Women take to the front line as desperate Isil fights to the end

Josie Ensor
Video released by Isil's Amaq News shows women taking up arms and shooting guns

Islamic State has relaxed its rules on women fighting on the frontline, as the group mounts its final stand in Syria.

Official videos released by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) from its last bastion in Baghuz, eastern Syria, as well as those released by individual jihadists, claim to show women taking up arms against the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

“These sisters are more useful than some brothers," a seemingly injured Russian-speaking fighter in Bagouz says of his female compatriot, who can be seen holding a gun and hiding beside a defensive berm in the footage.

The woman, whose face is covered except for her eyes, replies: "The bullets of these khuffar (infidel), these bombings, are very weak. We will have victory, inshallah (God willing).”

In videos released by Isil’s official Amaq media channel in recent days, fighters who appear to be women are taking up positions on the frontline. Militants in black abayas can be seen spraying AK47s at SDF positions.

Three women suicide bombers have also blown themselves up in the last week, according to the SDF, which itself has a large number of female fighters.

Females fighting alongside males had been considered a taboo in Isil. Women in the so-called caliphate were considered as necessary parts of the jihadi project but never encouraged to engage in violence.

Russian-speaking woman is seen fighting on the frontline in a video released by a fighter in Baghuz

However, it appears Isil has modified its ideological position on the permissibility of female combatants in response to the threat to their survival - with Isil now cornered on the banks of the Euphrates river.

"The Islamic State has always been adamant that women should participate in violence only under circumstances of 'defensive jihad', or in simpler terms, only when Muslim lands are under attack and it is strategically necessary," said Devorah Margolin, a senior research analyst at the War Studies Department of Kings’ College London.

Like many other violent Islamist groups, Isil had wanted women to be wives, mothers and the educators of the next generation of believers.

“The loss of physical territory for them really seems to have been the final straw,” Ms Margolin told the Telegraph.

“With their shift in rhetoric around the summer of 2017 (the final days of the offensive in the Iraqi city of Mosul), we have not seen women fighting in the way we would have expected. However, with the last stand in Baghuz, we are seeing that act of defensive jihad really put to the test, and we are seeing women take up arms.”

She said for a group like Isil the use of women in combat gives a sense of its desperation, used not only because they need the "manpower", but also to shame men into action.

Pictures circulating on social media of the bodies of women inside Baghuz have stirred anger among Syrians, who say the US-coalition and its local allies have not taken sufficient care to protect civilians.

While it is the case Isil has been using women and children as human shields, the shrouded body in the photograph is seen close to ammunition and a gun, raising the prospect she was a combatant.

An SDF fighter looks over seized Isil weapons that were found in the last stronghold of the extremist group as they were displayed at an SDF base Credit: Getty

While hundreds are thought to have died in the latest fight, it is still unclear what happens to those caught and those surrendering. Nearly 65,000 people have left the tiny hamlet since the offensive started in December, at least 5,000 of them fighters.

While male Isil suspects are being held in prisons around northern Syria, the women are held with their children in camps.

Local men could be tried in courts administered by Kurdish authorities who control the area, but local women are unlikely to ever face prosecution.

The SDF has pleaded for countries around the world to take back their nationals. The camps, particularly al-Hol, its largest, are struggling with its ballooning population.

The total number in al-Hol has now reached 72,000 - three times its capacity.

There have now been at least 138 deaths on the way to the camp or soon after arriving at the camp since early December. The deaths have overwhelmingly been of babies and infants.