The Effects of Assad’s Atrocities and the Call to Foreign Fighters to Come to Syria on the Rise and Fall of the ISIS Caliphate
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Behavioral…
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 close to 30 000 foreign recruits from more than 100 countries have migrated to the area of Iraq and Syria in support of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Among those travelling is a historically unprecedented number of women. Why women are drawn to violent Islamic extremist groups is a not well-explored topic and a conundrum to many. Through a qualitative text analysis of official ISIS-propaganda this report investigates the pulls that draw women towards ISIS conceptualized as promises the organization makes to women. The report concludes that women are promised seven things: the possibility to fulfill their religious duty, become important state builders, experience deep and meaningful belonging and sisterhood, to live an exciting adventure in which they can find true romance, as well as being increasingly influential. Based on these findings one can argue that preventive counter measures targeting young women about each of these promises should be devised. Such counter measures need to creatively address the needs that the ISIS claims to be fulfilling while simultaneously debunking the ISIS propaganda lies of being able to deliver a perfect paradise on earth. Only by so doing can we decrease the attraction of the message delivered by the Islamic State.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, more than 30 000 individuals (The Soufan Group, 2015, p.4) have traveled to the area of the Levant with the purpose of joining the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). About 5000 (Europol, 2016, p.26) of these “foreign fighters” (FF) originate from Europe, where socialist nations such as Belgium, France, Sweden and the UK stand out as source countries that provide comparatively large numbers of soldiers to the terrorist organization (Boutin et al. 2016 pp.50-1).
In June 2014, ISIS declared the establishment of a Caliphate, an “Islamic state” holding territory with ambitions for further expansion (Rafiq & Malik 2015, p.11). Individuals leaving their countries of origin to engage in war making abroad is not a new phenomenon. It has occurred in various conflicts throughout history such as the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s’ and the Afghan fight against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, which drew 3000 FF, and the call of al-Qaeda in Iraq during the 2003 U.S. led coalition invasion of Iraq, which drew 5000 FF, (Ranstorp & Hyllengren 2013, p.65) What is new is the unprecedented number of travelers that have volunteered to engage in this conflict by joining ISIS, causing the United Nations (UN) to label the situation a global and unprecedented threat to peace and security (UN Resolution 2249, 2015).
A striking and unprecedented phenomenon found when studying data about European FF relates to gender. Although women getting involved in violent extremist groups is not a new phenomenon – it has been seen in the past, for instance in the IRA, Tamil Tigers, Chechen terrorists, and so forth (Ranstorp & Hyllengren 2013, p.65). However, the numbers now observed are exceptionally high; around 20 percent of the FF population stemming from Europe consist of women (Boutin et al. 2016 p.51). Some European countries have reported even higher numbers reaching up to 30 percent of the total populations. This means that approximately 1,000 European women, some together with their children, have chosen to migrate to areas controlled by ISIS in search of a new and very different life. (The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, 2016, p.9). Globally, an even larger number of women, at times travelling with their entire families, have joined from Central and Southeast Asia, North America, the Gulf and North Africa. Until very recently, when ISIS began losing its control of territory, these numbers were also rising sharply by the day.
Many Western governments have taken initial steps in developing general preventive measures to counter the recruitment of individuals to violent Islamic extremist organizations (Ranstorp, Gustafsson & Hyllengren 2015, pp.37-42). Although only a few have, until now, developed measures specifically targeting women (Ministry of Culture, government decision 24, 2015 Ku2015/01868/D).
Existing research on women’s roles within ISIS built mainly on empirics derived from social media accounts tied to female ISIS-migrants and defector and captured prisoner interviews. These have given important insights into the daily life of women within ISIS, depicting them foremost as mothers, wives and supporters of the so-called Caliphate (Hoyle, Bradford & Frenett 2015; Saltman & Smith 2015). According to defector interviews women in ISIS do work, foreign women are often assigned to roles in the female hisbah (morality police) and if they have a profession to teach, give medical care etc. exclusively to women and children (Speckhard & Yayla, 2015).
Learning about terrorists by reading their own words published on the Internet can often be instructive, particularly if leaders are talking among and to their own—they often reveal important dynamics about the organization (Paz, 2011). How does ISIS as an organization attract women and what is their understanding of women’s roles within the organization? These questions can be answered by looking at what promises are made to women in official Internet-based propaganda, namely IS’ online magazines and statements, which has become the topic of this report.
Prior Research on ISIS and Female Terrorism
Violent extremism, the term used in this report, can be defined as “movements, ideologies or people who do not accept the democratic social order and who not only tolerate, but support the use of ideological violence to further a certain cause”, (Official Reports of the Swedish Government, 2014, pp.20-21). Violent extremism, which is a broader concept than that of terrorism, encompasses various ideological movements striving to change the foundations of society. Violent extremism includes not only direct acts of violence but also the support of such acts through financial means, verbal backing or other types of endorsements. Violent Islamic extremism narrows the scope to individuals or groups who engage in or support the use of violence to further the cause of a social order built on Islamic beliefs and Sharī’ah laws such as ISIS trying to build it’s “Caliphate” (Official Reports of the Swedish Government, 2014, p.22).
