Al-Qaeda-linked groups are recruiting women to go to Syria to offer themselves to men fighting in the ranks of jihadist groups, in a phenomenon dubbed "sex jihad", journalists and activists told Al-Shorfa.
Others are being enlisted to fight alongside the men, they said.
In northern Lebanon, a military unit called "Al-Nasser Salaheddine Brigade" is working with individuals allied to al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) to recruit women to fight in Syria, Lebanese daily Assafir reported September 14th.
From Tunisia, girls have travelled to Syria for "sex jihad" and returned home pregnant by foreign fighters who are battling the regular Syrian army, Tunisian Interior Minister Lutfi ben Jeddou told the National Constituent Assembly on September 19th.
"The female sexual jihadists are between 17 and 30 years old and some of them are high school students," said Tunisian attorney and head of the Association for the Relief of Tunisians Abroad Badis Koubakji. "The common denominator among most of them is that they have recently become religious and have fallen victim to religious brainwashing as a result of joining private religious online forums or groups within certain mosques in Tunisia."
Faisal al-Ahmed, a media activist from Syria's Aleppo told Al-Shorfa there have been women fighters in the ranks of Islamist militant groups in the country in the past few months.
Many Syrian women have carried arms since the start of the conflict in order to protect their families, but "what is noteworthy about this issue recently is that all the women fighting alongside the militant groups wear the niqab and are rarely seen in public," he said. "They are found in military locations in Aleppo and its suburbs."
Tunisian journalist Hanan Zabis, who works at French-language magazine Réalités, told Al-Shorfa that "sex jihad" began to emerge in Tunisia towards the end of 2011, when young Tunisian men started heading for Syria to perform "jihad".
"Since then, some Tunisian newspapers and websites started reporting about girls going to Syria," she said. "At the beginning, it was thought they were going with their husbands but then it was revealed they were traveling on their own for the purpose of 'sex jihad'."
Such women are subjected to brainwashing at some educational institutes and mosques as well as through social media websites, Zabis said.
"Notably, most of these girls are minors, which makes it easy to manipulate them and often, their families know nothing about their plans to travel to Syria," she said.
"The issue of 'sex jihad' did not surface until after dozens of girls returned to Tunisia, pregnant or infected with sexually transmitted diseases," Zabis said. "Some were arrested for the purposes of investigation and to find out who helped them travel."
"Al-Qaeda benefits from any human resources it can get," said al-Qaeda affairs specialist Maj. Gen. Abdul Kareem Ahmed, who is retired from the Egyptian army. "In addition to men, the organisation recruits male teenagers and boys as well as women, who have become an important branch of this terrorist organisation."
Female al-Qaeda recruits can be divided into two groups, he said. The first includes women of a variety of nationalities who use the Internet to attract and to mobilise jihadists to fight alongside al-Qaeda and to secure funding.
Such women are active on jihadist websites such as the online magazine Al-Khansa, Ahmed said.
The second group of women includes armed female jihadists who fight in hotspots alongside men or are charged with monitoring and transferring information and ammunition, as they are able to move around more easily than men, he said.
In Syria, women jihadists are used by the al-Qaeda linked "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and JAN "to pave the way for disseminating al-Qaeda ideology, especially since the group's extremist ideas are considered a foreign concept to Syria", Ahmed said.
"The presence of female jihadists encourages Syrian women to adopt this ideology and raise their children accordingly," he said, adding, "With the increase of the number of fatalities in the ranks of ISIL and JAN, a dire need has risen to raise a new generation that espouses the ideology and teachings of al-Qaeda, in order for the organisation to survive."
This happened in Iraq, where al-Qaeda encouraged widows of suicide bombers and wives of al-Qaeda members to raise a new generation "that is fiercely loyal to al-Qaeda", Ahmed said.
The women recruited to fight in Syria include non-Syrians who have joined their husbands to fight with al-Qaeda, the wives of Syrian al-Qaeda fighters as well as others who are mobilised online or in person via al-Qaeda lectures and sermons, he said.
Some of the women from North Africa are recruited by a promise of jihad or marriage while Jordan and Lebanon are considered main sources for recruitment because of their proximity and relative ease of entry into Syria, he said.
"What is happening to Syrian women after the bloody events is part of the patriarchal system that controls Middle Eastern societies and serves men's interests first and foremost," Saudi women's rights activist and writer Samar al-Muqrin told Al-Shorfa. "This includes members of al-Qaeda who are trying to assassinate and harm the Syrian revolution and what is called 'sex jihad' is just such an example."
What makes things worse are the fatwas in this regard that are issued by unqualified sheikhs, she said.
"This is where the danger lies, in influencing society and the collective consciousness by trading in religion," al-Muqrin said. "Religious fervour forces people to respect, appreciate and dignify anything that appears in a religious form and they cannot be blamed for that."
Sheikh Ahmed bin Qassim al-Ghamdi, the former head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Mecca, said what has been reported on websites regarding the practise of "sex jihad" is a false fatwa.
Fatwas sanctioning the practise are unknown in the history of Islamic jurisprudence and the act was not practised in olden times, he said.
"In the days of the Prophet Mohammed, women who went along on conquests were never known to engage in such practices at all," al-Ghamdi said.
"If it is true there are people who legitimise ['sex jihad'] for the so-called mujahedeen, this would be punishable according to Islam because it disgraces religion and misleads people about something that is forbidden by sharia law," he said.
Joining the fight in Syria is "not permissible for either men or women because it is a war intended to cause sedition and is not jihad," al-Ghamdi said.