Over the past weeks and months, there have been a spate of news reports about young women -- including from Western Europe and Australia -- who have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group.
This week, a 15-year-old South African schoolgirl believed to be traveling to join IS was prevented from taking a flight from Cape Town.
British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, 16, Shamima Begum, and Amira Abase, both 15, crossed into Syria after boarding a flight from London to Istanbul on February17, prompting questions about how three seemingly ordinary London schoolgirls had been radicalized and recruited to IS.
Western women who have traveled to IS-controlled lands and who have married militants there offer advice to potential "jihadi brides" via social media, while Russian-speaking women in IS issued a call for other "sisters" to come and join them in Syria.
But who are the women and girls joining IS, and what is the militant group's allure for young women -- even teenagers?
Joana Cook, a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London and a research affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), focuses on women in security practices, extremism, terrorism and counterterrorism. Cook tells RFE/RL that many of the women who travel to Syria have a personal connection with an existing IS member, and that they tend to be slightly younger than the men who join IS.
"I would suggest that, most commonly, we are seeing girls and women go via a preexisting relationship. That is, many will either already have a personal connection with an individual already there (the three British schoolgirls who went [to Syria] had a classmate there), or will have been 'groomed' or 'recruited' by an individual before going to Syria," Cook says.
Those involved in grooming young women to join IS could be "a potential or current husband, or an 'older sister figure' who draws them abroad," Cook adds.
RFE/RL: A report this week by the Human Security Center estimates that around 10 percent of foreign recruits to IS are now women or girls. Do you think the figure of 10 percent is a reasonable estimate?
Cook: This number has been stated to be as high as 18 percent. The 10 percent figure was from October 2014 and is likely out of date.
RFE/RL: Why has IS stepped up its recruitment of women and girls?
Cook: There are a number of reasons. [Women and terrorism expert] Mia Bloom talks about "recruit, reward, retain." For fighters, having a bride at the ready offers a [recruitment] incentive to come and fight for IS. These women can also act as a "reward" for battlefield victories and converts, and Westerners have been stated to have higher "value" in this sense. "Retain" refers to the idea that once these men and women are married, which is often immediately upon arrival, they have kids and are less likely to try and escape or leave the group.
Increasing numbers of women also offers more sources of financing and of people to share and promote IS propaganda. Women also aid in further recruitment and add extra bodies to help with logistics and support, such as housing or transporting individuals en route to Syria. It helps perpetuate the vision of a "state," with families and roles for women (albeit limited to things like teaching, health, and the domestic sphere). This helps perpetuate the narrative that IS are a "legitimate" state and have the ability to transcend being just a terrorist organization to a governing body.
RFE/RL: What attracts women from Western Europe and North America, including teenage girls, to make the drastic step of leaving their homes to join IS? Is there a specific profile of the type of Western women who are attracted to IS (e.g. do they tend to be younger, more religious, etc)?
Cook: Each woman or girl will have a unique story and motivation for wanting to go, and each will have a unique opening which draws them to travel abroad. While many were initially drawn for humanitarian reasons and going to assist civilians in Syria affected by the war, more recently there have been three primary motivations: a sense of religious duty, participation in building a new state, and personal motivations such as a sense of adventure, discrimination at home, and so on. While it is not as common, some may be attracted by the violence (even if they are not allowed violent roles) or IS's radical interpretation of Islam. These are all generally the same motivations that draw men.
Lone-wolf actors who have carried out action on behalf of [IS] in their home countries, even if they don't have a formal connection to the group, have tended to have higher levels of mental-health issues as well. I have not yet seen any information on this in specific relation to women travelling abroad, though I believe this would be an interesting angle to explore further.
RFE/RL: How does IS target women and girls in Western Europe and North America -- for example, does it reach out to them directly or via pro-IS groups on social media?
Cook: Social media has been one of IS's strongest tools, as it has provided direct access to individuals via Twitter, Facebook, etc. It has never been easier to reach out to somebody who is already there (as compared to Al-Qaeda, where access to the group was extremely closed). This reaching out is both decentralized and centralized -- decentralized in that it is often individuals who reach out to other individuals, and centralized in that IS also, as a group, directs women to come to Syria. In it's publication Dabiq, for example, IS has also reached out with messages to women. In its latest issue, IS says that "hijra ["immigration"] is an obligation upon women just as it is to men."
RFE/RL: What happens to women and girls who join IS? Are they "married off" to militants or are they allowed to work?
Cook: There are some positions for which women have been utilized, such as health and teaching, but they are largely restricted to the domestic sphere, focusing on raising the next generation of soldiers and supporting their husbands. There was the Al-Khansaa Brigade, an all female police force in Raqqa, though this was a small and rare example.
Frankly though, women can be lured abroad by the idea of marrying a "jihadi" husband, and end up being forced to marry somebody they didn't intend to. They are often immediately married off and encouraged to have kids. They may also be exposed to sexual violence and incredibly strict and conservative interpretations of how they should conduct themselves while there.
A November 2014 report by the UN on life under [IS] presents as comprehensive a picture as any. Women under [IS] rule have been shot, stoned, and beheaded. Women have been brutally punished by lashing for not adhering to IS's interpretation of dress. While such events may be more likely to be applied to religious minorities or locals, these are still possible for any woman who lives under IS rule.
RFE/RL: What steps need to be taken in the United Kingdom to avoid more young women like the three British schoolgirls traveling to join IS?
Cook: Preventing individuals from traveling to join IS is a major priority. There has appeared to be increased cooperation between British and Turkish authorities to quell this, as seen with recent examples of the group of nine people from Rochdale or three schoolboys from East London. This is positive in preventing individuals from going [to Syria], but I do not believe this addresses root causes or motivations for going abroad.
There have been some brilliant examples of women-led, grassroots and nongovernmental organizations -- such as [the British NGO] Inspire -- who are leading online campaigns and community engagement to empower women to get involved in countering violent extremism, and are reaching out to young women who may be interested in traveling abroad. Organizations like this appear more organic than government-led initiatives, understand the communities at risk best, and generally have a higher stake in their communities (ex. for every story about extremism that appears on the news, they feel it distinctly in their community). Organizations like the Institute for Strategic Dialogue also do great work in this field and have worked with the mothers of extremists who have gone abroad, such as Christianne Boudreau in Canada, to tell the stories of those who have been "left behind" when family members engage in extremism.
There are many other men and women across the world engaging in similar awareness campaigns. While these are not a sole solution in and of themselves, they are certainly important ones.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk