Recruitment within terrorist organizations was long considered a homegrown issue, where groups attracted new members within the countries that they operate, drawing from homogenous, ideologically motivated populations with an existing undercurrent of sympathy for the group’s aims. However, the recent trend of westerners — many of them women — flocking to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has provided cause for alarm. Despite the egregious reputation of militant fundamentalist groups, organizations like ISIS have succeeded in attracting young girls via social media, with promises of holy duty, glory and paradise.
Recently, three Denver teenagers ran away from home in an attempt to join ISIS. After saving $2000 and stealing another $2000 from their parents, two sisters and another female friend secretly purchased plane tickets to Syria. On the morning of their departure, they ditched school and boarded a flight to Frankfurt. Their plan was only revealed when one girl’s father discovered that his daughter’s passport was missing after a call from the school notifying him of his daughter’s absence. Upon checking her Twitter account, he found that the last tweet read, “Please please please make [prayer] for me wherever you are. I truly need it, may Allah bless you all.” Believing she had left for Syria, her father tweeted to her and called the authorities. German immigration and security officials apprehended the girls on their arrival in Frankfurt. While federal officials do not appear to be pressing charges against the three Denver teens, the FBI has seized their cellphones and computers, and has reported that the girls communicated with members of ISIS through Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated case. Nineteen-year-old Shannon Conley recently pleaded guilty in a US District Court in Colorado for providing material support to terror groups. Conley, who was arrested while trying to board a flight to Syria, had begun regularly visiting a local church and producing detailed sketches of its interior, allegedly in preparation for an attack. Conley further stated that she was in love with a jihadist, and planned to marry him and “fight a guerilla war in the Middle East.” She currently faces five years in federal prison and $250,000 fine.
ISIS has also successfully marketed themselves to young girls in other countries, most notably in Europe and the United Kingdom. Two Bosnian teens living in Austria, Samra Kesinovic and Sabina Selimovic, left the country for Syria to marry jihadists, only to plead to be brought home soon after. They too face up to five years in prison in accordance with Austrian law. Kings College London reported “50 girls from the UK, 60 from France and 40 from Germany” have likely become radicalized and left to join ISIS.
Though typically viewed as a masculine phenomenon, women have proven just as prone to radicalization as men, and are similarly attracted by the promise of a purpose — a chance to participate creating a ‘utopian’ Islamic State. The creation of a new kind of ‘utopian’ state is a particularly appealing aspiration. Continued economic woes and societal instability have left many disenchanted with the modern European state. Government approval ratings in European countries have tumbled — a January 2014 Gallup poll showed only the governments of Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg had public opinion rates higher than 50 percent.
A growing number of French men and women in particular have been radicalized and moved to Iraq and Syria. The growing tension between French Muslims and the secular state has not gone unacknowledged, but the divide between disenfranchised minorities and the government has only widened, helping to drive this trend. Fresnes, a jail outside of Paris, is even attempting to stop radicalization in the country by isolating prisoners they identify as “radical Muslims.” Indeed, proximity and ease of access to the Middle East from Europe coupled with the existing culture clashes, high unemployment and sense of marginalization among immigrant populations has made stamping out pro-ISIS sentiment difficult for the country.
ISIS has become increasingly renowned for their savvy social media strategy, which has projected their message around the world. According to VICE, women affiliated with the Islamic State are using social media to recruit friends and acquaintances to join them: The Quilliam Foundation recently released a report stating that this outreach has proved startlingly effective. Senior Fellow James Robbins of the National Security Affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council has said that ISIS’s tactics resemble that of a cult, offering the salvation of paradise and an alternative, presumably better life to those who do not feel comfortable in mainstream society or “are questing for something maybe bigger than themselves.” Radicalized teenagers often do not necessarily come from devout families, but become drawn to more extreme forms of Islam, like any extremist ideology, as an outlet or a means of making sense of the world around them. They are exposed to the glorification of terrorist ideologies through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media platforms — to a devastatingly effective degree. ISIS’s web page detailing its mission is available in over 20 languages and features photos of women happily socializing and working for the organization.
The group preys on younger women with “Disney-like versions of what it is like to live in the caliphate,” says Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. Bloom explained to the Huffington Post that, “It’s this idea that if they go to the Islamic State, they will be taken care of.” Promises of material items given to them as gifts from the Caliphate depict an easy life — and the promise of marriage to a future martyr is often romanticized.
ISIS has sought to play up its ‘sex appeal’ — featuring attractive male jihadists on their social media accounts and promising young women love, support and stability in their new lives. A British eighteen-year-old nicknamed “Osama bin Bieber” has become particularly notorious on the Internet, combining a love of fundamentalist Sunni doctrine with a penchant for smouldering at the camera. The proliferation of what French anthropologist Dounia Bouzar calls “bearded Prince Charmings on Facebook” has led him to describe ISIS recruiting as “a mix of indoctrination and seduction.
Kamaldeep Bhui, a professor of cultural psychiatry and epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London told the New York Times that sympathizers of extremist groups tended to be “younger, in full-time education, and more middle-class. They were more likely to be depressed and socially isolated.” Cult psychology relies on a process of heavy persuasion, emotional manipulation and a demand for total conformity, luring in prospective members with the promise of “friendship, identity, respect and security.” Regardless of what the realities of ISIS are for these women, they are lured to the movement with such promises, highly appealing to those who feel purposeless and disenchanted and are seeking a validation of self-worth, which ISIS purports to provide.
Despite their claims as to the “protection of womanhood,” the reality is a long way from the utopian vision ISIS has painted for Western women. ISIS has demonstrated a willingness, if not a desire, to deprive women of all backgrounds their basic human dignity. Rape, is nothing new to war, but Aki Peritz and Tara Maller write in Foreign Policy that male jihadists are “committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale.” Meanwhile, women of the Christian Yazidi minority in Iraq who are captured by ISIS can expect to be “gifted” to men, essentially enslaved, where they are then forced into marriages, beaten and raped.
As for the women who join ISIS willingly, promises of the honor of marrying jihadist fighters and glory in being part of the Islamic State are far from the reality of life at the mercy of the Islamic State. Women are often married to jihadists and put to work towards recruiting more women from Western countries to join them. They live their day-to-day life under the strict confines of Sharia law, and are seen merely as tools to be used for domestic labor, sex, procreation and recruitment.
The rate at which ISIS and other terror groups are able to attract young women from Western countries is alarming. Counterterrorism agencies now must consider campaigns to combat their tactics; FBI director James Corney said the bureau is considering “non-custodial alternatives” but would not provide further details. Meanwhile, local Muslim groups have taken it upon themselves to counteract recruitment efforts by the Islamic State themselves. Still, much needs to be done to establish both legal precedent and policy to combat terrorists’ rapid modernization and adaptation of new technology.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.