The Empress of ISIS

Image Source: The New York Post

Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are all prominent international terrorists who have plotted and executed attacks against the United States. While each espoused slightly different ideologies, they all had one common goal, and all eventually met their day of reckoning. These four names have something else in common as well; they are all men. 

The international terrorists at the top of America’s ‘Most Wanted’ posters have always been male. But, the 1,000 women in ISIS’s al-Khansaa Brigade and the 62,000 people in Syria’s al-Hol refugee camp, (20-30% of whom still believe in the caliphate) pose a real threat to the US and the West, despite their gender. 

The threat posed by female terrorists and homegrown violent extremists (HVE’s) is not something that the US can leave behind in the Middle East. The radical ideology espoused by people like Anwar al-Awlaqi and posted on the Internet will continue to reach people across the world for decades to come. 

The case of Allison Fluke-Ekren not only exemplifies this fact, it also shows that women can be terrorists with the same levels of brutality and dedication as any of their male counterparts. As such, they deserve the same degree of attention and punishment.

In January of this year, former Kansas school teacher Allison Fluke-Ekren, 42, was charged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with material support to terrorism. In June, she pleaded guilty to the charge. The Department of Justice stated that, “A United States citizen pleaded guilty today in the Eastern District of Virginia to organizing and leading an all-female military battalion in Syria on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a designated foreign terrorist organization.” 

Fluke-Ekren grew up on her family farm in Kansas. She married at the age of 16 and had a daughter and a son soon after. While studying in the University of Kansas, she eventually divorced and married her second husband, who was a Turkish international student in the same university. Together, they had five children. 

Fluke-Ekren moved her family from the US to Egypt, and then to Libya. While in Libya, the Department of Justice disclosed, she had helped sort through physical and electronic documents following the terrorist attack of the CIA compound in Benghazi. “The stolen documents and electronic device, along with the summaries that Fluke-Ekren helped prepare, were provided to the leadership of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi.” From Libya, the family moved to Turkey, Iraq, and then Syria, where she began teaching girls how to become terrorists. Following her June 2022 court appearance, the Department of Justice said, 

Fluke-Ekren ultimately served as the leader and organizer of an ISIS military battalion, known as the Khatiba Nusaybah, where she trained women on the use of automatic AK-47 assault rifles, grenades, and suicide belts. Over 100 women and young girls, including as young as 10 or 11-years-old, received military training from Fluke-Ekren in Syria on behalf of ISIS.” 

The mother of eleven had no qualms about indoctrinating her whole family into the ISIS lifestyle. Leyla Ekren, her daughter, recently recounted how her mother brought her and her siblings to Syria against their will, took no action when she developed typhoid fever, and married her off to an ISIS fighter when she was only thirteen years old. 

Leyla’s testimony reminds us that terrorism is not just bombed out buildings and suicide missions. When women engage in terrorism, their whole family is affected by the fallout. There is a high human cost to the political statement that terrorism makes. With Leyla’s testimony, the court “sought to paint a brutal portrait of Ms. Fluke-Ekren’s relentless abuse of her children and her unyielding devotion to extremism,” even calling her “the empress of ISIS.” 

Fluke-Ekren also allegedly “fantasized” about detonating a car bomb in a crowded US shopping mall and planting a bomb on an unspecified US college campus. Some of her plans were even  brought to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who supposedly approved the funding for her ideas. 

Women are essential in the success of terrorist organizations. They are key assets when it comes to organizing, recruiting, and indoctrinating the next generation of jihadist fighters, and carrying out media-heavy suicide attacks. The fact that the US fails to recognize the role women play in perpetrating violence leads not only to more successful attacks, but also inhibits the US’s ability to counter radicalization, a process in which women play an essential role.

Not much has yet been released regarding Fluke-Ekren’s radicalization. She converted to Islam during her undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas. During this time she met her second husband and began learning Arabic. It is widely said that not only was she a willing participant in moving her family to the Middle East, but she even encouraged moving away from Libya when she determined that Ansar al-Sharia wasn’t violent enough

In order to prevent similar cases of radicalization from happening, more research must be done into the causes that led Fluke-Ekren down the path she chose. Had she chosen to wage jihad within the US and conduct attacks in shopping centers or universities, the Department of Justice might have charged her with more than the sentence she received. 

In November 2022, a Northern Virginia court sentenced Allison Fluke-Ekren to 20 years in prison. The US must not let its gender bias blind it to the reality that women can and do engage in acts of terror willingly, successfully, and not infrequently. The Department of Justice was able to apprehend Fluke-Ekren before she blew up a mall or a dorm in the US. But there are more Fluke-Ekren’s in the world. Let us not compound the tragedy of senseless deaths with the knowledge that they could have been stopped. Women deserve as much attention from counterterrorism experts as their male-terrorist counterparts.  

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