The Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College in London has released a study on the reasons behind women in the West joining the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), finding that a feeling of “sisterhood” was just as much of a draw as finding a mujahid groom.
“Much has been made of romantic notions in motivating people to go, but we know that reality is very different,” explained author Melanie Smith.
The report, “’Til Martyrdom Do Us Part,” states that over 550 women fled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. The statistic baffles many authorities, since ISIS believes in strict Sharia law, which treats women like second-class citizens.
Women already in ISIS entice Western women with promises of great marriages and a life the way females are intended to live. This led authorities to believe marriage was the motivating factor, but the institute found these push factors:
1. Feeling isolated socially and/or culturally, including questioning one’s identity and uncertainty of belonging within a Western culture
2. Feeling that the international Muslim community as a whole is being violently persecuted
3. An anger, sadness and/or frustration over a perceived lack of international action in response to this persecution
The authors wrote that women in Western societies who wear a hijab or niqab “experience discriminatory comments in public more frequently than Muslim men due to their appearance, which serves as an identity marker for being Muslim.” They also criticized the media for “sensationalized headlines” after 9/11. One Canadian ISIS female told Western Muslims to give up on their society:
ISIS supporters also use pictures of casualties and injuries, mainly of children, as propaganda to appeal to the emotional and nurturing side of women. The pictures trigger sympathy for Muslims abroad, pushing them to believe the West is completely responsible for the suffering children. In one video, with British hostage John Cantlie, ISIS attempts to show life in Mosul, Iraq “as business as usual.” The video includes a trip to an ISIS hospital, with many shots of injured and sick children. It is unknown if Cantlie made the video of his own free will or the militants forced him, but he told the audience the West was responsible for the injuries. He then explained how ISIS provides top care for the children and works hard to save all the injured.
The institute also identified these three pull factors:
Idealistic goals of religious duty and building a utopian “Caliphate state”
Belonging and sisterhood
Romanticisation of the experience
ISIS women run many Ask.fm pages that allow people to ask them questions. Umm Abdullatif, also known as Zhera Dumann, answers questions for “wannabe jihadi brides” on Twitter or her Ask.fm page, which is now suspended. But Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty managed to snap photos of a few questions before the site pulled it. She told the girls food in Syria is “yummy,” but tap water causes illnesses. She assured females that Internet connections are decent and they can access “all the womanly supplies.” While many asked her about husbands, she told the girls that any girl that arrives alone is placed in a house “with a group of other women.”
Breitbart News exposed women in the Islamic State who use social media to paint a pretty picture of life with terrorist husbands. The women show a united and happy front with their “sisters” and answer questions from Western women. The majority of them use Umm, which means mother in Arabic, in their Twitter handle. Many of the accounts have since been deleted, however.
The relationship between these women is almost as important as those with their men. On social media accounts, these women appear to shower each other with love and affection. Twitter suspended these accounts and tweets, but Breitbart News captured them before deletion:
Feels like 5ever Im gonna try & visit you guys in two weeks in shaa Allah “@UmmKhattab__: I miss @bintladen1 so much man annoying her :'(“
– Jihadi Jane (@bintladen1) August 26, 2014
@Ummhurairah94 heeyy man I miss u and nah umm isa pick up umm khaled tomorrow to bring here in sha Allah
– :) (@UmmKhattab__) August 19, 2014
The institute pointed out that ISIS need women in their camps. Breitbart News reported in September that ISIS changed their minds about women in order to enact Sharia law. Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization said the women are needed “to ensure that local women complied with Islamic laws of dress and conduct.” These women need to examine women at checkpoints since males and females cannot touch other.
ISIS formed an all-female brigade known as al-Khansa in Raqqa, Syria. The brigades use a bear trap they call a “biter” on women’s breasts when found violating Sharia. It is responsible for “causing severe pain and wounds [which] may lead women in some cases to be transported to the hospital.” In August, The International Business Times reported the majority of the women are of Chechen descent, but women from Afghanistan and Yemen have also joined. There are allegedly over 50 women in the gang in Raqqa. These women “are wives of immigrants in Syria, of Tunisian, Moroccan, French and British nationalities.” British women Glaswegian Aqsa Mahmood, 20, and Khadijah Dare, 22, are among the women in the al-Khansa brigade.
The authors also noted that ISIS included females in their official Dabiq magazine. Different “sisters” write a column “Sisters of the Islamic State” for each publication. Social media staple Umm Mummayyeh penned the latest article, which stated First Lady Michelle Obama was only worth $40 on the sex slave market and that ISIS militants do not rape Yazidi girls, since those girls worship the devil.
The last part of the report provides information to help prevent radicalization of females to join ISIS and other terrorist groups:
While the government has a role to play in communicating messages about what the government is doing, including public awareness activities, the success of counter-narratives aimed at civil society depends heavily on three factors: 1) the messenger, 2) the message, and 3) the platform the message is distributed through. These three factors need to come together in a way that conveys the right message to the right audience.
They suggested programs allow rehabilitated jihadists to become mentors. They found a female mentor knew of a client who successfully left behind a life of jihad, but could not find a place to allow her to voice her concerns and experiences:
Reflecting upon her own ‘exiting’ experience the female mentor noted: “when I came out I had no one there to speak to and no one to guide me…I wanted to speak out and I wanted to say it’s against Islam and this not what we stand for”. Unfortunately, most Western prevention and de-radicalisation programmes remain particularly ill-equipped to deal with the unprecedented appeal of ISIS for female audiences.
The researchers also remind people there is not a specific “type” of female that is drawn to ISIS or terrorist groups, which makes profiling completely useless. Programs should also use women in prominent positions “within the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) sectors,” since they are just as important as women are to ISIS to lure Western females into the group.