Western young women who join ISIS can't fight, but they sure can tweet

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Carol Hills: The so-called Islamic state has a sophisticated propaganda machine: social media, religious sermons, even music. All are used to spread the group's extremist message and, of course, to recruit new fighters from the West. Not just young men, but women as well. The London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue has a new study on how ISIS recruits women. It's called "Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS." I asked the institute's Erin Saltman to explain the title.

 

Erin Saltman: Well, at the first couple pages we actually have a direct quotation from a female migrant -- we don't call them foreign fighters because they're not actually fighting -- and she, in this quote, talks about hoping or maybe fantasizing that she could pull and Mulan. What that references is actually the fact -- it is the Disney movie reference -- where she is in her position in Islamic state territory and is unable to fight because women there are only serving as more wives and mother roles. But, the reference to "I hope I could pull a Mulan" really says she wishes she could cut off her hair, dress as a boy, and participate in the fighting, in the war and conflict that's going on. It really shows not only the Western background of some of these women -- as well as how young they are, still giving Disney references on their social media -- but also their willingness and desire to participate in the more violent side of the conflict.

 

Hills: And what were the primary reasons you found that these women are going, are migrating to Syria to join ISIS in some capacity?

 

Saltman: There's definitely different things. The story's a little bit different for every woman, but there are definitely some overarching themes. What we see is, in some ways, we shouldn't have an engendered to radicalization. These women hold very similar ideologies as their male counterparts, meaning that they are doing this, they believe that they are taking part in a humanitarian effort. They feel that they are a part of the state-building of Islamic state, so they feel like they are participating in building a Muslim utopia for Islam. There's also romantic elements where, for a lot of these younger women, this is a sense of adventure. Many of them have never traveled by themselves. They've been recruited and told that they will be traveling to a faraway place where they will marry this romantic idea of a Jihadist soldier out in the desert. A lot of these romantic notions go quite a long way and ISIS has been very good with their propaganda of continuing that idea.

 

Hills: What kinds of things do they do? What is their life like when they enter ISIS territory?

 

Saltman: It's quite restrictive. For many public spaces they're not allowed to go out without a chaperone -- a male chaperone -- which restricts movement quite a lot for women. We're also dealing with a war zone, so there are electricity outages. We also have situations where Western women going out there, most of them do not speak the local language. They don't speak Arabic, so there are situations that can get quite awkward and even horrific where women needing medical attention are actually not seen to and don't know how to communicate. There is a story we convey in the report where a woman is miscarrying and not being treated because the doctors not only don't know how to communicate with her, but they are looking at these foreigners in a different way than they look at the locals.

 

Hills: Is there a case of a specific woman who was recruited to ISIS that stood out for you?

 

Saltman: There is different stories that stick out, different Tweets that stick out more than others. One in particular that I thought was interesting was a woman Tweeting about how, in the middle of the night, she heard gunfire and she was live Tweeting as she was hearing this. Then, an hour later she Tweets again and says, "Oh, it was nothing. It turns out we weren't there but I thought it was an insurgency and if it had been I was reaching for my belt." She was alluding to the fact that she had basically a suicide belt, a suicide vest. So, it shows how these women are perhaps equipped. There is the potential for them. They've been trained that in the case of an emergency they should carry out, perhaps, a suicide attack using themselves as a weapon.

 

Hills: Does ISIS then use these women to recruit more women? Do they become the person online who is talking to future recruits?

 

Saltman: Definitely. In fact, the thing that separates ISIS from other terrorist and Jihadist organizations is the fact that they have allowed so openly for this decentralized messaging for foreign fighters and these women to have access to Twitter accounts, to blogs. Other Jihadist organizations have kept their messaging and media very restrictive, but we don't see that and it offers a very insightful lens into the daily lives of these women. But, it also gives them a tool for inciting violence, for others to take part. We also see women saying, "You know, if you're not able to come and join us in this Islamic state, then carry out acts of terror at home." That becomes worrisome because it's trying to export the threat.

 

Hills: Erin Saltman is with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London.