March 23, 2015
By Emily Daglish – Research Assistant
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February saw three British girls aged 15 and 16 make the journey from London to Syria – their decision to leave behind families and a Western lifestyle to live in ISIS controlled territory sparked considerable media attention and debate. The reality, however, is that they are just the latest in a stream of women and girls who have not only been radicalised, but have followed through with the journey. Providing an exact number of Western women and girls who have travelled to join ISIS is difficult; however, it is estimated that approximately 10% of foreign recruits who have travelled to join the group have been women or girls. The lack of attention given to this increasing trend is striking – as is the reactive nature of policy responses.
ISIS’s takeover of territory in Syria and Iraq last year was a male driven act, with females expressly forbidden from the qitaal (fighting). However, the desire to form a caliphate comes with practicalities, notably the need for ‘support’ functions, such as increasing the population and establishing communities and home lives that can keep particularly foreign fighters engaged in the region. This reality has led to a considerable recruitment push aimed at women and girls in the past months. Despite some similarities, the method is heavily centred around technology and different from the strategies aimed at Western men.
This brief will look into the reasons behind radicalisation and recruitment of Western women, in particular those who make the journey to ISIS controlled territory, and analyse the gendered recruitment methods used. Prevention obstacles are looked into alongside current and possible counter narratives, followed by an examination of the possible undervalued threat we face from radicalised women.
Fast-tracked female incitement
The summer of 2014 saw ISIS overrun swathes of territory in Iraq whilst consolidating and expanding their hold over large areas of Syria, still in the turmoil of civil war. During these initial months, women and girls were actively discouraged from joining the fighting, and instead told to raise funds and encourage their menfolk to join ISIS’s ranks. While this element continues, the targeting has changed as the reality of rule has set in.
An urgent need for state functions set in around September 2014 due to the expansion and subsequent community building needed. Western women and girls are promised ‘devout, jihadist husbands, a home in a true Islamic state and the opportunity to devote their lives to their religion and their god.’ This lure, coupled with the desire to become a ‘founding mother’ to a new nation, has helped establish a narrative of duty. It is well documented that any large army of men, which we must recognise that ISIS has become, requires morale building and continuous incentives. Women play a critical role in this and have done for centuries. The community building skills that women bring, alongside the obvious reproductive capabilities, provide a sense of belonging and responsibility to fighters without which they could be tempted to return to their home nations where their families and friends still reside.
ISIS’s desire to consolidate and expand their self-proclaimed caliphate requires propaganda. Their desire to attract Western women to join them in Syria and Iraq demonstrates not only their need to establish a society, but to expand their influence to the Western world. Women’s community nature has proven not only a useful tool in encouraging others to travel to Syria or Iraq, but for encouraging those who cannot travel to commit ‘home soil’ attacks. A particularly noteworthy propaganda element is social media and Western women who have travelled to join ISIS are often well versed in social media, providing an additional source of further recruitment.
Social media: the vehicle for female recruitment
ISIS runs a sophisticated social media machine aimed at promoting its ideals, facilitating recruitment and eliciting fear. Whereas recruitment for male fighters to ISIS focuses on martyrdom, the narrative for recruitment of women and girls is very different. Online female adherents to ISIS’s beliefs have increased substantially in the last few months as they promote the importance of women in establishing the desired state. New online forums and publications target women and girls in the West with a positive image of this new life. There are numerous elements to this which have proven successful in recruiting vulnerable young women in particular to make the dangerous journey. Many of those involved are Western women who have married ISIS fighters.
The ideological aspect of these messages is critical and appeals to the disillusioned. The notion of an ‘ideologically pure state’, living honourably alongside one’s sisters whilst being closer to god appeals to women and girls who are seeking adventure and see the act as heroic. Often therefore, it is not necessarily those who are fanatically religious who make the journey to join ISIS, but instead those wishing to make the transition from childhood to adulthood and who feel that Western lives and relationships are in fact very superficial. Part of this is the ‘romance’ narrative put forward by ISIS propaganda, brandishing a romanticised version of a very repressive reality. With Western governments pushing a negative propaganda campaign against ISIS, contrasting with this positive image put forward by female supporters, those who feel out of place in a Western society can easily be drawn in to the narrative.
The flip side of this ideological narrative is the guilt these women attempt to impose on those unwilling or unable to travel, arguing that the obstacles claimed to be preventing some from making the journey are merely excuses. Often this then turns to promoting home-soil attacks. The ease of access to images of casualties from Western attacks gives recruiters ammunition. It plays on the empathy, injustice and political alienation that many women and girls feel about Western policy, both domestic and foreign. This further encourages revenge either through travelling to join them or violence closer to home.
The English language, chatty and modern style of tweets, blogs and Instagram pictures that are uploaded by ISIS women, notably those of Western origin, act as a valuable propaganda tool to encourage more young women to travel. The fact that most UK women who are known to have travelled to Syria are below the age of 24 demonstrates the value and influence of such techniques, the familiarity of which chimes with their current social lives. This use of ‘soft’ power gives the impression of a sociable atmosphere, not devoid of modern technology or companionship. By portraying their experiences in a positive light, these women often gloss over the restrictions imposed on them and infer they are experiencing an exciting and fun adventure.