Research on women in terrorist organizations is comparatively rare (Stump & Dixit 2013, p.56). Only a small number of authors have conducted research that explicitly delves into the issues of women, their roles and motivations and actions in such organizations. Important contributions investigating women as active agents have been made by Mia Bloom, Anne Speckhard, Yoram Schweitzer, Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Rafia Barakat, Erin Saltman and Lisa Shetret who explore the roles of women in various terrorist groups including Islamic militancy (Bloom, 2011; Chowdhury Fink, Barakat & Shetret, 2013; Zakaria, 2015, Speckhard & Akhmedova, 2006, 2008, 2009; Speckhard 2008, 2009, 2015, 2016; Schweitzer 2006).
Just as research on terrorism and extremism in general, academic research on ISIS has, paid much attention to male FF, their reasons for migrating and their roles within the organization (Hoyle, Bradford & Frenett 2015, p.8). Examples of such research can be found in Western Foreign Fighters: Innovations in Responding to the Threat (Briggs, Obe and Silverman, 2014), Foreign Fighters in Syria (Barrett, 2014), Tweeting the Jihad: Social Media Networks of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq (Klausen, 2015) and #Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks (Carter, Maher and Neumann, 2014). This may be because males are overrepresented in ISIS, compared to females and because they may be more accessible as males appear to have a higher defector rate than women, women in ISIS have a hard time escaping to ever tell their stories (A. Speckhard, personal communications, December, 2016).
Few studies have examined why so many women choose to join ISIS. Existing research is often based on deductions from social media accounts linked to Western women living in the “Caliphate” or is based on defector interviews, each having its limitation. Such examples can be found in Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS (Hoyle, Bradford and Frenett 2015); Till Martyrdom Do Us Part – Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon (Saltman and Smith 2015); Caliphates: Women and the Appeal of Islamic State (Rafiq and Malik 2015) and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (Speckhard and Yayla 2016). As pioneering pieces of research, these studies have contributed valuable insights into the role of women under ISIS rule and portraying the daily life of female migrants. However, they have failed to fully explain how ISIS, as an organization, views women. They have also failed to describe what is promised to women upon affiliation. This report portrays seven clear promises delivered to women in official ISIS-propaganda, deepening the analysis further. I argue that these promises can help us understand the incentives that motivate women to migrate, and thereby give us the means to devise better measures to counter radicalization of women to ISIS.
ISIS Propaganda Material
ISIS is waging war on two levels: on the ground as well as in the virtual space, online. Its communications strategy is a tightly run and highly centralized operation managed by an information ministry (Winter, 2015, pp.12-13). High quality videos, images, speeches and radio shows are being distributed from a wide range of official news agencies such as al-Hayat Media Center (video content), al-Furqan (news content) and al-Bayan (radio content) (Zelin, 2015, p.89; Schori Liang, 2015, pp.5-6). Great effort is put into reaching legitimacy through keeping an “official posture”. A noteworthy example of this is the logotype of al-Hayat Media Center that bears a striking resemblance to the well-reputed news agency Al Jazeera. An additional media wing named the al-Zora Foundation was created in October 2014. This establishment is dedicated to producing content directly targeting women (Schori Liang 2015, p.6).
The centralized state-provided propaganda apparatus is, however important, highly dependent on its many followers. ISIS has become well known for the decentralized part of its communications strategy. Thousands of followers become independent media wings by posting online messages, creating online groups, producing their own content and reposting official propaganda. Here social media channels have been widely recognized as important. Members tied to ISIS operate on various platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Ask.FM, and thereby attract new followers (Schori Liang 2015, p.2). Figures show that roughly 45,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS-supporters in the fall of 2014. 73 percent of these accounts had an average of 500 followers; others had an astounding 50,000 followers (Schori Liang 2015:5). Facebook is also being widely used by FF in Syria for the purpose of recruiting friends to join the organization (Gustafsson 2015:43). In Russia and Central Asia OdnoKlassniki replaces the role of Facebook in attracting ISIS recruits (A. Speckhard, personal communications, December, 2016).
ISIS’ official propaganda outlets are not very well known to the general public. Research, however, confirms their great importance in leveraging support for the organization and creating more active members (Schori Liang, 2015; Gustafsson, 2015). While propaganda in itself seldom radicalizes or recruits a person to an organization, it catalyzes radicalization and consolidates already held sympathies (Winter, 2015, p.7; Schori Liang, 2015, p.2). Likewise, ISIS recruiters have taken full advantage of current social media feedback mechanisms in which they can learn who endorses, re-tweets, or likes their social media online propaganda messages and then swarm in to contact them, further seducing them into the group (Speckhard, 2016).
