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‘MAKE HIM YOUR TEACHER’

Piety and Porn: In Raqqa, the Laptop Secrets of an ISIS Wife

The Belgian bride of an ISIS fighter thought no one would see the intimate history of her life in the besieged Syrian capital of the so-called Islamic State.

Some nights she was busy searching for baking recipes, on others she was downloading Pirates of the Caribbean, and every so often it was scores from the Ajax soccer team in the Netherlands she was checking. Such a digital footprint might be that of any young Belgian, but with one glaring difference: The woman to whom this digital record belongs was until recently a resident in Raqqa, and part of the so-called Islamic State.

A laptop captured just days before she was picked up herself gives a revealing insight into the developing mindset of one European jihadist, and her finals days in the crumbling caliphate. The hard drive originally was taken by Ahrar al-Furat, a clandestine resistance group active within Islamic State held territory, and an intermediary made it available to The Daily Beast.

The laptop’s former owner is a Flemish-speaking Belgian woman who is of Moroccan descent. She is one of more than 500 Belgian nationals to have traveled to Syria and Iraq in an effort to join the Islamic State. Upwards of 100 of these have been confirmed killed, but she is not one of them. She was captured alive in Raqqa and now sits in the custody of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northern city of Kobane, awaiting an unknown future.

Other Belgian nationals are among more than 100 European fighters in custody in neighboring Iraq following the brutal battle to oust the Islamic State from Mosul and Tel Afar. Although it is not yet determined what fate they might face, the Iraqi ambassador to Belgium recently stated they will not be extradited, but instead prosecuted in Iraq where they could be sentenced to death.

Unlike interviews with captured ISIS members or defectors, the data from the laptop gives a candid portrayal of this woman’s mindset, including the contradictions and questions she likely thought would be shared with no one else.

At no point does this Belgian woman appear disillusioned with the now floundering Islamic State project.

Other interviews, and the statements of those captured, tend to be stuck with a bias: Subjects are now keen to distance themselves from the gratuitous violence now synonymous with the caliphate, and portray themselves as victims.

At no point does this Belgian woman appear disillusioned with the now floundering Islamic State project. Instead, in the weeks leading up to her capture at the end of the summer, she frequently visits the Flemish language Wikipedia page for the war in Afghanistan and repeatedly watches YouTube videos of American AC 130 gunships battering suspected Taliban positions in Afghanistan. They almost serve as an attempt to re-confirm her radicalization, and re-justify her beliefs.

Airwars, an organization that tracks and monitors coalition airstrikes against ISIS, notes that in the month of August, the U.S.-led coalition hit Raqqa with more than 5,000 bombs, shells, and missiles—that would be one every eight minutes. Despite the chaos unraveling around her, she was still taking to the internet to watch endless amounts of U.S. war footage.

The hard drive is loaded with more than a terabyte of pornography. Titles include everything from “enjoy first time sex” to “make him your teacher.” There are regular visits to the pornographic site RedTube, too.

But for all the pornography, there is no lack of piety. She repeatedly tunes in to lectures by jihadist clerics linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda, figures such as the American, Anwar al Awlaki, and Hossam Abdul Raouf.

There is the trivial: the searches for baking recipes, and download links for Hollywood blockbusters.

The hard drive has a trove of PDF’s—from religious literature associated with the Islamic State to less radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. One entitled “I was of the Muslim Brotherhood” catalogues a jihadist’s ideological transition from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS.

There is the trivial: the searches for baking recipes, and download links for Hollywood blockbusters. But she searches often for the latest Islamic State nasheed, the group’s textbook autotuned hymns, often finding what she was after on the websites of Western analysts who translate the material into English. The websites of Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Jihadology feature regularly in her browsing history.

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From her home in Raqqa, she reads up on the news of her compatriots who have also joined ISIS. She follows news of Frederick Calebout, a man on trial back in Belgium for terrorist activities. In late August she closely monitors news of the Islamic State attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils and arrests in Istanbul, as well as reports of the death of her compatriot Tarik Jadaoun fighting for ISIS in Mosul.

Despite her presence in the heart of the caliphate, she is a frequent, near obsessive, visitor to Western news sites for information about the group’s activities in Europe.

She appears to remain in contact with Islamists back home in Belgium, unaffected by Facebook’s efforts to close down accounts used by the group, and exchanging messages with friends in Belgium until as late as Aug. 17, and she often visits Facebook community pages for the Tunisian and Moroccan communities in Belgium, pages that post on everything from Islamophobia to Eid holiday celebrations. Her Facebook account is now suspended, but friends with whom she exchanged messages, and whose profiles show evidence of sympathy to the Islamic State, remain active.

The ideological commitment to the Islamic State that her laptop data suggests, should not come as a surprise. As Elizabeth Pearson, a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London and an associate fellow at the London think tank RUSI says, “We know that there is no reason to presume women are less ideologically committed to Islamic State than men. Both have shown a variety of reasons for going to Islamic State.”

As the sun sets on Aug. 24, she searches ‘i love to leave isis’

Nor should it be a surprise that this commitment is observable even as the caliphate flounders. “It’s possible that some of those who see the Islamic State project crumbling will lose heart,” says Pearson. “They were not promised defeat. However, the State was never marketed simply as a Utopian dream. During 2015 at the height of online recruitment on Twitter and elsewhere, its supporters made clear on social media that what was required was commitment to the ISIS cause and baqiya [remaining], although the road was going to be hard. True Muslims would endure.”

As the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s ally on the ground in eastern Syria, surround and close in on the former ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, the Belgian woman’s internet behavior undergoes a striking change.

All appears normal on Aug. 8 as she downloads a game named Stickman Sniper and a program entitled “I AM T-Pain”—an application for auto tuning one’s voice to mimic that of the rapper. Again, she streams a Pirates of the Caribbean film and searches for “top movies 2016 comedy.” With little else to do, she appears to attempt to pass the long Syrian summer days by binging on movies.

As August draws to a close, and the SDF noose around Raqqa tightens, distress appears to creep in. Desperate for information about her impending fate she searches “latest news YPG” and “what do ypg do with isis terrorist”—the YPG being the Kurdish militia that dominate the SDF.

Many assumed that the jihadists would fight to the death in Raqqa, but she appears to have no such intentions, but neither does she appear to want to abandon the cause of the caliphate. In her final days her internet history is a cocktail of research on those who have returned to Europe from Syria, and jihadist propaganda, everything from nasheeds to Anwar al Awlaki lectures.

As the sun sets on Aug. 24, she searches “i love to leave isis” and in Flemish “teruggekeerde jihadisten”—returning jihadist. Her final search comes late that evening, she taps into Google: “what do ypg do with isis terrorist,” seemingly aware that her capture is imminent.