ISIS Recruitment of Western Women

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In the past two decades I have interviewed almost five hundred terrorists, extremists, and in the case of dead suicide terrorists—their family members, close associates or hostages. These interviews have taken place in Europe, North America, Turkey, Russia and the Middle East. My research questions have always been the same—to learn what put them on the terrorist trajectory, and what might have prevented that, and what could be done to take them back off it.

In that vein I consulted with the UK government when they were putting together their PREVENT program and I also designed the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of what came to be known as the US Department of Defense’s Detainee Rehabilitation Program to be applied to the more than 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles that US forces held in Iraq in 2007.

We all know that the Islamic State (IS) is the most powerful, ruthless, horrific and well-funded terrorist group in recent history.  Today we are here to talk about their recruitment of western women. Sadly, all over the world, young, Western women are slipping out of their bedrooms, giving silent farewells and leaving heart-rending notes to their families—apologizing for their sudden disappearances.  Young women—even girls—are taking their leave all across the globe—from Paris, London, Copenhagen, Sydney, and in the United States from cities like Denver, Colorado.

Their stories differ—yet they are the same in many respects. These young girls are sometimes seduced in person, but most often have been seduced over the Internet, by men and women already in, or supporters of ISIS. Taking flights to Istanbul, they continue south making their way over the Syrian border into the ranks of ISIS—often leaving little trace.

According to colleagues at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, seventy-one individuals in the United States have been charged with Islamic-State related activities since March of 2014.  Ten of these were women—that’s fourteen percent of the total for the American sample.  Of the foreign fighters currently in Syria and Iraq, there are estimated to be over five hundred female recruits, dozens of them from Western countries.[i] Women and girls now make up nearly one-fifth of the twenty thousand foreign fighters estimated to have gone to fight with ISIS and related groups.  Most become brides of ISIS and mothers, but some have taken on other roles. A Canadian woman is believed, based on the GPS tracking her movements via her phone, to be working as an ISIS spy. Another woman was recently reported to be a fighting commander.  The roles women take in terrorist organizations vary, but keep in mind, militant jihadi organizations are generally male dominated, and women generally only take leadership roles over other women. In ISIS, the roles women are taking on will continue to shape the battle with this new global enemy.

Michael Steinbach, the head of the FBI’s Counter-terrorism Division announced in February of 2015. “ISIS is more aggressively recruiting women than any other terror group has.” And FBI Director James Comey, announced in July of 2015, that ISIS is using Twitter and encryption to recruit thousands of English-language followers and send out orders. According to Comey, ISIS reaches 21,000 followers on Twitter, some that are then moved onto encrypted messaging platforms as they are pulled into the terrorist group.[ii]

Indeed, ISIS, more than any of its predecessors, is adept at using the plethora of Internet platforms available to reach digitally accessible audiences.

The question now is what motivates the young women who are going to join one of the most misogynistic, brutal and raping organizations in the history of mankind?

When attempting to answer this question it is important to remember that females that join ISIS are not simply going to Iraq and Syria to surrender their sense of agency. They, like their male counterparts, have complex motivations for taking part in terrorism, motivations that are hardly as simple as only wanting to marry a jihadi fighter. They join for multiple reasons that are as variable as the persons involved.

Some leave in a quest for romance; adventure; purity; seeking what they believe is the “true Islam.” Some even go hoping to die and be “martyred” so they can cleanse themselves and gain the rewards of paradise.  Some are reacting out of anger over geo-politics; disillusionment with the societies they live in; lured by promises of family, home, even riches if they go to join ISIS—to take part in, and build up, what they mistakenly believe will become a utopian society.

In this regard, ISIS with their so-called “caliphate” has a particularly potent draw for anyone whose life is off its tracks, for those who are angered by injustices in their own lives that are mirrored in the wider geopolitical space.  ISIS promises an alternative world order where Muslims and those who are of color who may be facing discrimination in their own lives are promised significance, purpose and meaningful roles—although they also have to accept taking part in sacrifice and bloodshed trying to build the so-called “caliphate.”

Some of the women that consider going, but decide not to, may also instead, opt to “stay and act in place”—plotting for, or actually carrying out lethal attacks in their own countries.  Twenty-seven-year-old Tashfeen Malik, the San Bernadino killer, for instance, gave her bayat to ISIS before going on her fateful mission to attack and kill inside the United States.

So we know that both those that go, and those that stay to attack in place, who have drank the “purple koolaid” of ISIS ideology are lethal and their roles are expanding—but what they are capable of we still don’t fully understand.

My experience with conservative militant jihadi groups is that they often do not allow females into combat roles or use them as suicide bombers until the going gets tough. Although Chechens used females as bombers from the start, Palestinian, Iraqi and other terrorist groups with more conservative roles for women did not use them as suicide operatives until there was a clear advantage to doing so.  When terrorist leaders found that their men were no longer successfully passing checkpoints, but that women could still breach while hiding bombs on their bodies, they began to send women.