One of ISIS’ core official tools in its virtual war is the online-publication Dabiq magazine on which this report is mainly based. Dabiq, likely inspired by al Qaeda in the Penisula’s Inspire online magazine is a publication produced by ISIS’ media wing al-Hayat Media Center, first issued in July 2014, echoing the official view of the organization and inciting for terrorism both at home and abroad (Gambhir, 2014, p.1). Released in several different languages, this propaganda magazine is produced for a global audience. Editions are available in English, Arabic, Turkish, French, German and Russian (Schori Liang 2015, p.4). The central role of this publication both in terms of recruitment and spreading its ideology becomes evident at the first glance. Great effort is put into composing this thorough and extensive magazine containing well-edited texts and high definition illustrations. Dabiq was initially sold in a paperback version on the online platform Amazon, delivering to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy until security officials shut that method of publication down. Nowadays its production and sharing is restricted to a digital online format (Loveluck, 2015).
This report is based upon an analysis over more then 1000 pages of official ISIS on-line propaganda, most produced in its online magazine, Dabiq complemented by an analysis of eleven statements made by official spokesmen of ISIS. Nine of the statements have been given by Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the recently killed official spokesperson of ISIS, who made most of its official statements. The declared Caliph of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has made two of the analyzed statements. The analysis identifies and examines ISIS propaganda aimed at women specifically. What emerges in this primary source research material is a dreamy picture of a country of the future filled with possibilities for young women as reported below.
When investigating the promises made to women in official ISIS-propaganda it becomes apparent that women have grown increasingly important as a target group for the organization. In the analyzed material women were initially only addressed as being a part of the larger Muslim ummah. Writings such as “all Muslims” were used often but women were seldom addressed directly. Articles treating a multitude of subjects only sporadically mentioned women (Dabiq, 2014a, p.43; Dabiq, 2014b, p.4; Dabiq, 2014c, p.3). Then, suddenly the seventh issue of Dabiq changed this fact. The magazine included a section titled “To Our Sisters” containing an interview with Hayat Boumeddiene the widow of Amedy Coulibaly (who goes by the Arabic kunya of Umm Bashīr al-Muhajirāh). Amedy Coulibaly coordinated his terrorist attacks with the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris in January 2015 (U.B. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p.50). “To Our Sister” later changed name to “From Our Sisters” and has since the seventh issue reoccurred in every magazine treating subjects considered especially important to women. The female authors producing the articles have discussed issues such as marriage, the taking of female slaves, family life and female migration using the platform of Dabiq address women directly. As will be seen in the following sections, they are frequently given promises relating to issues of religious duty, state building, belonging, sisterhood, adventure, romance and influence. Whereas some of these promises are implicitly wrapped in eloquent language, others are explicit and outright. Some promises are also more prominent than others.
Seven Promises of ISIS to Women
Official propaganda is riddled with calls for making hijrah, migrating to the so-called Islamic State. By so doing women and men are said to have fulfilled their religious duty to migrate to and live in Islamic lands under Shariah law. The deed of migration is portrayed as an obligation for all pious Muslims in both Dabiq and the official ISIS statements. In an article by Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh, women are portrayed as the “twin halves” of men when it comes to the subject of migration. There is no difference between the sexes in relations to the duty of hijrah. Al-Muhajirāh writes: ”This ruling [of migration] is an obligation upon women just as it is upon men” (2015a, p.33)
It is, according to ISIS rhetoric, impossible to live as a pious and righteous Muslim in Western countries, which are filled with sin, where good Muslims are said to be “polluted” by values that go against the will of Allah. Women living in the West have abandoned their natural God given roles trying to emulate men thereby challenging the entirety of the natural system. The only solution to the deterioration of values is turning to Islam:
And as the fitrah [human nature] continues to be desecrated day by day in the West and more and more women abandon motherhood, wifehood, chastity, femininity, and heterosexuality, the true woman in the West has become an endangered creature. The Western way of life a female adopts brings with it so many dangers and deviances, threatening her very own soul. […] The solution is laid before the Western woman. It is nothing but Islam, the religion of the fitrah (U.K. al-Finlandiyyah 2016, p.25).
Women in the West wearing religious clothing such as the hijab or the burqa are claimed to be particularly vulnerable to discrimination. Debates on the repressive nature of such garments have led several countries in Europe to ban the use of these outfits in public spaces, with for example France recently banning the burkini bathing suit. These claims and actualities enable ISIS to portray it as it being impossible for Muslim women to live a pious life, in line with the organization’s interpretation of Islam. Women are thus, instructed by Dabiq authors that they cannot live in accordance with their religion in the West. Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh reminds women of the fact that remaining in Western countries is a sinful deed by writing:
So everyone who lives amongst the mushrikīn [unbelievers] while being able to perform hijrah and not being able to establish his religion, then he is wronging himself and committing sin. […]‘Whoever gathers and lives with the mushrik, then he is like him (2015a, p.33).
