Women are often believed to be coerced, or even forced, into following their men into Islamic State. In some cases, fears of abandonment, loyalty and coercion do play a role.
Such is the case of a European we’ll call Laila. When her fiancé first flew to Istanbul to join the Islamic State, she turned him in to police. Laila thought she had saved him from going to ISIS, only to find out after her marriage that he had not given up his dream.
Laila’s husband presented her with the difficult choice of divorce if she refused to let him join ISIS, or, as he told her, “being a good Muslim wife who supports and follows the lead of her husband.” Hoping that it would be all he believed it could be, she followed him.
Laila’s husband was killed, leaving her pregnant and fearing she would be forced, like other ISIS widows, to marry another fighter. Laila’s father courageously struggled to hire a series of smugglers to get her out before her baby was born inside the Islamic State, and she agreed.
But as she began her perilous road to freedom, ISIS, realizing she was on the run, messaged her parents demanding that she return to the group to first bear her child and nurse it, for, as they texted, “The baby is ours.” She eventually made it out with the child.
Laila, fortunately, did not face the fate of many women who are smuggled alone back to safety—rape and coercion by criminals.
According to the statistics International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism researchers have been able to compile, foreign women who join ISIS return at a much lower rate than men.
It is unlikely that’s because they want to remain with the group. It probably reflects the fact that it is difficult for a woman to escape ISIS with no money of her own, living constantly under the control of men, going outside the house only with difficulty, then facing the depredations of smugglers once they are on their way.
Women who have borne children inside ISIS territory have encountered difficulties escaping with their children, who lack officially recognized identity documents. A Belgian ISIS mother, for instance, contacted her consulate in Turkey before attempting to escape ISIS territory, only to be told that her husband, the father of her babies, would also need to be present to apply for and receive papers for her children.
She decided to stay put rather than attempt escape with no certainty of ensuring her children’s eventual documentation according to interviews we conducted in Belgium last year.
ISIS has managed to attract both adults and teen girls. Schoolgirls from London to Scotland to the Netherlands to Kyrgyzstan have run away to ISIS. Some were enamored of adventure and excited by men who lured them with promises of romance.
Turning to the blog posts of ISIS internet recruiters such as Umm Laith and Bird of Janna [Paradis], they likely believed they were embarking on a romantic and heroic venture to better the world and find unconditional love, trust and loyalty. Promises of an Islamic life, riches, and torrid love affairs are common fare among male and female internet recruiters.
French journalist Anna Erelle, posing as a younger vulnerable teen, was contacted by a French fighter the same day she posted his video on her fake Facebook profile. Internet relationships can easily provide frequent contact and convey caring and real intimacy.
Her recruiter dogged her constantly, Skyping, texting and talking with her multiple times a day. To a lonely and confused young woman, this can be an intoxicating amount of attention. Internet recruiters often talk to them more than their own family members, honing in on vulnerabilities and needs.
Many who joined ISIS, women included, believed that the ISIS “Caliphate” would deliver a “pure” Islamic lifestyle and that it would operate by “pure” Islamic ideals, despite the bloodshed and brutality that have become a defining characteristic of the group.
In fact, ISIS uses cruelty to communicate fearlessness and, coupled with battlefield successes, in 2014 and 2015 it managed to attract thousands of fighters from all over the world, including hundreds of women, to what it portrayed as a triumphant cause.
Part of its strength lies in its ability to demonize its opponents and avoid the moral conflict that comes with killing and engaging in acts of brutality. When women question this gruesome spectacle, the ISIS responses is that, “All revolutions require bloodshed, but ultimately those who fight for the cause will live by pure Islam.”
In fact, ISIS recruiters operate much like cult recruiters, meeting needs in the first interactions and then gradually drawing their victims deeper into the group—to a point where the group no longer caters to them but instead takes over their lives.
As the New York Times reported in 2015, a young woman in Washington State, whose alcoholic mother had left her in the care of her grandparents, tweeted out the question of why ISIS would behead a journalist. She received an answer—from ISIS recruiters—who told her that all revolutions are characterized by bloodshed and that this [ISIS struggle] was no different. They then began to seduce her into the movement by lavishing attention and gifts upon her.
Similarly, a teen girl in London followed ISIS profiles on Twitter, only to find that they followed her back, suddenly making her “popular” with many followers, and they messaged her about joining the Islamic State.
They told her that, as a Muslim, she should make hijrah—that is, travel to live in Islamic lands rather than live sinfully in the kafr (unbelieving) U.K. When she protested that she was too young to marry one of the “brothers,” she was told she could come and marry after a year or so.