ISIS leaders, presently hemmed in by regime and PKK assaults and coalition airstrikes, may now be in that same mindset. Chillingly, it has recently been revealed that ISIS has a new marriage certificate which both husband and wife sign. It declares the final decision over the life and death of the ISIS bride rests with the Islamic State’s leader, al-Baghdadi.  Under ‘conditions of wife’ it reads: ‘If the Prince of believers [Baghdadi] consents to her carrying out a suicide mission, then her husband should not prohibit her.’  This may suggest that the group is looking ahead to a similar transition in using female cadres for suicide missions

In our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project—in which Dr. Ahmet Yayla who is present today, and I have been interviewing—now over twenty-five Syrians and Europeans who have been inside ISIS and left the organization—we have also gathered data from recent defectors that ISIS has been preparing females to go as suicide bombers.  One such women already detonated herself in Istanbul and there may be many more to follow.

We know from our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project that Western women are immediately put in an all-female brigades of the hisbah. That is an ISIS police force that enforces morality and dress standards and sex segregation, operates checkpoints, oversees the sex slave trade and goes on home raids.  Western women serving in the ISIS hisbah carry Kalishnikovs, can order the brutal punishment of anyone they deem as having broken the rules of ISIS and they basically answer to almost no one.

Likewise we know from our defector interviews that a group of Western women in ISIS goes daily to a big house in Raqqa where they sit on computers and try to lure other women over the Internet into ISIS. Indeed one young thirteen year old who was thankfully stopped before joining ISIS interacted with such women.  She was sent so many pictures of Syrian mansions with swimming pools that she later told authorities that she thought she was going to Islamic Disney Land.

It appears that as long as the idea of the longed-for “caliphate” continues to carry its euphoric power, and ISIS continues to demonstrate some modicum of success in holding and governing territory, young girls who are angry or concerned over geopolitical events, who become convinced that militant jihad is their Islamic duty, and who feel off their track in the West, while simultaneously enticed via the Internet (often in person)—by adventure, romance and the call to live (as they imagine) by Islamic ideals while they contribute to building a longed for utopia—that they will continue to be seduced into the movement, and we will continue to see females leaving the West to become Brides of ISIS.

While some have feared the Western “brides” have been subjected to group rapes, I should note that, that fate appears to be reserved to Yazidi slaves primarily, although our defector interviews also reveal that Sunni and Shia wives and daughters are also captured and used as sex slaves by ISIS.  Likewise local women are often forced into marriages with ISIS fighters and raped within the institution of marriage.

Western women who join ISIS, however, generally Tweet and blog positive statements about their time in ISIS, citing both the hardships and the materials “blessings” of living in the stolen quarters of others, taking over their cars and other material goods. However when a westerner, ISIS bride loses her husband, the house, car and relatively higher standard of living that Western women enjoy in ISIS ranks, all falls apart.

According to our defector reports she is quickly handed to the next fighter who wants to marry her—often without her express consent and if she tries to escape she is killed or sent back and forced to marry.  If she manages to escape there are still dangers to outmaneuver.  She may fall to the hands of smugglers who also rape and extort sexual “favors” from the women they help back across the borders.

And ISIS doesn’t give up easily as I know from one European whose father helped her to escape after her ISIS husband was killed in an airstrike.  As she was fleeing her parents received text messages—first warning that their daughter was in grave danger and should return instead of being killed, and then conceding that she could leave—but not until she returned to birth and nurse her baby because according to ISIS, “the baby is ours.”

I’d like to thank the The Homeland Security Committee and Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY) for hosting this roundtable on women in terrorism.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. : is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS, is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She is currently running the ISIS Defectors Interview Project with Dr. Ahmet Yayla at ICSVE. Personal website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

Reference for this article is: Reference for this paper: Speckhard, Anne (March 22, 2016) ISIS Defectors Interview Project: ISIS Recruitment of Western Women-Presentation to the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Roundtable on Women and Terrorism. ICSVE Brief Report

[i] Owens, J. (February 25, 2015). Julie Bishop warns young women against becoming ‘jihadi brides’. The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/foreign-affairs/julie-bishop-warns-young-women-against-becoming-jihadi-brides/story-fn59nm2j-1227238760479

[ii] Volz, D. (July 8, 2015). FBI Director: ISIS is relying on encryption to recruit Americans and order killings. National Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.nationaljournal.com/tech/fbi-director-isis-is-relying-on-encryption-to-recruit-americans-and-order-killings-20150708

Anne Speckhard

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and has also taught the Psychology of Terrorism for the Security Studies Department in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Dr. Speckhard has been working in the field of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the 1980’s and has extensive experience working in Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.

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