Women are increasingly volunteering for jihad, some so young they are still in school, like three British teenagers grabbing headlines recently.
They leave their regular lives to join a conflict in which ISIL’s crimes against civilians have brought Western and Arab military forces to fight them.
So why join? ISIL [calling itself ‘Islamic Caliphate’] publicly executes enemy prisoners with extreme cruelty, and yet this (needless to say) patriarchal organisation, in contrast, promises to welcome these often very young women warmly — wherever they come from. This is powerful motivation and manipulation.
In ISIL’s interpretation of traditions rooted in the seventh century, women are property. Yet its propaganda and recruitment videos show them training proudly with modern weapons.
In western countries, in Europe, Internet is the main recruiting tool, and women are promised a better life.
Austrian schoolgirls Samra Kesinovic, 16, and Sabina Selimovic, 15 left their homes in Vienna to join ISIL last year. Children of Bosnian migrants, security services say they have contacted their families to say they now want to return.
The violence of the cause is not hidden, but the word ‘jihad’, meaning struggle, is conveyed as a religious duty of Muslims.
Jonathan Ali Meheni’s underage sister left their home in France, and communicates with them from Syria.
He doesn’t like what he hears: “She doesn’t say she’s disappointed. She says she’s fine where she is. She doesn’t want to come home. Apparently, everything there is beautiful. I just don’t understand.”
Shamima Begum (15), Amira Abase (15) and Kadiza Sultana (16) were all straight A students at the Bethnal Green Academy in London. CCTV at Gatwick airport shows them on their way to Istanbul, a well-worn pit-stop used by would-be jihadists on the way to Syria.
There are warnings on the Internet, from police and families, of the risks of radicalisation, and yet young women, now including British, voluntarily set out on what media have taken to calling the ‘jihadi bride trail’. The more the better, for ISIL: to bear babies, so that a new ‘caliphate’ may multiply, and to attract more men to sign up.
Women are not new to terrorism. They have proved their ability, for instance the Palestinians, ready to take life at the expense of their own.
Chechens as well: in the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, all of the more than 40 men and women attackers were killed. The Islamist militant separatists had demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya.
France is thought to have the highest number of female jihadis in Europe, with up to 100 girls or women estimated to have travelled to join ISIL. Among the suspected fugitives is Hayat Boumeddiene, reported by French media to be the boyfriend of Amedy Coulibaly, who killed five people in Paris in an attack seemingly coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo killings.
ETA in Spain also had many female members.
In December, Spanish police detained four women, suspected of recruiting for ISIL.
At the end of the line, however, it is the men of ISIL who decide how their females are to serve the faith — with bullets, bombs or wombs.
To discuss what drives Western women to join ISIL militants in Iraq and Syria, we talked to Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts and author of Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists.
Joanna Gill, euronews:“There is a profile emerging [applicable to many] of a well-educated, young, Western woman who has voiced anger about the conflict in Syria joining ISIL, but what factors are pushing or pulling [women] towards extremism? Are their reasons the same as [the reasons for] men?”
Mia Bloom, author: “Women who join terrorist organisations — I’ve been studying this for two and a half decades, looking at underlying motivations — it generally tends not to be different between men and women, but very often it’s portrayed that women are motivated by emotional reasons or [by] the desire for revenge, whereas men are portrayed as being motivated by ideology or religion or politics. What I found over the course of an individual’s lifetime is that both men and women are going to be motivated by all of these [things], but perhaps at different points in time.”
euronews:“Young girls are often being recruited online from their bedrooms in the West. You’ve likened the process to grooming by sexual predators. Could you elaborate on that?”
Bloom: “Inasmuch as children who are being groomed for sexual abuse by paedophiles will be slowly exposed to either sexual content or pornography, we see that eventually these young children with ISIS are first enacting beheadings with dolls, shown films of beheadings until finally they are there, present, witnessing the beheadings themselves, and so [there is] this process of desensitisation, but at the beginning it’s about establishing trust, a lure, a rapport. So, it’s not that these girls who are 14, 15, 16 years old are being addressed by a 30-year-old man, they’re being approached by a young, cool, 20-year-old girl with whom they can relate, and so they let their defences down, and this again is very stereotypical of the online grooming process.”
euronews:“Much has been made of ISIL’s use of social media to recruit. How do they differ from other extremist groups?”
Bloom: “Well, ISIS [ISIL] has used online content and social media in a way that is far superior to what al Qaeda did or even what the Tamil Tigers did in Sri Lanka. So, all of these groups have been very media savvy. What the current social media environment looks like is far more interactive, there’s a lot more back and forth, the level of sophistication is much greater, and of course much of this is being done in English in order to target English-speaking audiences, using frames of reference for young people but also the platform, Twitter, Ask.fm and Facebook. These are relatively new tools compared to the flat social media previously used by al Qaeda.”
euronews:“We now have a translation of a document which purports to be a manifesto for women living under ISIL. It acts to elevate the role of women in society via their ability to give birth. How far does this romantic notion of motherhood reflect the reality of life under ISIL?”
Bloom: “I think the reason this document was not intended for an English-speaking audience is that it contravenes almost completely this Disney, idealised version that ISIS has portrayed for women, when they’re addressing women in the UK, Canada or Australia by saying, ‘It’s a wonderful life and you’re going to come here and have everything taken care of for you, and you’re going to have excitement and you’re going to be able to make this contribution,’ whereas the Arabic document makes clear that you’re going to be married off and there’s a good possibility you’re not going to be able to leave the house, but you’ll still be able to do more in the caliphate than you will in your home societies.”
euronews:“How can Western countries try to counteract this type of propaganda?”
Bloom: “For example, I’ve seen on Twitter a British jihadi who said, ‘I came here to be a hero and a martyr, and they have me cleaning toilets.’ It’s one of the things that I have to think about when we are very concerned about returning foreign fighters, that perhaps if we could have these individuals who are disillusioned address the public and talk to people who are on the fence and at least plant the seeds of doubt.”