“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.
Although defendants in terrorism cases are not immune to the broader effects of discrimination within the criminal justice system, discrepancies in the punishment of women compared to men in these cases appear consistent with differences in sentencing for non-terrorism-related criminal offenders. In the United States, formal sentencing guidelines are designed to achieve fair outcomes and prevent unnecessary disparities by keeping characteristics about a defendant, like gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, out of sentencing considerations. Despite this safeguard, evidence suggests that the federal court system in the United States is broadly more lenient on female defendants than their male counterparts, even when controlling for legal characteristics like criminal history. A 2015 study of felony cases found that women were 58 percent less likely to be sentenced to prison than men, and posits that judges were inclined to treat female defendants differently when they conformed to traditional gender roles. A few years earlier, a 2012 review of a swath of federal criminal cases discovered a considerable gender gap in sentence length distribution, which the author ascribes to a “winnowing” of defendants created by discretionary decisions at each procedural stage. Both patterns of judicial discretion and the process of sifting out women offenders at each encounter with the criminal justice process mirror the terrorism cases reviewed in this article. The following data and analysis indicate that women involved in crimes motivated by violent extremism are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, and finally sentenced at unequal rates. The abovementioned case of Keonna Thomas, among others, shows how gender dimensions become a part of legal proceedings.
Evidence presented in court filings shows that Thomas, a Philadelphia woman, was a vocal advocate for the Islamic State online for more than a year before her April 2015 arrest, using platforms like Twitter and Skype to advance its agenda. As early as August 2013, prior to the Islamic State’s official declaration of its caliphate, Thomas shared a picture of a child clad in camouflage wearing tactical gear and firearm magazine holsters with the caption, “Ask yourselves, while this young man is holding magazines for the Islamic state, what are you doing for it? #ISIS.” In private communications with three alleged separate co-conspirators, Thomas expressed her resounding support of the group and desire to travel to the region, as well as articulating her interest in becoming a martyr. An affidavit reveals authorities knew of Thomas’ electronic communications with a known “Somalia-based violent jihadi fighter originally from Minnesota,” a known “overseas [Islamic State] fighter,” and a “radical Islamic cleric located in Jamaica.” News reports and a legal document identified these co-conspirators as Mohamed Abdullahi Hassan (“Miski”), Abu Khalid Al-Amriki, and Sheikh Abdullah Faisal, respectively, three alleged established players in the Islamic State’s extensive virtual networks. As a testament to her support for the Islamic State and its fighters, Thomas married Abu Khalid al-Amriki online and arranged plans to meet the alleged Islamic State fighter Shawn Parson, who was believed to be a Trinidadian, in Syria. In electronic communications, after Parson said, “u probably want to do Istishadee (martyrdom operations) with me,” Thomas responded, “that would be amazing … a girl can only wish.”