Young western women among jihadis

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - October 02, 2014 02:18 am IST

Hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in western countries to join Islamic fighters in the Middle East, causing increasing concern among counter-terrorism investigators.

Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry jihadis , bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media. Women and girls appear to account for about 10 per cent of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with jihadi groups, including Islamic State (IS).

France has the highest number of female recruits, with 63 in the region — about 25 per cent of the total — and at least another 60 believed to be considering the move. In most cases they appear to have left home to marry jihadis , drawn to the idea of supporting “brother fighters” and having “ jihadist children to continue the spread of Islam,” said Louis Caprioli, former head of the French security agency Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. “If their husband dies, they will be given adulation as the wife of a martyr.” Five people, including a sister and brother, were arrested in France this month on suspicion of belonging to a ring in central France that specialised in recruiting young French women, according to Bernard Cazeneuve, the Interior Minister.

Counter-terrorism experts in the U.K. believe about 50 British girls and women have joined IS, about a 10th of those known to have travelled to Syria to fight. Many are believed to be based in Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city that has become an IS stronghold.

The U.S. does not have data available on women and girls joining Isis fighters in Syria, a senior intelligence official said in an emailed statement. “We do not have numbers to share on the number of women linked to [IS] or fighting for them,” the official said.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defence of Democracies, downplayed the issue in the U.S., saying the number of women and girls joining IS was of concern, but not an epidemic. “It’s a threat, but it’s [one] among many potential threats coming out of Syria,” he said.

Karim Pakzad, of the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said some young women had “an almost romantic idea of war and warriors. There’s a certain fascination even with the head and throat-cutting. It’s an adventure.” Some may feel more respected and important than in their home countries, he added.

But Shaista Gohir, of the U.K. Muslim Women’s Network, said little was known about the young women’s motivation or what happened to them after leaving home. “Some of these girls are very young and naive, they don’t understand the conflict or their faith, and they are easily manipulated. Some of them are taking young children with them; some may believe they are taking part in a humanitarian mission,” she said.

The role of social media

Social media plays a crucial role in recruiting young women to join IS in the Middle East, according to many experts.

Women living amid IS fighters used social media adeptly to portray Syria as a utopia and to attract foreign women to join their “sisterhood in the caliphate,” she said. “The idea of living in the caliphate is a very positive and powerful one that these women hold dear.” But the reality was very different, she said. Bloom and Rolf Tophoven, of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, said reports indicated that women had been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry. “[IS] is a strictly Islamist, brutal movement ... the power, the leadership structure, are clearly a male domain,” said Tophoven.

Messages between a British IS fighter in Syria and his common-law wife, read in a U.K. court last month, revealed that many fighters are taking several wives.

In an article in Foreign Policy focusing on IS’s attitudes to women, former CIA analysts Aki Peritz and Tara Maller said fighters were “committing horrific sexual violence on a seemingly industrial scale.

“For example, the United Nations last month estimated that [IS] has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that [IS] abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse.

“Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of [IS] fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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