This post is co-authored by Rebecca Turkington, assistant director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and Audrey Alexander, Senior Research Fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.
“I am not an evil or malicious person,” Keonna Thomas reportedly explained to the judge at her sentencing hearing in September 2017, months after she pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State, “I was, I guess at one point, impressionable.” Though undoubtedly grounded in some truth, Thomas’ explanation mimics the language surrounding most women charged with Islamic State-related criminal offenses in the United States. From news media to defense attorneys, commentators regularly cast female terrorism offenders as naïve, gullible, susceptible targets of violent extremism, even when they admit their culpability by pleading guilty. While unsurprising, given that portrayals of women in terrorism tend to be misleading, it is crucial to examine the effects such rhetoric has on confronting women’s participation in the myriad manifestations of violent extremism. While the data suggests that women often receive differential treatment within the criminal justice system, this discussion explores the disparate treatment of terrorist offenders as it pertains to gender, both inside and outside of conventional legal frameworks.