Whilst a large part of the social media success has centred around this community aspect, ISIS women have also used the platforms to show and explain the reality of life in the territory. Whilst it could be argued that the hardships demonstrated, such as sporadic electricity and internet access, put some off making the journey, it also acts as an insurance against false hope and fleeting stays. Alongside this, it also gives support to their religious and ideological claims about a ‘pure’ state and sacrifice.
A more practical element to women’s social media recruitment is the instructions and advises they provide potential recruits. Often, initial contacts are made through social media. ISIS women of Western origin tend to have large numbers of twitter followers. Umm Layth, who has more than 2,000 Twitter followers, is one of the group’s most active recruiters on social media. Prospective female recruits and travellers are then advised to switch from traceable platforms to the so called ‘dark web’, where ISIS women provide advice on the safest travel routes, what to bring and who to contact without the level of oversight afforded to open platforms. Given the treacherous route needed to get to Syria (this is the main choice rather than Iraq, given the easier access through Turkey), this provides advice and contacts without which, a large number would not make it to ISIS territory. By forming communities and friendships prior to travel, ISIS has ensured a smoother passage for their recruits as a safety measure for their state support roles.
The final and perhaps most concerning aspect of this social media vehicle is the support they show for ISIS’s most brutal atrocities. One comment described the murder of an American aid worker and 18 Syrian hostages as “gut wrenchingly awesome.” Beyond the clear humanitarian concerns about desensitisation to violence, such support has also been manifested in a desire to perform such acts themselves.
An undervalued threat?
There are three elements to consider when discussing the threat women who have travelled to join ISIS pose. The first is the immediate threat posed by those who have already made the journey and are unlikely to leave; the second concerns those who have made the journey and then later return to their home country; and the third is those women and girls who were unable to make the journey but still want to contribute to the ISIS cause.
Despite the clear statement on the role of women in the caliphate in ISIS’s recent manifesto, including that women have no role in the fighting, there is clearly a desire of many to take a more active role. This should be seen as a warning of a possible future trend. Past conflict experiences must be learned from, for example that of the Chechnyan ‘black widows,’ who enacted a devastating suicide bombing campaign in part to avenge the deaths of their husbands, brothers and fathers. For ISIS widows, it seems as if they are waiting and willing for the moment when they are allowed to fight. Those battling ISIS must be prepared for a potential change in strategy should ISIS’s male recruitment slow or their casualties begin to outweigh new male recruits.
Turning to those who have made the journey to ISIS territory and then for some reason chosen to return to their home country. Western governments cannot and should not underestimate the impact experiencing a warzone and being surrounded by radical religion can have on willingness to commit ‘home-soil’ atrocities. As noted previously, desensitisation to violence is one factor, coupled with indoctrination that espouses the death of Western ‘non-believers.’ Combined, they present both a threat and an opportunity for counter-narrative and intervention.
Lastly are those women and girls who are unable to travel to Syria or Iraq. Often these women are the target of further indoctrination and attention by female ISIS recruiters, who encourage them to commit ‘home-soil’ atrocities and often accuse them of using obstacles as ‘excuses.’ These women and girls present a different threat to those previously described as they do not need to travel to commit an attack, need limited preparation time and are often more difficult to trace.
Current policy and missing links
Until very recently the predominant focus has been on the counter-narrative needed for young men. However, it is severely lacking direction or nuance towards vulnerable women and girls.
The profile of those who travel or attempt to travel is by now reasonably well documented. Often well-educated and living comfortably, there have also been trends noted of isolation and depression that have appeared to make them vulnerable to ISIS’s social media machinery. However, this profiling has not been put to sufficient use, particularly in terms of community cooperation. Authorities, communities and families must work more closely together to understand, notice and highlight women and girls who are most vulnerable. A better and more trusting system must allow moves towards linking rather than working in parallel, a strategy that has proven unfruitful because of the lack of trust between all those involved.
A stronger counter-narrative directed at women is desperately needed. Given the importance of social media to ISIS’s female recruitment, the counter narrative must also utilise such platforms to the fullest. Empathy has been shown to be a key driver in female desire to travel to ISIS territory and the reality of ISIS’s severe repression of women, their brutality and the reality of life on the ground could provide starting points for such work. The timings and audience that these counter-narratives should target is furthermore crucial. Whilst there is a need for consistent countering, more targeted intervention is crucial and under-utilised at moments in these women’s lives when they may have become disillusioned with the reality of life under ISIS, or worried about potential travel to the region.
The role of the internet and social media in particular for female recruitment to ISIS from the West has been heavily emphasised. The counter-narrative described above must use this platform if it is to reach those most vulnerable. There is a role for restrictions and of course monitoring, however the prominence and ease of the so-called ‘dark web’ has been underplayed and more research must be done on how counter-narratives can reach these audiences.
On the international level, closer cooperation between security bodies is vital. Turkish authorities complained (although this has been disputed) that it took British security forces three days to notify them of the British girls’ journey to Turkey, which allegedly led to their journey into Syria only a few days later. Blame games aside – it is crucial that border agencies are better trained in detecting female ISIS recruits. This could take the form of tighter security checks internationally, alongside better cultural understanding regarding female travel, particularly those of Asian background where young girls are unlikely to have been allowed to travel without their families or male companions.
This mix of security, international and community measures is well versed when it comes to male recruitment to ISIS. However, its relation to women and girls has been particularly undervalued. Western governments in particular must wake up to the reality that radicalised Western women and girls are neither less likely to join ISIS, and nor do they pose a lesser threat because of their gender.