Aqsa Mahmood offers advice to other young women on how to join ISIS. The first phone call made after you cross the border into Syria is the hardest, she warns the readers of her blog on Tumblr. If your parents cry and beg you to come home, she advises, stay strong and realize they don’t know enough about Islam to understand.
“The word of Allah is greater than that of all mankind put together," she writes.
The 20-year-old Scottish-born Mahmood promises readers that those who join the jihad will get financial incentives including a “rent-free house” in Syria, as well as rewards in heaven.
Experts say around 200 European women have traveled to Syria to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS), many enticed by women like Mahmood, who use social media as a way to convince young Muslim women living in Western countries to leave everything behind, and join the jihad.
Analysts say that the women give an important boost to IS as a growing movement.
"The main reason (for IS targeting young women) is that the Islamic State has started transitioning from a group of freedom fighters to being an actual state," Katherine Brown, a terrorism expert at King's College London told The Media Line. "In order to do that you need all kinds of people, you need fighters and builders and also women…They're trying to present themselves as a new nation, rather than just a group of fighters."
One of the key aspects of IS recruitment campaign is the notion that the caliphate they want to form will be a utopian society. It's this presentation of a black and white worldview which appeals to many in the younger generation, giving a purpose and meaning to their lives.
"It's the first time you're seeing a group deliberately targeting young people and taking their politics seriously -- it's a big contrast between Europe and the United States, where they're quick to dismiss the politics of young people, in particular young Muslim men and women," Brown said. "The Islamic State is saying “we're taking you seriously.”
IS's aggressive recruitment efforts have had a strong social media presence, and some of that has always been catering specifically to young women. Blogs and Twitter accounts run by women like Mahmood, who portray life in the caliphate as paradise, show an effort to attract others like themselves.
"Most of the recruiters are women, so the girls are not as guarded as they would be if they were having a conversation with a man," said Dr. Mia Bloom, professor of security studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell. "The girls are young and naïve and they're getting taken advantage of.”
Marriage bureaus set up in the caliphate ensure that these girls are married almost immediately after arriving, usually within two weeks, and sometimes to a fighter who already has a wife. Islam allows men to take up to four wives, as long as he is able to treat them equally.
"They get advised to go and get sung praises of not being an only wife, of having sister wives and being a group couple," Bloom said. "These girls are lured with promises that life is going to be great for them, an idealized version of a happy ending."
The girls are promised worldly goods and financial stipends, reportedly around 700 dollars a month. They are also tempted by spiritual rewards, like the promise of a husband who could be killed in fighting. This will not only bring them fame and status, but will also ensure both of their places in the afterlife.
A blogger calling herself "Shams" posts about the utopia she lives in, where houses are given for free and they don't pay rent, water or electricity bills, and where Muslims are exempt from paying taxes.
But the reality is often different from the expectations. Most of the women who have come to join the jihad spend their days cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children.
Charlie Winter, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in the UK, told The Media Line that the women who join IS are playing a predominantly domestic role, since according to the ideology they live by, women have no place on the battlefield or assuming a fighting role.
However, in the Raqqa province in Syria, which is under complete IS control, at least two female-led brigades have been established as a police force. One is a group of British women calling themselves the Al-Khansa brigade and presenting themselves as a moral police; enforcing the wearing of niqabs, garments that cover the whole body, and making sure other women wear them correctly, with a sufficiently thick veil and no visible ankles.
There's a combination of ordinary lives being led alongside violence that experts find especially jarring, as photos of women holding severed heads are posted alongside tweets mentioning things as mundane as making coffee or cooking dinner.
While the blogs and websites usually present a relatively positive image, women are getting married and reporting that life is not nearly as exciting as they had hoped. Household chores need doing and meals need cooking; domestic life is not so different from the one in Europe, with the exception that it is life during war.
"There are images of the violence under the Islamic State, executions in the street, women holding up heads. Enforcing the wearing of the niqab is done through violence," Brown said. "The women are aware of this violence, but how they understand it is interesting. It's a violent place to be living in, but at the same time you still have to do the dishes."
The blogs and social media pages are written in European languages, like English and French, showing they're not just targeting young women and men within the Middle East. They are not trying to form a state based on ethnicity or culture, but rather on a common understanding and ideology.
Additionally, there appears to be no common background or demographic among IS's female recruits. Most of them are well-educated individuals who were completely absorbed by the ideology of IS.
"There's loose pattern in radicalized individuals… it's usually people who are very vulnerable and who have been lured into believing that this ideology actually stands for something," Winter told The Media Line.
"It's a very pervasive and very persuasive ideology that can convince people they are enacting God's mission… it allows people an effective means to get out of their previous vulnerabilities."
The heterogeneous nature of the female recruits makes it harder to stem the flow of individuals joining IS. Brown believes that the key to halting the radicalization isn't to take on individuals, but to look at the younger population, particularly young Muslims, and take them more seriously as a whole.
"If we look at tweets and blog posts, we see Qu'ran quotes, but no religious knowledge. We need a fuller education in religion for all young people, not telling them what to believe but giving them the insight and ability to ask questions themselves and decide what to believe in, and why," Brown said.
"Empowering young people to make more informed choices and not being taken along with this political naiveté, and this romantic version of the Islamic State."
This naiveté also points to a greater need for community outreach and engagement with these young women and men,. Experts say parents need to talk to their children and know what's going on so they're not taken by surprise when their daughters disappear and resurface in Syria as a jihadi wife.
"We also need to have the families feel safe to go to the police or the FBI when their kids go missing," Bloom told The Media Line, adding that many families aren't reporting their children missing because of a fear they'll be prosecuted for joining a terrorist organization when they return.
Article written by Samantha Badgen.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line.