This message conveys that it is impossible to be a true Muslim living in Western societies. Migrating to ISIS-held territories is presented as the only solution. Dabiq attempts to attract women from around the world by targeting different groups separately. In one article ISIS encourages women from Iraq to function as role models for other women in the region by making a swift hijrah. Al-Muhajarāh states this eloquently when writing: “[D]o not wait for other women from amongst the wives of Sahwah [rival] soldiers to make hijrah before you. Rather, be a model and an example for them all, and what a great honor it would be to be the first” (2015b, p.48). Role models are important tools for attracting other women to the cause of ISIS, which is why much effort is put into finding such key individuals.
The women that comply with the demand of making hijrah, fulfilling their religious duty are promised by Dabiq authors to be heavily rewarded with the grace of Allah, both in this life and in the hereafter. Often highlighted is the fact that the rewards will be in accordance with the hardships taken and sacrifices made (U.S. al-Muhajarāh, 2015c, p.22). Those that fail to fulfill their religious duty will face severe punishment. ISIS depicts those individuals who fail as black sheep and a disgrace for all Muslims collectively. This is highlighted in an official statement given by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the appointed Caliph of ISIS. He threatens those that refuse migration by saying: “If you do not go forth, He will punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all” (al-Baghdadi, 2015, p.4). The promise of fulfilling one’s religious duty and thereby receiving in this life and the afterlife the rewards for so doing is prominent in the ISIS material analyzed for this report. Similar warnings and threats followed by illustrious rewards for complying with one’s religious duty are common in ISIS official propaganda, both in Dabiq and in the official statements. It is one of the most important themes, running as a red thread throughout the material
Women are given promises of fulfilling an important role in ISIS’ state building ambitions. They are presented with multiple possibilities to contribute to the cause of the ISIS community. One of the most prominent promises is that of employment where women are offered the possibility to become doctors, nurses or teachers in a newly created state. In an article describing the welfare system of the Islamic State a writer explains the merits of studying at a new medical school just opened in Raqqa by saying:
The teaching staff consists exclusively of degree holders. Entrance is open to both females and males, with a dedicated school building, hospital, and female teaching staff for the female students. To support the students in their efforts the Islamic State does not charge any fees and provides the students with all that is necessary in terms of food, clothing, housing, transport, and books. For further encouragement high-achievers are granted rewards (Dabiq, 2015, p.26).
Describing that half of the student body is made up of highly motivated and achieving women, the Dabiq article then invites future female medical teachers who are looking for a stimulating job opportunity. By migrating to ISIS-held territories the women can make a real difference while receiving everything needed:
This should be received as a wake-up call for the many Muslim students in the lands of kufr [unbelievers] who claim to study medicine to “benefit and support the Muslim Ummah [supranational Muslim community],” but then remain in those lands, chasing after worldly pleasures instead of performing hijrah to the Islamic State – and this despite hijrah being an undeniable Islamic obligation, in addition to the fact that hijrah was and still is relatively easy. The Islamic State offers everything that you need to live and work here, so what are you waiting for? (Dabiq, 2015, p.26)
The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi sought both military and non-military personnel of unspecified gender in a speech given in the month of Ramadan in 2014 where he stated:
We make a special call to the scholars, fuqahā’ (experts in Islamic jurisprudence), and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specializations and fields. We call them and remind them to fear Allah, for their emigration is wājib ‘aynī [an individual obligation], so that they can answer the dire need of the Muslims for them (al-Baghdadi, 2014, pp.4-5).
Dabiq explains that women who wish to engage in religious studies can do so in the safe haven of the so-called Islamic State. ISIS provides courses in the subject of ”Sharī’ah sciences”. Al-Muhajirāh clarifies that it is a woman’s obligation, just as it is a mans to acquire knowledge about the surrounding world and the Islamic faith:
Allah has blessed the Islamic State, which has not been stingy towards its women in providing institutions and courses on the entirety of the Sharī’ah sciences. So shake off the dust of laziness and procrastination and come forth, free yourself from ignorance and learn the matters of your religion (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015d, p.44).
Another state building role ascribed to women is that of motherhood. Women are seen as key figures in nursing the next generation of fighters, often called ”lion cubs”, who the survival of the state hinges upon. An unknown author in Dabiq expands on the duties of motherhood underlining the respective roles of the sexes during this important period: “[M]otherhood entails nursing the child at home, while his father works as the breadwinner and she obeys her husband as his wife.” (N.A. Dabiq 2016b p.23) Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh highlights the importance of motherhood in an article published in Dabiq in 2015: ”As for you, O mother of lion cubs… And what will make you know what the mother of lion cubs is? She is the teacher of generations and the producer of men” (U.S. al- Muhajirāh 2015d, p.44). The importance of this role is highlighted in the same article where women are depicted as a vital part of the Muslim body:
And the woman is a shepherd in her house and is responsible for her herd. So have you understood, my Muslim sister, the enormity of the responsibility that you carry? O sister in religion, indeed, I see the Ummah of ours as a body made of many parts, but the part that works most towards and is most effective in raising a Muslim generation is the part of the nurturing mother (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015d, p.44).
