Young, vulnerable women being groomed for jihad
Jihadists of the Islamic State are using social media to attract female brides and fighters, writes Carol Hunt
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
The social media messages the women post sound so appealing. They tell us about their trips to the Mediterranean for beach days, the wonderful spiritual and emotional fulfilment they experience, how everything they and their children need for a comfortable life is generously provided for them by the 'Dawla' (state), and they describe the affectionate domestic bliss they enjoy with their brave, loving, heroic husbands. These are the prizes being offered to young (mainly, but not solely) Muslim women who choose to leave the capitalist West and join the new Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL).
On Twitter, a young British woman going under the handle @Umm_Ammar- described herself as a "British Muhajirah living under the Khilifah". Last Friday, she tweeted: "I've never experienced true happiness and contentment until I stepped in Shaam [Greater Syria]". The day before she had written: "Know that Jihad for the sake of Allah will never bring death earlier nor delay it. What is meant for you will never miss you."
Last week, we saw the infamous tweet from 22-year-old Khadijah Dare (married to a Swedish jihadist) asserting her wish to become the first British woman to kill a UK or US citizen, in the wake of the video showing the horrific execution of James Foley by a terrorist with a British accent. Dare (who tweets under the handle Muhajirah fi Sham (immigrant in Syria) appeared in a Channel 4 video on IS where she told her interviewers that she studied media, film and psychology at college. Her avatar shows her two-year-old son swinging an AK-47.
Are these women for real? We can't be sure. But what we do know is that increasing numbers of very young western women are heeding the calls of their jihadi "sisters" and heading to Iraq and Syria, not just as wives to the militants but also as fighters. Last month, greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Peter Fahy warned young women against becoming brainwashed by "perverted messages" and travelling to the Middle East to become "jihad brides".
Melanie Smith, a research associate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation said that most women travelling to join IS fit into two groups: those who travel with their husbands to jihad and those who travel to Syria or Iraq to get married. "The latter is certainly a trend," she said. "Many questions flood the male foreign fighters on social media about the possibility of marrying them or even becoming their third wife. [These women] tend to be extremely pious and have been IS 'fangirls' for the duration of the Syrian conflict, active on social media," she added.
And yet we know from the actions and ideology of IS, that women in their newly imagined Caliphate (let us be clear, what these terrorists preach has no connection with the peaceful Islam of millions of people around the globe) are accorded lesser status than cattle. Soon after taking over the city of Raqqah, IS issued a statement declaring that women must be entirely covered, face and body at all times; that make-up, jeans and sweaters were banned; that women were not allowed sit on chairs; that women were not to see a male gynaecologist. And on it goes.
In captured Mosul, the city charter now says that women are to remain in the home except in cases of emergency. And why would they risk going out? Earlier this month the UN Women's executive director, Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka, said that UN Women is "outraged by the deliberate targeting of women and girls in Iraq [and Syria] and reports of kidnapping, rape and forced marriages by militants".
So why then do educated western girls, with good families and from stable communities, suddenly decide - as 18-year-old Khadija [not her real name] from the Netherlands did at the end of 2013 - to join an ideology which so discriminates against them?
Khadija told Al Jazeera journalist Brenda Stoter that, "I always wanted to live under Sharia . . . Besides, my Muslim brothers and sisters over there need help". Another Dutch girl, Sara, said that she went to Syria, "to follow God's rules" and to "help people". In April, two Austrian girls aged 15 and 16 disappeared before turning up in Syria and in May two British 16-year-old twins, Salma and Zahra Halane sneaked out of their beds in Manchester and travelled to Syria to become Jihadi brides. They telephoned their parents to say, "we're not coming back".
Montasser Al De'emeh, a researcher studying jihadist figures, believes that there are several reasons why European women join radical Islamist groups: the rise of right-wing parties in Europe is one factor, as is the girls' experience of childhood. "The girls feel that there is no place for them in society", he says, "as they are being rejected by everyone, including Muslims. By contacting Muslims who feel the same way, they try to fulfil needs such as love, recognition and sisterhood". Whatever their reasons, what these women seem to have in common is that they are generally young, quite vulnerable and active on social media.
Haras Rafiq from the London-based Quillam Foundation said: "These could be girls that are looking for an avenue, something to do for themselves - some sort of empowerment. Charismatic recruiters either online or on the ground will play on this. The recruiters will play up the 'romantic idyllic' notion of an Islamic State when encouraging women to come," he said, careful to add that this "isn't just a Muslim" phenomenon. And certainly those Islamists working on social media to recruit women to their cause seem to be exploiting that most western of phenomenons: the dissatisfied, disaffected teenage girl looking for a romantic rebellious cause.
On social media, a recruiting woman calling herself Umm Layth warns the girls she is "grooming": "Even if you know how right this path and decision is . . . the first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do . . . when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back, it's so hard," she writes, adding, "many people in present day do not understand . . . why a female would choose to make this decision. They will point fingers and say behind your back and to your families' faces that you are taking part in . . . sexual jihad."
Dear God, as if parents didn't have enough to worry about.