What draws women to ISIS

A growing group of young women are rejecting the luxuries and freedoms of Western life – and the mainstream Islamic faith of their parents – to serve the Islamic State group as wives, mothers, and online recruiters.

Beverly Taylor/AL.COM
Hoda Muthana, seated in the foreground, participates in a broadcasting class at Hoover High School in Hoover, Ala., on Aug. 18, 2011. In November 2014, Muthana left for Syria, tricking her parents by saying she was on a school trip. Within a month, she was married. By March, she was a widow.

The sophisticated campaign to draw new recruits to the Islamic State organization isn’t just focusing on encouraging Muslim men to emigrate to war-torn Syria and Iraq.

In increasing numbers, young Western women are leaving home for a life of adventure, religious devotion, and cloistered housework in the IS group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

What would attract young, intelligent women raised in Europe and the United States to embrace the ideology of a terrorist group that celebrates a 7th century interpretation of the Koran replete with beheadings, crucifixions, and sexual slavery?

For 20-year-old Hoda Muthana of Birmingham, Ala., it was the opportunity to join a community of like-minded women and men helping to build what they believe is a pure Islamic utopia in the Middle East.

For 19-year-old Shannon Conley of Arvada, Colo., it was the prospect of marrying a jihadi fighter from Tunisia, 13 years her senior, with whom she’d struck up a courtship online.

For 29-year-old Heather Coffman of Glen Allen,Va., it was the feeling of belonging to a supportive circle of Muslims online who were engaged in a noble struggle for the sake of Allah despite overwhelming  international opposition.

Only one of these three women ever made it to the caliphate.

Ms. Conley was arrested at the Denver airport steps away from a plane headed to Turkey and her waiting suitor. Ms. Coffman was arrested at her home in Virginia and charged with helping her fiancé try to travel to Syria to become a holy warrior.

Both women are serving four-year terms in federal prison.

Ms. Muthana left the US in November 2014 by tricking her parents into thinking she was on a school trip. Within a month of arriving in Syria, she married a foreign fighter from Australia. By March, she was a widow.  

Muthana is among a relatively small but growing group of young women who are rejecting the luxuries and freedoms of Western life – and the mainstream Islamic faith of their parents – to serve the Islamic State group as wives, mothers, and online recruiters.

They enthusiastically don the head-to-toe black veil while rejecting the sexual objectification of women in the West. Theirs is a different kind of freedom, a sort of devout version of feminism – what some analysts call jihadi girl-power.

“They are as young as 14 and as old as 45,” says Erin Saltman, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London.

“There is no one profile,” she says of the diverse group of women and teens. “Educationally, we have some women with Ph.D.s, there are doctors, as well as some who were getting really good grades in school, who had futures planned out to a certain extent.”

Dr. Saltman recently co-authored a report on Western women in the Islamic State, “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part.” The findings are based on data compiled from 119 Western women whose blog posts and other writings on the Internet are being monitored and analyzed in London. Saltman says the database is now at 130 women, and growing.

A woman who emigrates to the Islamic State is expected to marry a jihadist fighter within three months of arrival, start producing children, and take care of her husband when he is back from the warfront.

“They are told that spiritually that is the most divine role for a woman,” Saltman says.

If – or when – her husband is killed in battle, she is expected to marry again in four months.

Roughly 30 percent of the women tracked in Saltman’s year-long study already had become widows, according to the report.

Even this outcome has its benefits for the faithful. Under Islamic State doctrine and belief, a righteous fighter who dies in jihad may claim a guaranteed spot in heaven for his spouse.

This spiritual aspect of the attraction to the Islamic State group is being overlooked by some researchers, according to Saltman. “They are being led to heaven by way of their husband being a martyr as well,” she notes. “This is their own spiritual fulfillment.”

Death is apparently a significant part of life in the caliphate.

'Try not to get attached ... to people'

In August, a group of women claiming to be living in the Islamic State posted a blog of “20 Lessons We’ve Learned After Hijrah [migrating to the caliphate].”

One, identified as Mother S, advised young women contemplating the journey to “try not to get attached too much to people.” It is better to form a permanent bond with Allah, Mother S advised, that way “if you were to lose everyone around you, which you most likely will, then it won’t feel like the end of the world.”

Some of the advice was empowering. “Being here has taught me to reconnect with the fitrah [inherent nature] as women, wives, mothers, and even daughters to our families,” Mother U wrote.

“Being in a non-Muslim society contaminates your mind whether it be with a sexualized view of women or feminist ideals of how women should and shouldn’t be, whether we think it has affected us or not,” she added.

Another writer advised: “Make sure your trip is for Allah’s sake and only His. Not marriage, or money, or so that you may be praised as brave or pious, or for a change of routine and adventure.”

The writer added, “May Allah protect us from all such things.”

The topic of shoes even came up during an online exchange. An anonymous writer asked if women have to wear black shoes with their black head-to-toe veils?

“No you don’t HAVE to wear black shoes,” the writer was advised, “but its preferred for your hayaa’s sake to wear dark coloured shoes that won’t attract any type of attention.” (Hayaa is a concept of religious modesty.)

Of the 4,500 foreign fighters estimated to have joined the Islamic State group by early 2015, some 550 were women from Western countries. Experts say the number is likely significantly higher now.

Germany estimates that 100 of the 700 Germans who have traveled to Syria in recent years are women.

Officials in Britain estimate that more than 100 female nationals have gone.

Roughly 10 percent of the 250 Americans who have attempted to travel to Syria are women, according to the FBI. Only a handful of American women have actually gotten there.

While there is evidence that the number of Western men traveling to Syria from Europe and the US is continuing at a steady plateau, by contrast the number of Western women headed to Syria has grown exponentially within the past year, researchers say.