Women are, as can be seen in the paragraph above, important actors given the responsibility of furthering the cause of ISIS into the next generation. Providing a good upbringing for the children of the so-called Islamic State, in accordance with the organization’s interpretation of the religion rather than that of secularism and infidelity is key. A Finnish convert living in ISIS-territory gives clear testament to this fact in an article published in Dabiq:
When you’re in Dar al-Kufr (the lands of disbelief) you’re exposing yourself and your children to so much filth and corruption. You make it easy for Satan to lead you astray. Here you’re living a pure life, and your children are being raised with plenty of good influence around them. They don’t need to be ashamed of their religion. They are free to be proud of it and are given the proper creed right from the start (U.K. al-Finlandiyyah Dabiq 2016, p.39).
ISIS promises help to the mothers for providing a righteous upbringing:
And if the claimants of Islam in the lands of kufr [disbelief] raise their children on the stories of Cinderella and Robin Hood, you should make use of the stories in “Mashāri’ al-Ashwāq ilā Masāri’ al-‘Ushshāq” [historic writings] of Ibn an-Nahhās as stories for your lion cubs before they sleep. And here before you are the Sharī’ah institutions, training camps, and even the kindergartens (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015d, p.45).
Along with job opportunities and motherhood, a third and equally important state building task for women is that of marriage. This category somewhat overlaps with that of romance, discussed below, as women are assumed to be married and living in the so-called Islamic State. The centrality given to the role of the wife within ISIS-held territory is clearly stated by Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh when she equates its merits to that of jihad [holy war], addressing women directly:
Please listen. Indeed you are in jihād when you await the return of your husband patiently, anticipating Allah’s reward, and making du’ā’ [prayers] for him and those with him to attain victory and consolidation. You are in jihād when you uphold your loyalty to him in his absence. You are in jihād when you teach his children the difference between the truth and falsehood, between right and wrong (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015d, p.41).
Promises are given to women again and again of a meaningful family life. Those that fulfill their duties as wives and mothers in ISIS-territories can expect the rewards of Allah’s grace (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015d, p.42). The family as the core of the Muslim community is highlighted once again in another article written by the same author on the topic of marriage:
And this small Muslim home is the core of the Ummah, and the parable of these two spouses and their children is like that of a plant that produces its offshoots and strengthens them, and then they stand upon their stalks. Its appearance is beautiful and its fruit is pleasant. If, however, its soil is polluted with kufr [disbelief] and shirk [idolotry], then how impossible, how impossible it is for the plant to stand straight and become pleasant! (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015b, pp.43-44)
Women have a key role in supporting their husbands in their fighting for the survival of the so-called Caliphate. In a brief interview in Dabiq with Umm Basīr al-Muhajira, the widow of Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked a Jewish supermarket in Paris in 2015, this becomes clear:
My sisters, be bases of support and safety for your husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Be advisors to them. They should find comfort and peace with you. Do not make things difficult for them. Facilitate all matters for them. Be strong and brave. […] Know that the Companions (radiyallāhu ‘anhum) did not spread Islam in these vast lands except with their righteous wives behind them (U.B. al- Muhajirāh, 2015a, p.50).
In sum, according to ISIS the duty of righteous women is to ensure the Muslim community does not get spoiled by infidels and disbelievers. Becoming a working professional, top student, perfect wife or good mother, are among the most frequent and explicit promises in official ISIS-propaganda. It ensures that the state will support women in achieving such success by providing kindergartens, universities, trainings, professional opportunities and other attractive incentives free of charge. If fulfilling these roles with a good result, women will be offered divine rewards, in this, as well as in the afterlife.
Official propaganda puts much effort into communicating a sense of belonging for all Muslims living in ISIS-held territories. The Islamic State is in official propaganda portrayed as a safe haven for both men and women not discriminating on the basis of skin color, ethnicity or nationality. Every individual that ascribes to having a Muslim identity is welcome to enter this community.
The so-called Caliphate is illustrated as a nondiscriminatory society by the official spokesman al-Adnani in a speech given in March 2015: ”There is no difference here between Arab and non-Arab, nor between black and white. Here, the American is the brother of the Arab, the African is the brother of the European, and the Easterner is the brother of the Westerner” (al-Adnani, 2015a, p.3). In speaking to Europeans of immigrant descent who often experience discrimination and marginalization due to their ethnic and religious roots, ISIS is portrayed as an inclusive community.
