As the numbers of western women travelling to join Isis in Syria and Iraq have grown – recent estimates suggest there are up to 550 from around the world – so has the understanding of their motivations and what analysts term the push and pull factors behind their actions.
Battles over personal identity have long been thought to have persuaded some Muslim teenagers to subscribe to the utopian goals of radical Islamists. Evidence from a slew of former radical recruiters suggests that they seek to free their targets from being caught between the traditionalist strictures their parents impose and the more mainstream liberal expectations of schoolfriends. The recruiters offer a third way, a sense of belonging to a global cause in which the young radical is free to join the caravan of war wherever it may be in the world.
But in recent years it is the pull factors that have never been stronger. Isis insurgents have been masterful manipulators of social media. Aside from creating YouTube videos trumpeting their crimes from the battlefield in high definition, they have also established outlets such as the Zora Foundation, specifically aimed at drawing women to their cause by offering tips, travel advice and even recipes for battle snacks.
Other female jihadis have been tweeting and blogging in English on sites such as Tumblr for well over a year. Their references to cats, Nutella and the travails of home life read like many other discourses until you realise where they are posting from and what they are ultimately evangelising about.
A study released last month by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that women on the receiving end of that social media onslaught were captivated by the violence they saw. Examining the social media accounts of six European women who ultimately travelled to Syria and Iraq, they discovered that one described the brutal murder of the American aid worker Peter Kassig and 18 Syrian hostages as “gut-wrenchingly awesome”.
Another woman, who watched a different beheading video, wrote: “I was happy to see the beheading of that kaffir [non-believer], I just rewinded to the cutting part,” and called for “more beheadings please!”, according to the study.
“Umm Hussain”, alternately named in reports as mother-of-two Sally Jones from Kent, tweeted: “Know that we have armies in Iraq and an army in Sham [Syria] of angry lions whose drink is blood and play is carnage.”
The study concluded: “There is no doubt … that the women who migrate to the territory controlled by Isis revel in the gore and brutality of the organisation. They appear desensitised to the horrific nature of the violent acts being committed.”
Charlie Winter, of the Quilliam Foundation, said that although Isis propaganda sometimes suggested that women would have an active, and even armed role, the reality was that they were heavily controlled once they arrived.
Winter recently helped translate a long Isis communique that set out in great detail the designated role of women under the group’s version of sharia law. Circulated late last month and titled Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study, the document railed against westernised notions of female liberation, damning fashion shops and beauty salons as the work of the devil.
“It is always preferable for a woman to remain hidden and veiled, to maintain society from behind this veil,” it said. It added that girls could marry at the age of nine, and “pure girls” should ideally settle with a husband by 17 and should not be “corrupted” by careers. It was also clear that women would not take up arms unless the survival of Isis depended on it.
Winter said the contents of the communique would be likely to shock all but the most hardcore British female jihadis. “Young female jihadists who have really sworn in to the ideology and believe in the caliphate … they’re a different kettle of fish. They will be going out expecting to be put in this role, expecting to be married off to a fighter, and to then have children. That’s their way of contributing to the Islamic State programme,” he said.
He agreed that it was ludicrous that children were often the targets of Isis recruiters, but said the organisation needed to maintain its momentum with a “constant stream of recruits”.
“Yes, a 16-year-old is almost a child, but that doesn’t matter if she is going to be bearing the next generation,” he said.
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