With the declaration of the caliphate last year, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi called for doctors, imams, engineers, and other professionals to travel to occupied Syria and help establish a formal state. Equally important was his general call for young women to join the cause.

'Jihadi girl-power'

They aren’t just fulfilling what they see as a religious duty. Their motives also reflect a counterculture revolt among Muslim women and girls who refuse to live as second-class citizens in the west, researchers say. For them, it is suddenly both dangerous and cool to be a particular kind of Muslim. And that attraction can be irresistible, researchers say.

“We do see a snowball effect,” Saltman says. “It is almost like a subculture punk movement. It is secretive. It is empowering. It is against tradition and norms. So you can see a bit of youth counterculture involved in this.”

In testimony in Congress in July, Shasha Havlicek, the founder of ISD, said the US must attempt to undermine the allure of what she called “Brand Caliphate,” and its propagation via social media.

“Messaging is fluent, colloquial, and turns local grievances into an international call to arms,” Ms. Havlicek said.

The social media aspect of the IS recruitment effort opens what had been a male-dominated world to females. Women who have joined IS are fluent users of social media and ready and available to help others seeking guidance and reassurance on their path to the Islamic State group.

The bonds that are forged in daily online communications can be both empowering and liberating for young Muslim women.

“A jihadi girl-power subculture has emerged on social media networks, clearly rooted in western culture while simultaneously rejecting it,” Havlicek told Congress.

She cited the example of an Islamic State message on social media designed to appeal to Western teens. It was a play on a well-known cosmetics advertisement. It features a photograph of a completely veiled woman holding a book. The caption reads: “COVERed GIRL… because I’m worth it.”

“The Caliphate offers adventure, belonging and sisterhood, romance, spiritual fulfillment and a tangible role in idealistic utopia-building,” Havlicek testified. “Very few youth sub-cultures or movements can claim to offer so much.”

Most of those who make the journey to Syria are unmarried and often travel in pairs or small groups. They are guided across the Turkish-Syrian border and housed in women-only hostels. Housing and food is provided free-of-charge, and they are given an allowance.

As women, their movements are sharply restricted within in the Islamic State. Their passports and other travel documents are confiscated. And they must ask permission to leave the confines of the home, and may do so only with a chaperone, even after they are married.

Since most of the Western women do not speak Arabic, their activities are further restricted based on linguistics.

“The Germans hang out with the German speakers, the English speakers hang out together, and they don’t necessarily mingle or create strong friendships with the locals because if they don’t speak the same language they actually have very little to talk about,” Saltman says.

All women are barred from participating in combat. But that doesn’t mean many wouldn’t be willing to fight, if called upon.

Saltman says it is wrong to assume that women in the Islamic State may be less inclined to embrace and celebrate the group’s brutal tactics.

“They are not ignorant of the brutality and violence. They have also been radicalized to really believe that there is an in-group of the pure good individuals and there is an out-group who are evil, and you dehumanize the outgroup,” Saltman says.

“It is like Nazi Germany, it is like the Hutu and Tutsi. If you can dehumanize the out-group, you can justify any mass atrocity,” she says.

One Western woman, a mother in the Islamic State, was asked online her view of the beheading last year of a US journalist.

“I wish I did it,” she tweeted in reply, according to an ISD report.

In reaction to a different execution, a second Islamic State mother tweeted: “More beheadings please.”

Female recruits from the West are responding to the same push-pull factors as male recruits. They feel isolated socially and culturally in western countries. They are genuinely upset over widespread human rights abuses perpetuated against Muslim civilians. And they are angry that the world is doing nothing to help.

On the positive side of the ledger, many feel a religious obligation to help establish the caliphate and take action to support and defend it. They share a craving to belong to a tight-knit community of like-minded believers. And they are attracted to the adventure of being part of what they perceive as a successful campaign to change world history and advance the cause of Islam.  

'Peer-to-peer censorship'

Saltman says that over time ISD researchers are noticing a shift in rhetoric among Western women online.

“Some of the women who have been there longer, their tone has definitely changed,” she says. “You are not allowed to go online and say something like #gloomysunday. You have to stay positive because you are aware of yourself as a propaganda unit.”

“However, we do see women being more honest in their recruitment dialogues, as well as saying, ‘Don’t come out here if you want to fight, don’t come out here if you are expecting not to get married.’ ” Some are advising potential recruits to be sure to bring warm clothing and they are warning about the frequent power outages that come with living in a war zone.

“We do get a sense that it is not just a pure utopian ignorant dialogue taking place in saying, ‘Come here it is all sunshine and lemon drops,’ ” Saltman says. “They are saying you need to be really dedicated spiritually to this cause if you are going to come out here. And they are saying that openly.”

There have been some instances where a blog post veered suddenly negative. In those cases, others quickly chimed in to offer a more positive spin on the situation, attempting to drown out the critical comment.

Saltman says it is a kind of group speak, similar to the totalitarian orthodoxy enforced in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

“It is literally peer to peer censorship,” she said. “That is the nature of living in a fundamentalist fascistic society and that is what we are witnessing.”

• Part 1, Monday: How doomsday Muslim cult is turning kids against parents
• Parts 2 & 3, Tuesday: One Virginia teen's journey from ISIS rock star to incarceration & Eight faces of ISIS in America
• Part 4, Wednesday: FBI tactics to unearth ISIS recruits: effective or entrapment?
• Part 5, Thursday: What draws women to ISIS
• Part 6, Friday: To turn tables on ISIS at home, start asking unsettling questions, expert says
• Part 7, Saturday: How to save kids from ISIS? Start with mom.

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