When her case came to the attention of authorities, she admitted that from the pictures she was being sent of ISIS housing in Syria, she thought she would be traveling to “Islamic Disneyland.”
Converts to Islam are especially vulnerable to ISIS recruitment, as they often have limited knowledge of religion. They often want to prove themselves, sometimes by expressing loyalty through violence. At the same time, they may be alienated from family members, which leaves them vulnerable to others who begin to fill that gap.
American teen Shannon Conley fell into this category. She converted from Catholicism to Islam at age 17 and then tried to join ISIS at age 19. She found her interpretations of Islam on the internet and was convinced by violent extremists that Islam is under attack and that the West is the enemy of Islam.
Interviewed by the FBI when she came to their attention, Shannon admitted to downloading instructions on how to carry out a VIP attack inside the United States, and that she had come to believe that military bases, and even civilians who frequent them, could be legitimate targets of attacks.
She also Skyped and fell in love with a Tunisian ISIS fighter who convinced her to become a hero by leaving her job cleaning bedpans, marrying him and working as a medic for ISIS. Shannon attempted to travel to Syria and was sadly disappointed when she was arrested on the tarmac trying to board a plane out of Denver, Colorado. She is now being held in a maximum-security prison.
Girls who go to join Islamic State often leave confused schoolmates and BFFs behind. Two young Bosnians who had grown up in Vienna continued to contact at least one of their friends via social media, likely inviting her to follow. A young girl in a London school appears to have influenced three of her schoolmates to follow her into the Islamic State.
Contagion effects are normal among young people, particularly teen girls, and have been observed in relation to such phenomena as suicides to psychosomatic health epidemics. This is to be expected and should be guarded against in relation to terrorist recruitment as well.
Women who join ISIS are joining a misogynist organization, but it is important to note that they also are empowered in multiple ways by the group. Foreign women who join are invited to serve in the ISIS hisbah (morality police). They are tasked with enforcing dress codes and the strict ISIS interpretations of sharia law.
These women are armed, operate above the status of ordinary civilians, and answer to practically no one—enjoying an elevated status they may not have found back home.
Women who earn poorly back home might also enjoy a beautiful home taken from the enemies of ISIS or a captive forced into slavery who does cooking and housework and, in some cases, looking after the husband’s sexual desires. Even among women, the ISIS true believer is taught to dehumanize these captive women and legitimize their enslavement.
If they are not in the hisbah, young foreign women are invited to join a group of women operating out of Raqqa that draw other women, as well as men, into the group. Females seducing men into the group are powerful indeed.
American ISIS recruit Mohamad Jamal Khweis appears to have joined precisely for this female promise of marriage, having left the U.S. on a purported vacation but flown in a circuitous route to Istanbul. He later claimed to have met a woman whom he immediately married and with whom he traveled to Iraq to join the group.
Contrary to some assumptions, females who get to the Islamic State are not gang-raped by ISIS men. But they are expected to have husbands and, indeed, ISIS runs a marriage bureau specifically for that purpose.
Women who marry into ISIS are indoctrinated into believing in the spiritual benefits of their husband’s “martyrdom,” with some even welcoming their enhanced status as a “martyr’s” widow as a positive benefit. Moreover, widowhood benefits are promised to ISIS wives in the event their husbands are killed.
According to ISIS defectors we interviewed, in reality, these are rarely paid with any consistency. On the contrary, ISIS widows found themselves handed off to their husband’s friends or put into dire living situations until they agreed to marry again—some marrying as many as thirteen times in succession.
One female ISIS defector with a baby in her arms told us she escaped the group because she did not want to be forced to marry a fourth time after her third husband was killed.
Most countries accept their female returnees from Iraq and Syria and many countries do not prosecute these women—or if they do, they receive lighter sentences. This is due to the notion that they only followed their men as a result of being tricked or coerced, which often is not the case.
In the Balkans and Central Asia, we were told by intelligence and law enforcement that women are “zombies” (following their men and controlled by their men). But our research shows that ISIS women often followed their men willingly into Syria and Iraq and, in some cases, willingly joined them in homegrown terrorist attacks.
Some may have agreed to go out of fears of abandonment and financial ruin, yet others were instigators. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, two older women talked their extended families into traveling to Syria to join ISIS, believing that they would better their financial lot and be able to live by what they believed to be “true” Islamic ideals.
When disillusionment set in, one of these grandmothers was able to smuggle her grandson back home who, according to her close associates interviewed in Kyrgyzstan, brought a message from the rest of the family: “He’s the only one we could get out, we are hopelessly lost.”
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project.
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.- is the director of research and a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).