Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

Sisterhood & Social Media: Why More Western Women Are Joining ISIS

Sally Jones left the United Kingdom to join her husband in Syria. Yusra Ismail allegedly stole a friend’s passport to make the trip from her Minnesota home. Hoda Muthana aided the fight from Alabama, where she reportedly ran a Twitter account urging more Americans to move to the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

All three women have been identified as alleged supporters of the Islamic State group, one of the world’s deadliest terror organisations. And they’re not alone. A report by the nonpartisan public policy institute, New America, has found that women are joining ISIS in "unprecedented numbers." One in seven Western militants tracked by New America are women.

Last week's deadly bombings in Brussels once again highlighted the difficulty faced by Western nations trying to combat people influenced by the poisonous ideology of ISIS. Dozens died and hundreds more were wounded in ISIS-claimed bombings at the Belgian capital's main international airport and at a subway station. In Paris last November, the group's attacks killed 130 people. In both cases, young men born and raised in Europe were behind the carnage.

To stop more violence, it is imperative to understand who the Western foreign fighters are, the extent of the networks, and the threat they pose, according to New America's report, titled "ISIS In The West." That's why the group studied 604 militants from 26 Western countries reported to have left home to fight with ISIS or like-minded jihadi groups like the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria or Iraq. The aim is to figure out what motivates young women to join these groups in order to fight back against ISIS propaganda and recruitment tools.

Ahead, Refinery29 breaks down what we know about the Western women joining ISIS.

ISIS propaganda emphasizes sisterhood and the chance to live in a community of like-minded women.

More Women Are Joining These Groups Than Ever Before
"ISIS has targeted women in ways similar to [the ways] al-Qaida did before it, in that women are a mainstay of their propaganda and recruitment," Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University, told Refinery29 in an email.

"However, unlike al-Qaida, ISIS has commoditised women and uses the lure and promise of marriage to attract thousands of foreign fighters from the [Middle East and North Africa region]…So, not only are the women ranked and then awarded to the men based on all kinds of criteria — including eye and skin colour — but, after the husbands are killed, they are recirculated in the system…and gifted again."

The data mirrors that of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London, which found an "unprecedented surge in female recruits" to ISIS.

New America and others note that the demographic profile of Western fighters now is different from those who have chosen to take up arms in the past, in places like Afghanistan in the 1980s or Bosnia a decade later. Those fighters were practically all male.
Part of this can be attributed to the fact that ISIS takes anyone, and there are many roles in the proclaimed caliphate (religious-based state) that women can play, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert who serves as quality manager of the European Union Radicalisation Awareness Network.

And ISIS recruits are young, averaging just 22 years old among the Western women, according to New America. Some are in their teens, like 19-year-old Shannon Conley from Colorado, who authorities say planned to travel to Syria. Conley was convicted and sentenced to four years in a federal prison. For her part, Conley told the judge that she never intended to cause harm, according to The Denver Post.

Push and Pull Factors
The London-based ISD study, "Till Martyrdom Do Us Part" looked at why women and girls were being recruited, the diversity of roles they take on, and how to combat the threat. The picture is more complex than the "jihadi bride" label often attributed to them. For their study, ISD tracked more than 100 Western women across online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Women can be pushed to join ISIS because they feel isolated, persecuted, or they feel an anger or sadness about perceived lack of international action against injustice. According to ISD, they might also be drawn or pulled by idealistic goals about building a caliphate; want to belong to a sisterhood; or glamorise what their experience with ISIS might be like. The women who are attracted to the fight hail from a variety of cultural, ethnic, educational, and religious upbringings.
Ranstorp agreed that there are different types of women who are driven by a mixture of things. Many younger women are rebelling against patriarchal structures and they have a "romanticised notion about what the caliphate is."

The really young girls, 14 to 16 years old, are usually recruited in groups, and social media plays a significant role. Often, impressionable teens are lured by the idea of marriage to ISIS fighters who are portrayed as attractive and fit.

"They are like the Justin Biebers of the Salafi (ultra-conservative evangelical) jihadi world," Ranstorp said.

Many of these girls find themselves almost immediately pregnant.

However, while many of the young women joining ISIS are naive victims of the group's manipulation, there are also "veteran" women, Ranstorp added. The Belgian widow of a prominent terrorist leader, Malika el-Aroud, is one example of the veteran women who act as "recruitment sergeants," even recruiting men.
ISIS Messaging
For each "type" of women ISIS is trying to attract, they "are very adept at using a different message," Bloom said. They offer older women converts the chance "to create a new identity." Life is inaccurately portrayed as one filled with excitement where they will play an important part, Bloom added.

"In English, we have seen images in their propaganda of women on patrol, carrying guns and splayed across Toyota trucks. In addition to emphasising that women will be important and significant, they say that they will not be lonely and [will] have a support network of other women," she said.

For the young, the message is also tailored to basically prey "upon their innate altruism to do something important and 'good’ with their lives.'" ISIS propaganda also emphasises sisterhood and the chance to live in a community of like-minded women, Bloom said.

Education and teaching people how to independently assess information remains the best way to combat against this extremist ideology and recruitment, ISD found.
Threat To America
While the risk facing Europe is "severe" because of mature networks of fighters linked to Syria, the threat posed to the United States is "low and will likely be manageable," New America's analysis found.

That finding is echoed by research from The Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy. In two years, the number of worldwide foreign fighters has more than doubled, thanks in part to a steady flow of people from Western Europe traveling to fight. France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Belgium all contribute a disproportionate amount of these foreign fighters, but the number of people leaving to join ISIS and other groups from North America has remained "relatively flat," The Soufan Group found.

The FBI estimates that some 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria to take part in the conflict, which FBI Director James Comey acknowledged "is lower in comparison to many of our international partners."

So far, no one has returned to the U.S. from Syria and gone on to commit an act of violence, and there has only been one arrest for plotting a domestic attack, according to New America. However, ISIS-inspired violence is of concern, like that of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA that killed 14 people in December.