syria-1034467_960_720On December 2, 2015, Tashfeen Malik took to her Facebook page to declare her “bayat” – an oath of allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, then loaded a rented SUV full of weapons and ammunition and drove to the holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, where Farook worked. Once inside, Malik and Farook opened fire on the partygoers, unleashing some 75 rounds of bullets into the bodies of Farook’s co-workers. By the end of the massacre, 14 people were dead and another 21 were seriously injured. Malik’s role marks the first time that a woman affiliated with the Islamic State has carried out a terrorist attack on American soil. The San Bernardino shooting has become a bloody and gruesome indication of just how women’s roles in the terrorist organization have and continue to evolve.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through their Bayan radio station, announcing that the two shooters acted as “soldiers of the caliphate” (it is worth noting that the Arabic version of this broadcast differed from the English one, claiming that Malik and Farook acted in “support” of the group). The statement by the Islamic State confirms that women wanting to take on active combat roles and participate in attacks on the West will be supported and welcomed as new soldiers for the caliphate. Understanding the fundamental importance of this evolution, however, requires a look at the history of female involvement in the Islamic State.

Female members make up a substantial percentage of those who have migrated to the Islamic State, though they have not always been involved in active combat roles.  Of the estimated 4,000 Westerners who have immigrated to Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq, around 550 are women. These female recruits hail from Western countries such as Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Originally, Western migrants flooded into Syria in response to the odious human rights violations that Syrians were facing at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. Following the Islamic State’s takeover of Raqqa in 2013, the number of females migrating to the Islamic State further increased. While the first wave of female migrants to Islamic State-controlled territory came in protest to al-Assad’s treatment of Syrians, the second wave occurred, following the takeover of Raqqa, to assist in the construction of the Caliphate. Moreover, the take-over of Raqqa marked the first time that women would have a sustained and significant role within the Caliphate as founding mothers of their society.

Women indeed play a distinct role in building a fully functional Islamic state. Yet, Western news reports frequently downplay the role of women within the group. Female migrants are often relegated to the role of “jihadi brides” or mere homemakers and wives to their warrior husbands. While true that the main domain of women in the caliphate is domestic, they have also taken on vital roles such as those of doctors, nurses, and teachers. Most surprisingly, they have also taken on law enforcement roles in groups such as the Khansaa Brigade.

After the Islamic State conquered rival militant groups in Raqqa, it imposed its strict set of laws on the citizens of its newly self-declared capital city. The all-female Khansaa Brigade was formed as a morality police force to monitor and ensure that the women living under the Islamic State adhered to its strict code. Entry into the brigade requires members – many of whom are Western migrants – to undergo 15 days of rigorous religious and military training. This includes a weapons course in which women are taught how to fire and load Kalashnikov assault rifles.

The creation of the Khansaa Brigade is an important evolutionary shift for the role of women within the Islamic State. The brigade, known for its violent and oppressive enforcement of the Islamic State’s rules, further integrates Western female migrants into the group, giving them the ability to expand their role within the caliphate. Those who work in the brigade are given a greater degree of autonomy, as they freely move about the city and assume quasi-military roles allowing them to act in tandem with the Islamic State’s male fighters.

Women also participate in online recruiting, in an attempt to inspire other women to leave their homes in the West and join the caliphate, which, according to the Islamic State’s leadership, is “critical work.”

Though, their involvement goes further: women also use social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr to detail their daily lives in the caliphate. They recount their experiences living in a war zone and also announce weddings, births, and deaths. They essentially function as the Islamic State’s journalists and record keepers.

Some Western recruits also use the Internet as a forum to bemoan their inability to take part in physical fighting within the Islamic State, as women within the caliphate are not allowed to take up active combat roles alongside male fighters. As one female recruit writes: “I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battle field.” The current ban on women combatants, however, seems to have been lifted for those who are supporting the Islamic State from outside the caliphate’s physical boundaries.

The Islamic State’s acknowledgment of Tashfeen Malik acting as a solider suggests that the terror group may now be supporting and even encouraging women to take up active combat roles in attacking the West. A number of Western recruits from inside the Islamic State have directly incited attacks against the West.  As one Scottish female recruit notes: “[If you] cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself. Be sincere and be a Mujahid wherever you may be.”

The strengthened role of women in the Islamic State indicates that women are now a bigger threat than they have been portrayed as in the past.  Indeed, women are not only founding  mothers of the Islamic State, but they are also responsible for recruiting Westerners and helping enforce the Islamic State’s brutal law and ideology throughout the caliphate. The most significant shift in the role of women is evident in the actions of Malik, who acted as a combatant in support of the terror group. Her actions may well indicate the dawn of a new phase in which women are also soldiers of the caliphate.

Alexandra covers war, conflicts, politics, and humanitarian issues for English print. She is currently based in New York covering the Syrian war and the refugee crisis in Lebanon.