BEIRUT, Lebanon — The self-proclaimed Islamic State, formerly known by the acronym ISIS, is actively recruiting Western women and girls. And in the process this “caliphate” that now occupies large swathes of Syria and Iraq is showing, once again, that it’s almost as shrewd with social media as it is ruthless on the battlefield.
The tweets and blogs apparently are written by Western women married to jihadi warriors. They aim to persuade would-be “sisters” in Europe and the United States to travel to the Middle East to help this al-Qaeda spinoff build its extremist vision of an Islamic society.
Potential caliph-ettes (as one is tempted to call them) are told their main contribution to the Islamic revolution will be through matrimony, not martyrdom; child-bearing, not gun-toting. One blogger called “Bird of Jannah” purrs: “Women are not equal to men. It can never be. Men are the leaders & women are [so] special that Allah has given them entire chapter in the Qur’an.”
The propaganda usually eschews the gore and barbaric images often included in the general fare of jihadist online posts, such as the beheadings last month of dozens of Syrian army soldiers after a base was overrun in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa.
Instead, the marketing focuses on what one analyst calls the “private sphere,” concentrating on the joys of jihadist family life and the “honor” of raising new fighters for Islam. The online recruiters stress the pleasure of providing the domesticity that a warrior waging jihad needs and by doing so serving Islam.
“I will never be able to do justice with words as to how this place makes me feel,” tweets Umm Layth, purportedly a British woman in Syria married to a fighter. She cherishes, she says, the friendships she enjoys with “her fellow sisters and brothers in the Islamic State.”
But throughout Umm Layth’s posts and those written by other jihadist women there is a morbid obsession with martyrdom. “Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom],” writes Umm Layth.
According to analysts at SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that tracks online activity by terrorists, the recruiting efforts may have had some success. “By creating content specifically targeting female jihadi supporters, the Islamic State is able to establish a pipeline to assist Western women in traveling to Syria to marry jihadi fighters and contribute to the formation of their new society,” the analysts argue.
They add: “Significantly, these online networks have expanded in prominence and sophistication during the summer of 2014, suggesting that the Islamic State has already been successful in recruiting foreign women to leave their lives in the West, and is looking to build upon this strength.”
In June, Britain’s interior minister, Theresa May, warned that it isn’t just young Western men leaving to join the Islamic State in Syria. “We think around 400 U.K.-linked individuals have gone out to fight in Syria, mainly young men but also some women,” she told ITV News. U.K. officials say only about a dozen British women have gone thus far, but they worry the numbers will rise with the increased online activity luring vulnerable women to Syria.
There have been several reports of European women traveling to Syria to join up with jihadists there. In April, two Austrian girls, aged 15 and 16, went missing in Vienna and resurfaced in Syria. They are being sought by Interpol. In May, 16-year-old British twins sneaked out of their home in Manchester and traveled to Syria to become jihadi brides. Salma and Zahra Halane telephoned their parents to tell them they had arrived in the war-torn country and told them “we’re not coming back.” And in July, the FBI arrested Denver nurse Shannon Maureen Conley, a 19-year-old Muslim convert, as she boarded a plane to fly to Turkey for onward travel to Syria—she was recruited online, although in her case by a Tunisian man who claimed he was fighting for ISIS.
Not all women, it seems, are put off by the morbid prospect of sitting around waiting for husbands to achieve martyrdom. Women do respond to the tweets extolling the joys of the Islamic revolution. Many seek advice using both Twitter and ask.fm, a Latvian-based question-and-answer platform, about how to get to Syria or Iraq. Umm Layth urges them: “Biggest tip to sisters: don’t take detours, take the quickest route, don’t play around with your Hijrah [religious migration] by staying longer than 1 day for safety and get in touch with your contacts as soon as you reach your destination.”
In April, Umm Layth, who has more than 2,000 Twitter followers, distributed online an English-language “Diary of a Muhajirah [migrant]” providing point-by-point guidance on what these brides-to-be can should expect. There are no mentions of the public stoning that IS advocates for adultery, nor of the punishments for transgressing strict dress codes, but the constrained lifestyle and the material hardships Western women will face aren’t entirely glossed over.
Umm Layth warns prospective recruits that the biggest problem in deciding to take the plunge and head to Syria might be opposition from family. “Even if you know how right this path and decision is and how your love for Allah comes before anything and everything, this is still an ache which only one [who] has been through and experienced it can understand. 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.
She adds: “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.” But there is no question that extremist groups try to reward their fighters with brides, however they can be obtained. One obvious example elsewhere is the mass kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Islamic State has opened a “marriage bureau” in the northern Syrian town of Al Bab for women who want to wed jihadist fighters in territory they control, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based pro-opposition group that relies on activists on the ground for its information.
A key topic for discussion in the Tweets and online advice is what to do if parents oppose plans to go to Syria or refuse to bless a wedding—both major hurdles for believers who need parental consent to travel and marry. The online recruiters say IS can appoint a guardian for them to provide permission. One of the Western jihadi women, Umm Anwar, says in her case the emir (leader) of her prospective husband was appointed and he phoned her father “to ask for my dad’s consent by phone.”
Umm Anwar insists in online exchanges that her role in the Islamic State isn’t just being a housewife. She says she is able to use her education as a medical student and she says, “Women give birth to the mujahideen [warriors] and they are the ones who raise them and teach them.”