'Sweden should target women extremists more'
The radical Islamist Al-Shabaab group in Somalia. Photo: Mohamed Sheikh Nor/TT

Female extremism is a growing problem in Sweden and the government should do more to prevent it, argue Jessica Katz and Katarina Tracz from the Stockholm Free World Forum.


Since Islamic State (Isis or IS) proclaimed its caliphate over a year ago, the need for various types of support for community building has increased. As a result female recruitment has also escalated.

Not only warriors are in demand in the caliphate; women are lured by promises of getting a central role in the new Islamic state.

Swedish migration to Isis is the largest in the Nordic region in terms of numbers, and the second largest in Europe in relation to population size.

According to Säpo (the Swedish security police), over 300 people have travelled to Syria to fight for movements like Islamic State, with the confirmed figure for female travellers standing at 30-40 individuals.

The majority of these people come from western Sweden and Gothenburg. Just as for male Isis supporters there is a great risk that there are large hidden numbers.

Right now there is an intense debate about how the prevalence of violent Islamist extremism can be prevented and managed.

Sweden is far behind other countries in the prevention and implementation of legal sanctions, despite the high number of Swedish Isis travellers and an elevated threat of Islamist terrorism. The awareness of Swedish women’s connection with Islamic extremist movements is also non-existent or at best inadequate.

In traditional terrorism research the image of female extremism has often been misleading. In many respects, the female followers of movements such as Isis are portrayed as more peaceful than men.

This has led to the common notion that female Isis members are somehow forced into an extremist environment. Women have therefore not been regarded as the same potential threats as men.

This approach has impacted on Sweden’s efforts against violent Islamist extremism.

In the government’s action plan against violent extremism it is argued that women in violent Islamist environments are not part of the direct security-threatening activities. Mona Sahlin, who is the national coordinator against violent extremism, has repeatedly described women’s choice to join Isis as a result of having been tricked into travelling.

In addition, Säpo claims that participation of women in Islamic extremist movements is difficult to assess and reports that their efforts have therefore instead focused on male Isis followers.

READ ALSO: Why are Swedish girls joining Isis?

Today, there is no targeted action against violent Islamist extremism in general and female recruitment to Isis in Sweden in particular. This is despite the fact that recent research points out female Isis followers as a growing security threat. The reports have looked at female access to and presence in Isis, pointing to a number of areas where women are directly involved in the movement.

In addition to traditional roles such as wives and mothers of warriors, women take on a number of operational tasks, such as recruiting other women, spreading propaganda or as police in female brigades.

It has also been shown that women within Isis are permitted to have different amounts of power and access to information depending on their matrimonial status in the movement’s hierarchy. The wives of men in higher positions have access to more information about the operations and operating activities.

Although Isis officially forbids women from taking part in hostilities, several of its Western female followers have shown a willingness to fight.

There have also been reports suggesting that women, albeit to a small extent, have begun to participate in hostilities. Moreover, women who have travelled to Isis territories to support the operation have been encouraged to carry out acts of violence in their home countries.

There are many indications that female Isis followers as well as men are a security threat inside and outside of their home countries. But Sweden still bases its attitude towards women in extreme environments on false premises.

Today the greatest terrorist threat to Sweden is violent Islamist extremism. The problem grows in scope as more and more Swedes travel to join movements such as Isis. The fact that women choose to join this type of extreme environment expands and complicates the threat further.

Swedish work against violent Islamist extremism urgently needs to be developed, in particular in respect to female extremism. Continuing to disregard female recruitment to violent extremist environments is to ignore a serious potential security threat.

Jessica Katz is the author of a new report on Swedish women in Islamic State. Katarina Tracz is the director of the Swedish think tank Frivärld. This a translation of an article originally published in Göteborgs Posten.


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