They may or may not have gone to fight in Syria. They may or may not have married jihadis there. They may or may not be carrying guns in Facebook pictures, and in the later ones they may or may not be the women staring at the camera through slits in the full-face veil called a niqab. But there’s no doubt at all that the teenagers Sabina Selimovic, 15, and Samra Kesinovic, 16, from Vienna are now the poster girls for holy war against the Assad regime in Damascus. Some headlines are calling them “pin-ups.”
The sexual politics of jihadist movements can be so twisted, Western headlines so salacious, and Photoshop so deceptive that the whole thing needs to be viewed with a heavy degree of skepticism. And that’s even if the young women in question were sincere about their cause and not out to deceive their parents for other reasons. There are also suspicions they were “groomed” on the Internet to be kidnapped and trafficked.
Hundreds and perhaps thousands of young Muslims from Western countries have been attracted to the Syrian struggle. Some of them were brought up in the faith; some are zealous converts. Typically they are young men who think they will find adventure and glory, and perhaps martyrdom and a quick ticket to Paradise, while defending oppressed Muslims.
The American and European security services are concerned that radicalized fighters will try to bring their war home with them. One American, Eric Harroun, was prosecuted by the Justice Department for aiding terrorists in Syria and recently died in his Arizona home of an apparent drug overdose. French and Belgian jihadists have been filmed bragging as they dragged bodies behind a pickup truck. Abdullah Deghayes, an 18-year-old Briton whose uncle reportedly was a detainee at Guantanamo, died fighting in Syria on Monday. He had gone there with two of his brothers, one of whom was injured, as well. But his father said he didn’t learn of the young man’s death until the news was posted on Facebook.
Some women undoubtedly have joined the fight against Assad, especially Syrian women, but Western coverage has been seduced repeatedly by the notion that foreign females are involved in something headline writers call “sexual jihad,” proffering their services to satisfy the lust of those male fighters who haven’t yet joined the “72 virgins” promised by Islamist propaganda to dead martyrs in the afterlife.
In the case of the two young teenagers from Austria, Interpol has put out missing-person notices that say they disappeared from Vienna on April 10. Their parents, who were Bosnian refugees in the 1990s, told the Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz that they learned their girls had boarded a flight from Vienna to Adana, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. They also said they found letters hidden in the teenagers’ schoolbooks saying they had “chosen the right path” and were going to “go fight for Islam in Syria.”
Austrian police have been reluctant to discuss the case, but relatives of the girls have told the Bosnian press that investigators have been able to track their communications with people who coaxed them to leave Vienna. One unnamed cousin of Kesinovic said those exchanges were in German, telling her she would have help getting away from her family and discussing an arranged marriage.
Some reports also say the young women had begun visiting a mosque in Austria presided over by a charismatic young firebrand named Ebu Tejma. His preaching, along with sermons by other radicals, is distributed by a group called SalafiMedia Balkan, which produces slickly packaged videos that devote as much time to the iconography of assault rifles as they do to Allah.
Shortly after the girls disappeared, their pictures began appearing on social media, but some of the photographs appear to have been doctored. One depicts Selimovic, who has striking blue-gray eyes, wearing a headdress with the shahada, the profession of faith in the one God and Mohammed as his messenger, written across it. Behind her are men with Kalashnikovs and similar headdresses. But the background image is a photograph that has circulated for a long time on the Web, and Selimovic’s image may have been superimposed on it.
Likewise, a photograph of two women wearing niqab and raising their right hands with index fingers pointing upward looks as if it’s been altered crudely and fingers added by computer.
One of the messages left behind by the girls reportedly said, “Nobody will ever find us.”