That all Muslims belong in, and are welcome to the state created by ISIS, also proclaimed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who, in the month of Ramadan in 2014 gave a speech underlining that there is no difference between Muslims in saying: ”Therefore, rush O Muslims to your state. Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s. […] The State is a state for all Muslims. The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims” (al-Baghdadi, 2014, p.5). Regardless of nationality everyone is said to be welcome. The same issue is treated in Dabiq where the female writer Umm Symayyah al-Muhajirāh underlines that the diversity of Muslims within ISIS-held territory does not splinter the organization, rather it unifies it in the spirit of religion:[T]he rate of hijrah magnified and now every day there are not only muhājirīn [male migrants] to the land of Islam but also muhājirāt [female migrants] who were sick of living amongst kufr and its people. As soon as the sun of their awaited state rose, they rushed to it alone and in groups from the eastern and western extents of the Earth. Their colors and tongues are different, but their hearts are united upon “there is no Allah but Allah” (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p. 33).
In a speech al-Adnani asks Muslims worldwide to respond to the call of Allah by migrating to the so-called “Caliphate” to unite under its one flag. By so doing total equality among all Muslims will be granted and their superiority vis-à-vis the infidels will be demonstrated. Al-Adnani asks the Muslim ummah to abandon prior disunities in saying:
We call them to abandon discord, the discord of the factions, parties, and groups, for the Khilāfah [Caliphate] gathers all the Muslims, the Shāmī, the Iraqi, the Yemeni, the Egyptian, the European, the American, and the African. It gathers the Arabs and the non-Arabs. It gathers the Hanafī, the Shāfi’ī, the Mālikī, and the Hanbalī. So come to your Khilāfah, for you have fought for long years to revive it and to implement the Sharī’ah of Allah (al-Adnani, 2015b, p.9).
ISIS’ promises of equality and the banishing of discord among Muslims worldwide aim at creating a utopian sense of belonging and unity in a large, diverse and geographically dispersed group of people. Belonging is an important and necessary ingredient in building a new nation and attracting new citizens. Those that feel left out of or discriminated against in Western communities due to race, skin color and religion are offered a homeland where all Muslims are treated well and equally.
The promise of sisterhood is also made, although it is narrower and less frequent than that of all-inclusive belonging. Within the official ISIS-propaganda the promise of sisterhood is less discussed, but this promise is salient in the unofficial propaganda circulating in social media in which ISIS women refer to each other, and the women they address, lovingly and as sisters who experience deep bonds of friendship and love (Smith & Saltman, 2015, pp.15-16). This can in part be explained by the fact that social media is a more direct and private way of communication which lends itself better to the sharing of personal and emotional messages on the topic of relatedness. An article in Dabiq discussing the positive aspects of polygyny, the taking of up to four wives at the same time, can be seen as an exception to the void of official promises relating to sisterhood (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015c, pp.19-22). Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh highlights that women need to embrace the taking of more then one wife as it benefits them as a group. Polygyny is presented as insurance for women and children alike. “Sisters” living in ISIS-controlled territories are frequently widowed due to the participation of their husbands in armed struggle. Widows are frequently remarried, as a second, third or fourth wife in polygamous unions and are therefore, along with their orphaned children, ensured preserved honor and economic sustenance. Although jealousy is a normal reaction of most women to polygyny, al-Muhajirāh calls for selflessness by saying “Let every sister just put herself in the shoes of a wife of a shahid [Islamic “martyr”] and sacrifice some of the selfishness that is part of our nature” (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015c, p.22). This selflessness is supposed to be interpreted as an act of sisterhood that benefits the weak, widowed and lonely. In the end it ensures that no “sister” is left outside of the community or without sustenance and protection. Sisterhood and selfless deeds are according to ISIS-propaganda heavily rewarded. Good sisters increase their rewards in the present life as well as in the afterlife (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015c, p.22). Being a shahid’s widow results in increased status and glory for ISIS women. It also works as an assurance for a new marriage to be arranged which in turn means security to the “sisters”.
The promise of adventure in joining ISIS is often portrayed through vivid recounts of the journeys made by women wanting to migrate to ISIS-held territories. Official propaganda at length discusses the courageous women who can be found among individuals migrating to Syria and Iraq. This is evident in an article published in Dabiq where the author, Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh, speaks on behalf of all the women she has met when making her way to the so-called Caliphate and depicts their daring journeys as a life changing experience filled with joy but also adventure:[Women go] through the hardship of a long journey that is also exciting and full of memories. While we would discuss the stories of hijrah, we would all agree upon a feeling that overtakes every muhājirah [female migrant] during her journey. It is as if we leave from darkness to light, from caves of darkness to a welcoming green land. Rather, by Allah, it is as if we are resurrected, from death to life! (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p.35)
An important and prominent part of the adventure is seemingly that of meeting new people. In describing her journey al-Muhajirāh portrays the courageous women she has met, among them a young British woman:
I met a sister who was six months pregnant accompanied by her husband coming from Britain. I was surprised by this adventurist, so I said, “Why didn’t you wait a bit until you gave birth to the baby you are carrying and then perform hijrah!” She answered, “We could not handle waiting any longer. We melted yearning for the Islamic State! (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p.35)
Only the brave manage to make the trip, and are generously rewarded with, what al-Muhajirāh describes as a paradise on earth:
On the path towards Jannah [paradise], there is no place for the fearful and for cowards! And even if I were to forget everything, I would never forget the moment our feet treaded upon the good lands of Islam and the moment our eyes saw the Uqāb banner [banner of the eagle] fluttering high. […]The first checkpoint we saw, the first image of the State’s soldiers far from the Internet and TV screens – those dusty and ragged in their flesh and blood – we saw them here with our eyes while tears from our eyes poured forth generously and our tongues pronounced the takbīr [declaration of faith] silently (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p.36).
