Why do Western women join ISIS?

“All of us disassociated ourselves from our families, friends and societies. We make it known to the world that our allegiance has never been to the Scottish, British, Swedish, American, Canadian government. Wallahi [I swear for Allah] we are free of those living in the West who know and proclaim the Shahadah [Muslim creed] while being beneath the feet of the Kuffar [non-Muslims]”. This is one of the messages that Aqsa Mahmood wrote on her blogging side Tumblr. The 20-year-old Scottish woman joined the terror organisation known as Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) in late 2013. Today, from ISIS-controlled territory and under the pseudonym of Umm Layth, Aqsa keeps writing messages to those who she calls “sisters and brothers”.

According to the latest report from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), around 550 of the estimated 3,000 Westerners who have joined ISIS are women. Those women who have reached ISIS territory play an important role in the organisation’s recruitment strategy. They keep communicating, mainly through social media, with other women to recruit them and help them to start the same journey they once made themselves. Senior Researcher at ISD Dr Erin Saltman says that this is one of the main differences between female and male ISIS recruited members. “The female voice is a very strong voice and the idea of sisterhood and trying to have women come over so they have more sense of belonging within that society is one of the pieces of the propaganda that is quite strong for women,” Dr Erin Saltman says.

Women were not an important part of the recruitment until after the declaration of the Caliphate in June 2014. They are mainly recruited to be wives and mothers and, therefore, to give continuity to the group’s expansion. Those who arrive single get married within a short space of time. At the moment there is no evidence that ISIS puts women on the front line.

Recruiting educated Western women can be seen as a strategy to build a society that needs teachers, nurses and doctors, as male doctors cannot treat women. However, Dr Erin Saltman says that reality shows that most of these women are relegated to housewife duties.

ISIS is different from other terror organizations because it controls a territory, a relevant fact when recruiting women. Dr Anthony Richards from the University of East London says that part of the organisation’s publicity is that women can play a logistic role. “ISIS has been able to achieve what al-Qaeda has not been able to achieve… It is trying to prove that this is not only about men going over there and fight,” Dr Anthony Richards says.

Despite the overall number of Westerners joining ISIS being quite high, it is the cases of women who become jihadist brides what has received a huge amount of attention. This occurs mainly for two reasons. On one hand, the idea of women involved in cases of violence or conflict creates a high level of interest, however, it has more to do with the image of Muslim women portrayed by the colonial powers in what is called Orientalism. This kind of discourse draws attention to women in non-Western cultures, especially in Arab cultures, portraying them as being vulnerable victims. This is an attempt to justify Western intervention in those cultures with the rationale that the West is rescuing Arab women. When Young Western women play a different role it becomes something unusual. “The spectacular, the surprising, the unusual is a news value in itself, and when it is combined with other sorts of challenges or norms of femininity which challenge the Orientalist discourse, we have a recipe which draws a lot of attention to these kind of stories,” says Dr Kerry Moore from Cardiff University.

It becomes difficult to understand why these young women leave all the comfort offered to them by Western societies to start a life within one of the most barbaric terror groups, which claims openly that women are second-class citizens.

A study carried out by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that women join the group mostly for the same reasons as men. The study, however, highlights three main reasons for women leaving to ISIS-controlled territory: 1) because they believe that Islam is under attack; 2) because they want to contribute to the building of a new society and the establishment of the Caliphate; and 3) because they believe in their individual duty to migrate to the Islamic State and in a sense of sisterhood among those who do.

Aqsa Mahmood wrote a message on her blog to the British and American leaders: “you and your countries will be beneath our feet and… will be destroyed. If not you then your grandchildren or their grandchildren [sic]”. She also addressed those “brothers and sisters who are stuck in the West” saying: “this is a war against Islam and it is know [sic] that either you’re with them or with us. So pick a side…”

Potential recruits need to be radicalised before reaching this stage of extremism. Experts point out that one of the motivations for such a conversion lies in the need these young women have to resolve their own internal identity crisis, which, in many cases, is caused by high discrimination from society; although this does not only apply on women.

France represents one of the examples of a society where an increase in pressure on Muslim communities, especially after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, is dividing the nation and leading to a dangerous rise of extremism. Here in Britain, a study carried out by Cardiff University in 2008 shows that the media tends to generalise and extrapolate when covering issues related to Islam, which, in most cases, is linked directly and unfairly to terrorism. Dr Kerry Moore says that this kind of unfair coverage makes Muslim people vulnerable because it creates a picture of their identity which they do not consider true, thus they may feel they are unfairly under attack. “When people feel vulnerable there are a number of different ways they may respond to that,” Dr Kerry Moore says.

Radicalisation and extremism are problems with which the British government has been trying to deal for many years. As a measure to stop terrorism, the Counter-terrorism and Security Act received Royal Assent last February.  It becomes, however, a controversial subject in terms of stopping radicalisation and extremism.

Professor Luke Clement from Cardiff University explains that this anti-terror legislation is not unlawful because it does not discriminate directly against a group of people, but it does indirectly. The Muslim Council of Britain wrote a briefing on its website recommending to “consider the impact on communities when developing legislation.” They add: “previous legislation has been used in a discriminatory fashion against the Muslim community.”

Human Rights watchdogs claim that this anti-terror legislation violates human rights and civil liberties. Only the European Court of Human Rights or the British Court can decide on this issue. “There will be court cases, there will be challenges, and it will take so many years and by the time it gets to the European Court of Human Rights, ISIS will have become history”, Professor Luke Clements says.

This idea of discrimination and isolation is stressed even more when it comes to women. A study by Teesside University shows that women are more vulnerable to Islamophobia. Traditional dress makes them visibly Muslim and an easy target for abuse.

The number of terror-related arrests has reached record numbers in Britain. According to Metropolitan Police, 338 people were arrested for offences ranging from fundraising for extremist causes to plotting terrorist attacks in England, Wales and Scotland last year. The figures illustrate the extent of the threat and show a notable increase of women and young people.

When it comes to answering the question of whether the number of Westerners joining ISIS, especially women, will keep rising in the short term, Dr Erin Saltman says: “We continue to see women and girls stopped at borders as well as successfully reaching ISIS territory”. Dr Anthony Richards adds that this question will also depend on different things: “if ISIS is able to project the image of success there will be potentially more interest from Westerners to join the group.”

ISIS has achieved what no other terror organisation has been able to achieve: it controls a territory and it is recruiting people from all over the world to continue its expansion. Women now play a crucial role, and Western women are potential targets, not only because they will become wives and then mothers who will raise future jihadists, but also because every time a Western woman goes to Syria and Iraq, ISIS steps up in its PR campaign.

There are also some other factors, such as isolation and discrimination, which may lead to cases of radicalisation and extremism. Western governments are adopting stricter measures to counter terrorism, but perhaps those measures are only effective to tackle superficial problems while deeper problems will keep growing, hidden behind in a Westernised society.