The increased flow of migrants to Syria and Turkey in the past few years to join the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has sparked serious regional and international concerns since such a flow speaks to the strength of ISIS as an international security threat but also to its messaging strategies. The flow of these so-termed “foreign fighters” has seen an unprecedented spike. By December 2013 it was estimated that over 11,000 migrants from 74 nations had traveled to Syria with the United Kingdom ranked as the number one source (17.9%), followed by France (11.6%), Germany (11.1%), and then Sweden (10%). While much has been made about the male fighters and the public attacks, beheadings, and massacres that have taken place, there is another less well known pattern taking place – one that is just as dangerous.
They are called jihadi brides.
Women have often played passive roles in terrorist organizations. Rarely do they become the face of an organization’s recruitment strategy or engage in attacks, often taking a domestic and labor-intensive role to support the cause back at the home front. That is not the case here. Of the 4,500 estimated Western foreign fighters, over 550 of them are women. Many of these women are teenagers or young adults – intelligent and brought up in typical modern day fashion were daily concerns centered about education, after school activities, and family outings – dispelling the inaccurate assumption that only illiterate, unemployed, and destitute join extremist causes. And as a result of the diversity of those being radicalized it is hard to craft a profile and target the driving reasons behind the recruitment of these women.
Why Western women? What roles could they possibly play that women from within the region, brought up in the strict Islamic culture cannot?
Married off to ISIS fighters and senior leadership, they take up the dual role of domestic as well as jihadi police and PR war machine. They have become the public face for international recruitment efforts in the West. Intelligent. Technologically savvy. Innocent. Their fresh faces offer a softer visual for the ISIS cause opposite the standard bearded and scarred face of a seasoned fighter.
The use of social media cannot be understated. Many of these women utilize platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and Instagram, to not only document their hijra journey from the West to the frontlines of the new Islamic State but also include romanticized declarations about their new founded religious duty. Influenced by an exotic, foreign ideology and removed from any first-hand experience of the various conflicts around the world, they are seduced by adventure and their story becomes the siren call used to call forth the next bride, and then the next, and the next….and the next.
It is a baffling situation that has not shown the faintest hint of slowing down. ISIS is a cash-fueled machine that is able to coordinate marriages through social media and back channels and cover the travel expenses for these women; and as their influence and bank accounts grow, so too will their recruitment efforts.
There are causes for small victory dances. Just last week it was revealed that three Chechen women scammed ISIS fighters seeking brides out of money and it is believed that famed British schoolgirls Amira Abase (15 years old), Shamima Begum (15 years old), and Kadiza Sultana (16 years old), who had become the poster children for ISIS’ recruiting campaign, fled their militant husbands in February 2015 and into Iraq to seek refuge. The hunt is underway for them and the longer they can evade their captors the more damage they can do to the public image of ISIS and their marriage campaigns.
Their flight is a staunch rebuke of the fanciful caliphate that ISIS has promoted abroad. It has failed to live up to their romanticized expectations and being able to realize that and take action is a positive step. Nevertheless, the fact that they willingly abandoned the lives they had in a strong, democratic country such as Britain only speaks to the power behind the ISIS message that is enticing hundreds of women to do the very same. It is a message we cannot ignore for much longer.