The promise of adventure is straightforward: the new land is depicted as a paradise of roughness and challenges awaiting only the brave “sisters”. This interpretation of paradise on earth including tough challenges and hardship is somewhat different from the conventional one although it invokes the epic journey. Adventure is a part of the full ISIS-experience, including the journey to paradise.
The promise of romance is one that does not occur often within official ISIS-propaganda but is made nonetheless. When mentioned, it is in relation to the issue of marriage where women assume a key and important role of supporting their husbands (U.B. al-Muhajirāh, 2015b, pp.50-1). For unmarried women, ISIS guarantees that men fighting on its side are the best mates. They are portrayed in the propaganda as suitable husbands for the righteous women making hijrah. As there are many unmarried ISIS men in need of wives, ISIS aims at attracting women without male companions:
Here I want to say with the loudest voice to the sick-hearted who have slandered the honor of the chaste sisters, a woman’s hijrah from dārulkufr [infidel lands] is obligatory whether or not she has a mahram [male chaperone], if she is able to find a relatively safe way and fears Allah regarding herself. She should not wait for anyone but should escape with her religion and reach the land where Islam and its people are honored (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, p. 35).
It is according to ISIS-ideology important to live within the boundaries of marriage and respect the will of one’s husband who in turn is following ISIS teachings. Although divorce is frowned upon inside the blissfully portrayed IS, official propaganda openly encourages women living outside of ISIS to abandon their husbands who do not follow ISIS’ strict interpretation of Islam:
If, however, he shows arrogance and his pride in his sin takes hold of him, then it’s upon you to abandon him in the dunyā [earthly world] so that you may succeed in the Hereafter. And here I call on you to make hijrah to us here in the lands of the blessed Islamic State! (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015b, p. 47)
For the woman with a husband who does not live in accordance with Islam, as interpreted by ISIS,
hijrah can present new possibilities. Official propaganda promises great rewards to those that leave behind their infidel spouses in their home countries and migrate to ISIS-held territories:[If] you fear your Lord and His anger, and abandon this apostate husband in obedience to Him, then He will replace him with something better and will provide for you from where you do not expect (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015b, p. 45).
Women that lose their husbands to war are encouraged to remarry as soon as possible, after passing the traditional Islamic iddah period of four months and ten days in which any pregnancy by a previous spouse would be discovered (al-Muhajirāh, 2016, p. 24). Official propaganda warns widowed women from returning to their countries of origin. Umm Sumayyah al-Muhajirāh reminds female readers of Dabiq that their rewards will be proportionate to their suffering:
I whisper into the ear of every muhājirah sister who has been afflicted with the loss of her husband on the battlefield here in the State of honor: Be firm, my dear sister, be patient, and await your reward. Be wary, be wary of thinking of going back to the lands of the tawāghīt [disobedient]. […]Do not forget that reward is in accordance with the degree of hardship (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015a, pp. 36-37).
The passages above demonstrate that the promise of romance is connected to marriage in ISIS writings. ISIS official statements however do not broach the subject of romance. In Dabiq the perfect man is presented as an important pull factor for women looking for marriage and family life. The Western habit of dating is non-existent in the so-called Islamic State where marriages are arranged via the IS marriage bureau (Speckhard & Yayla, 2016).
One clear and prominent promise, present in both Dabiq and the speeches given by official ISIS-spokesmen is that of influence and restitution for the Muslim population worldwide. ISIS propaganda paint a picture where Muslims have been humiliated slaves to the West for centuries. Living without their own state, scattered in the lands of infidels, Muslims are claimed to have been marginalized due to their faith. ISIS-propaganda argues that the establishment of a “Caliphate” has returned the lost power and influence to Muslims and given them back their self-determination. The ISIS official spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani describes this in a speech delivered in October 2015:
The cause of your weakness, O Muslims, was the collapse of the Khilāfah and your straying thereafter. Yes, O Muslims, the collapse of the Khilāfah was your illness, and its revival is your cure. So gather around it and seek shelter with it after Allah (al-Adnani, 2015c, p.7).
Much focus is put on conveying that the so-called Islamic State provides the returning of leadership to Muslims who have been disgraced followers for too long. Through supporting ISIS men and women alike can become “masters of the world and kings of the earth” (al-Adnani, 2014a, p.8). Through gradual expansion of the so-called “Caliphate” to the entire world Muslims supporting ISIS are promised to soon rule the world (al-Adnani, 2015a, p.6). Calling on the Muslim youth to choose the winning side of ISIS, its official spokesman al-Adnani says:
Therefore, O Muslim youth, join the caravan of the mujāhidīn, [holy warriors] for if you do so you will be the honored, dignified kings of the earth who rule the Dunyā. And if you refuse, you will be the humiliated, miserable, contemptible losers (al-Adnani, 2015c, p.8).
Winning against the infidels in the West is constantly portrayed as given through the grace of Allah (al-Adnani, 2014a, p.8). The return of power and influence are portrayed as affecting women in a particular way. This becomes evident in an article written by Umm Sumayya al-Muhajirāh justifying ISIS forcing Yazidi women to be humiliated as slaves to work for their Islamic masters. According to the writer, reversing the roles elevates the status of the Muslim women while degrading the infidels:
Therefore, I further increase the spiteful ones in anger by saying that I and those with me at home [in the Caliphate] prostrated to Allah in gratitude on the day the first slave-girl entered our home. Yes, we thanked our Lord for having let us live to the day we saw kufr humiliated and its banner destroyed. Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah [verbally transmitted teachings of the Prophet, which both the Arab and non-Arab enemies of Allah had buried. By Allah, we brought it back by the edge of the sword, and we did not do so through pacifism, negotiations, democracy, or elections (U.S. al-Muhajirāh, 2015e, p.47).
The so-called Islamic state is, in official propaganda, portrayed as the only salvation for Muslims interested in honor, glory and victory (al-Adnani, 2015c, p.5). It promises the return of influence and retribution to the generations of Muslims that, according to speakers and writers have ”drowned in oceans of disgrace”, have been ”nursed on the milk of humiliation” and ”ruled by the vilest of all people” living in a long ”slumber in the darkness of neglect” (al-Adnani, 2014b, p.3). ISIS claims to have the ability to elevate Muslim status, that of both men and women putting them above the people of disbelief. Siding with ISIS provides a safe road to success and fortune, both in this life and in the hereafter. The promise of influence and power is therefore ever present in official propaganda:
The time has come for those – the time has come for them to rise. The time has come for the ummah of Muhammad (peace be upon him) to wake up from its sleep, remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone, and the dawn of honor has emerged anew. The sun of jihad has risen. The glad tidings of good are shining. Triumph looms on the horizon. The signs of victory have appeared (al-Adnani, 2014b, p.3).
The promise of influence in world politics is of central importance in ISIS official propaganda. As such it surfaces in both Dabiq and in official statements. The idea of a “Caliphate” founded through jihād is portrayed as an essential tool for regaining honor, power and influence to Muslims all over the world. Muslim women are promised influence by subjugating women from other religions. Influence is depicted as a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers.
In sum the seven promises depict a “perfect” utopian life filled with meaning, purpose, significance, varied possibilities, honor and adventure. Women living in the so-called Islamic State are called upon to assume an active role where they are given the possibility to contribute to society in a multitude of ways. Women can, according to official ISIS-propaganda, study and practice professions while being provided all that is needed for a comfortable life. They can leave their children in state-run kindergartens while increasing their knowledge about issues relating to faith. They can marry and raise children with a heroic husband. They can experience new adventures and build lasting and deep relationships with other women. They are offered protection, prosperity and shelter in all they do. Finally, they can please Allah and receive the rewards for so doing, both in this life and in the hereafter.
Altogether these promises assumedly create a powerful pulling force, attracting women to migrate to ISIS-territory. It is as if the official propaganda makers of ISIS have read and been inspired by a thrilling novel with a female protagonist winning the game in all aspects of life. Indeed much of how they portray the hardships and sacrifices of migrating to ISIS reads much like any epic story. Education, influence, love, family life, harmony, friendship, belonging, travels and adventure all beckon to the searching female heart. Without counter measures directly targeting these ISIS promises, radicalization and seduction of young women to join this terrorist group will surely continue. Being aware of and countering the seven promises outlined here can serve as an informative backdrop for devising preventive measures to counter radicalization. The ISIS seven promises offer us a hint as to what women who join ISIS are lacking, and may also be longing for and responsive to. Effective European and indeed, global preventive measures therefore need to address the needs that the Islamic State claims to be fulfilling while simultaneously debunking the lies of ISIS in being able to provide a perfect paradise on earth. Only by directly countering their promises can we decrease the attraction of these powerful and seductive messages delivered by the Islamic State.
Louisa Tarras-Wahlberg (BA MPS) is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) writing about violent extremist organizations, women and prevention measurements. She holds a postgraduate degree from the Swedish Defense University and has been active within the field of CVE for several years, both academically and professionally.
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