UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate

Gender dimensions of the response to returning foreign terrorist fighters: research perspectives

UN CTED Trends Report


The available data paints a complex picture of the women who traveled to the conflict zone of Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, with respect both to their regions of origin and demographic backgrounds (which appear more diverse than previously suggested). However, knowledge gaps remain as many Member States do not consistently record gender-disaggregated data on FTFs. Researchers estimate that only four percent of all recorded returnees from Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic are women and that those women account for around five percent of women who traveled to the conflict zones. These figures suggest an urgent need for closer analysis of the reasons why women are not returning; ways to facilitate their return in a human rights-compliant manner; and the fate of those who have returned. 

There is very limited knowledge about the women who remain in the conflict zone. Researchers warn that a significant number of foreign citizens, including women, may have been left behind in the conflict zone, potentially overburdening judicial capacities and detention facilities. Another concern is the fate of local women and girls who lived in ISIL-occupied territory. How their situation is handled will have important implications for long-term peacebuilding in the region. 

Whereas most research on gender and terrorism has focused on the role of women, new approaches to studying masculinities provide a more nuanced understanding of gendered practices and their relation to both male and female radicalization to violence. Unpacking these gender dynamics and their underlying power structures will be an important avenue for further research. Gender appears to impact how individuals are recruited to terrorism, with women more likely to be recruited online than offline. Yet, there is a limited understanding of the most effective ways to counter gendered messages online. 

Research suggests that women tend to receive more lenient treatment in the criminal justice system, based on (often false) gendered assumptions about their limited agency. An important corollary of these findings is that women also tend to receive more limited rehabilitation and reintegration support, thus putting them at potentially greater risk of recidivism and re-radicalization and potentially undermining their successful reintegration into society.