Last month, the Defense Department’s inspector general issued a detailed report on conditions in the al-Hol refugee and detention camp in rebel-controlled Syria. In al-Hol, tens of thousands of women and children who once lived under the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State are now being held in dire conditions. Yet minimal security permits women to spread the Islamic State ideology uncontested — resulting in what some observers are calling “a reign of fear.” If the extremist group continues to exert influence in the region despite its lack of a physical stronghold, these women will bear responsibility.
Eighteen years since the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, violent extremism persists unabated. The United States has spent nearly $6 trillion to counter terrorism, yet the number of Islamist extremist fighters last year was 270 percent higher than it was in 2001. Globally, right-wing extremism poses a rising threat. In the United States, all but one terrorist killing last year was tied to right-wing extremism.
So far, U.S. national security leaders have consistently neglected one vital factor: the participation of women. According to our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, many extremists recruit and rely upon women as facilitators, martyrs and critical sources of income. Yet U.S. counterterrorism strategy often ignores the roles that women play in violent extremism — as both perpetrators and victims — and rarely enlists their participation in efforts to combat radicalization.
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