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Why Young Western Women Go To Syria

A Swedish woman who joined Islamic State (IS) and is now living in Raqqa with her children has offered some insights into why some Western Muslim women are joining the extremist group, tweeting that she feels protected living under "the law of Allah" in Syria and that life is better for Muslim women under Islamic State rule.

"They ask why we leave? We women are harrased [sic] and some beaten in the street in the west. Here under the law of Allah we are protected," the woman, who goes under the name Muhajira Umm Hamza, tweeted on March 17.

"I cover myself. I don't hide. I am free and not oppressed," Umm Hamza tweeted on March 8.

Umm Hamza describes herself on her Twitter account as a "Muslima [Muslim woman] with kids and we left sweden [sic] to live in khilafa ["caliphate," the term used by IS to describe the lands under its control]. She tweets photographs of her daily life in the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, including pictures of street cats, fruit for sale at a street market, and a street kiosk selling smoothies.

Umm Hamza also uses her account to report and comment on the air strikes conducted against the militants by the U.S.-led coalition.

The Swedish woman has also tweeted criticisms of Western media reports about life under Islamic State rule, which she says are "fantasy stories," insisting that her life in Raqqa is good.

In January, Umm Hamza tweeted a photograph showing what appears to be three young girls sitting at desks in a classroom. The girls are wearing head coverings. Umm Hamza said the photograph showed girls at a school in Raqqa.

"media [sic] are lying. Children are fine under #is," Umm Hamza wrote, referring to the IS group.

In another tweet from January, Umm Hamza wrote that she felt "free for the first time in my life as a woman."

Umm Hamza's tweets offer insights into some of her motivations for joining the Islamic State group in Syria. These insights could provide important clues about the motivations compelling other young Western Muslim women to join the Islamic State group, such as the three British schoolgirls who went missing after boarding a flight to Istanbul last month.

Like Umm Hamza, the trio -- Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase, 15 -- are thought to be staying in Raqqa.

Some terrorism researchers say that the Islamic State group are grooming Western girls online using similar tactics to pedophiles -- such as building secret relationships and establishing trust. Kalsoom Bashir of the British organization Inspire, which works with Muslim women to tackle extremism, told the BBC that Islamic State recruiters have a "very specific campaign" to target young and vulnerable women.

While Umm Hamza says she joined the Islamic State group in Raqqa voluntarily, Sweden's national coordinator against violent extremism revealed a darker side of recruitment to the militant group.

Mona Sahlin told Sweden's SVT television network in December that some Swedish girls were being forced to join the Islamic State group in Syria.

And while some of the Swedish women who joined the Islamic State group had -- like Umm Hamza -- gone to Syria in pursuit of a "dream" to "become something," things turned out to be a "very different reality," Sahlin said.

Anders Thornberg, the head of the Swedish security service Sapo, said that Sweden was seeing a rapid rise in the number of Swedish nationals heading to fight in Syria and Iraq.

As many as 300 Swedes have gone abroad to Syria and other countries, like Afghanistan and Yemen, to fight for the Islamic State group, Thornberg estimated.

"They're going beyond the limits of human behavior. They're fighting and killing other people," Thornberg said of the Swedish Islamic State recruits.

Some of the Swedes heading out to join the Islamic State group are young teenagers. In November, three Swedish high school students -- two boys aged 17 and a 16-year-old girl -- were stopped at an airport in Sweden, apparently heading to Istanbul in order to join the Islamic State group in Syria.

As many as 60 young British women, mostly aged 20 and under, are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State.

"This is a growing problem and one of real concern," Helen Ball, Britain's senior national coordinator for counterterrorism, told The Independent newspaper on March 1.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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