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A recent case of a German-born teenage girl traveling to Syria to fight on the side of Islamists has created alarm. Some speculate about a possible increase in such cases and the associated terror threat on home soil.
Women in headscarves and face veils with automatic rifles in their hands: images such as these attract public attention and increase online article views and newspaper sales. "There's always great interest in these female jihadists," said Islam expert Guido Steinberg from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
The phenomenon of female jihadists has been observed on several occasions in recent years, in places such as Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya. According to Rita Breuer from Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), these women are seen as a tool for promoting the jihadist cause in the media.
No exact figures
Statistics collated by the BfV indicated that around 300 German citizens are among the approximately 80,000 insurgents fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria. It is suspected that around 40 of those 300 are women. No exact numbers are available, since not all those who go to Syria join the rebels. Many of them also return quickly to Germany or never get involved in fighting.
What stands out in all this is the young age of some female fighters. A recent case of a 15-year-old high school student called Sarah from southern Germany made headlines around the country. According to the Baden-Württemberg State Office of Criminal Investigation, she traveled to Syria via Turkey in October 2013. She then published photos on the Internet of herself posing with weapons and promoted women's participation in Syria's civil war.
According to terrorism expert Holger Schmidt from ARD, the consortium of Germany's regional public-service broadcasters, Sarah's case raises the issue of female jihadists to a whole new level. "This case has a particularly strong impact because, to my knowledge, she is the youngest woman from Germany to have traveled to such a conflict zone and declared herself prepared to actively take part in the fighting," he said.
However, Steinberg recommended approaching the issue of armed women fighters with caution, even if photos of them in combat scenes appear on online social networking sites.
"The photos primarily indicate that these women like to be seen with weapons," said Steinberg. "We don't know if they show any serious combat training." He added that there is no convincing evidence of active female fighters from Germany in Syria.
There is also no evidence of female suicide attackers in Syria, according to Steinberg. "This phenomenon is limited to Iraq and Palestine," he explained. "It hasn't been seen in Syria, where the situation is a large-scale, mostly military conflict."
Steinberg pointed out that while suicide attacks by females are possible in the future, there are social and religious obstacles in the way for such women, as many Islamist fighters see the role of women as a supporting one and oppose their direct involvement in combat. Although online propaganda videos encourage the participation of women and children in armed conflict, Steinberg said these mainly refer to providing moral and practical support to the men. Strategic considerations, such as the potential surprise effect gained through the general perception of women as more harmless, play a smaller role.
But some observers believe that it is only a matter of time before women get involved in Syria as soldiers or suicide attackers. They have various reasons, mostly personal, for joining militant groups. Breuer pointed out the already-documented cases of this in Iraq, Palestine and the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of the main motives for these women is revenge for the loss of a husband or a close relative. An example of this was the "black widows" in Chechnya, whose suicide attacks were reportedly attempts to avenge their husbands, who were killed by Russian troops.
Another motivation is making up for personal guilt by dying in combat against "infidels" for the sake of Islam. According to experts, women who become radicalized are often vulnerable to manipulation. Striving for recognition or wishing to submit to their husbands, they sometimes get roped into terrorist activities.
A problem for Germany
Men and women who return to Germany from conflict zones where Islamist ideology comes into play can present a threat to society. They often subscribe to radical ideology and are severely traumatized. Some may even plan terrorist attacks on German soil.
According to Schmidt, the issue of German women in jihadist combat is increasingly relevant.
"The danger they pose is not insignificant," said Schmidt. "There is a reason why the Office for the Protection of the Constitution is drawing attention to this issue. Should someone returning from a conflict zone launch a terrorist attack in Germany, it can be said that we had been warned."
Indentifying such people in the future and preventing them from committing crimes will be a major task for Germany in the coming years, according to Schmidt. But he pointed out that it is equally important to prevent people from becoming radicalized in the first place. He said the case of 15-year-old Sarah should serve as a warning.
"It's hard to imagine that people like that don't stand out in their usual environment," said Schmidt. "In such a situation it's important for guardians, friends and schools to react and seek the assistance of social workers or security authorities if necessary."