When she was just 19, and a convert to Islam, Laura Passoni was abandoned by the father of her young son. Determined to deepen her expression of faith and in hopes of attracting a man who would keep his commitments to marital and family life, Laura responded by putting up a more devout Facebook profile, and very quickly she was contacted by an ISIS recruiter.
He promised her a man who would never leave her, a home in Syria, training as a nurse, and a good school for her toddler. Broken-hearted and wanting to believe, Passoni agreed to embark on a journey to the Islamic State.
To evade detection, she and her toddler and the man she had chosen with the advice of the recruiter traveled by land to Venice and then took a cruise ship to Izmir, Turkey. From there they continued in a taxi to Gaziantep and crossed into to Syria to join ISIS.
Passoni thought of the cruise as a romantic time in which she consummated her marriage to a near stranger.
Her induction into the Islamic State was far from what she had envisioned, however. She ended up staying in a “sisters’ house” while her husband went off to receive sharia training and become a fighter. She was invited as well to serve ISIS as an internet seductress or a member of the morality police (hisbah). She declined both offers.
Passoni became deeply disappointed as she found herself confined at home while her husband was away battling for the group. None of the ISIS recruitment promises materialized—no nurse training and no riches. She found herself having to let her son play alone unsupervised outside or go with “the brothers,” other Islamic State fighters to the mosque.
Witnessing how young the boys were that ISIS recruited into the Cubs of the Caliphate, many to go as suicide bombers, she feared her son would suffer a similar fate. She also became pregnant.
Desperate to escape, Passoni took her son in a taxi and headed for the border of ISIS territory, but the fearful driver turned her over to the ISIS police instead.
Passoni’s husband agreed to vouch for her, and she was confined under house arrest with ISIS cadres guarding her when he was absent, preventing her from making another attempted escape.
Eventually, Passoni managed to convince her husband to join her in an effort to flee and, with the help of smugglers, the little family of three found its way back to Belgium.
If they had been caught, her husband most likely would have been beheaded and she would have been returned to Raqqa, then forced into marriage with another fighter. Other women who have tried to escape have been raped and in some cases murdered by smuggles, according to the accounts of eye witnesses in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project.
Passoni’s husband is now serving prison time in Belgium, while she has been released conditionally. Her children, who were temporarily removed from her custody when she returned to Belgium, are now back in her care.
She spends her free time lecturing to young Belgians about the dangers of joining ISIS. A video clip of her interview with the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) can be found here.
Passoni’s story follows patterns similar to those of many women who join ISIS. The path to violence almost always involves the classic interaction of four important factors: a group, its ideology, social support, and personal motivations and vulnerabilities. But there are also, commonly, more specific reasons.
One is political outrage. Many Muslim women as well as men around the globe witnessed the whole of Syria collapse into anarchy and violence under Bashar al Assad. They grew furious watching Assad’s scorched earth policy towards not only opposing combatants but also against Syrian civilians. That these atrocities continue to this day and often are just as brutal as what ISIS does to local populations that defy its rule is not lost on potential recruits. The motivation for some women who joined early in the conflict, as with their male counterparts, was rooted in grave concern about Assad’s sheer brutality in Syria, and in response to the political impasse in the country.
Others were already incited by ISIS’, and before that al-Qaeda’s, narrative that Islam, Muslim people and Muslim lands are under attack by Western powers and that a defensive jihad is necessary.
These women were lured by graphic YouTube videos of real suffering and injustices perpetrated against Muslims worldwide under dictators propped up by Western powers. The psychological impact of images of wars prosecuted by Westerners combined with civilian casualties may have played an important role in their decision to try to help defend the weak.
In fact, in studies of moral judgment, women and girls often make their assessments more relationally than men and may judge what might normally be defined as an immoral act to be moral if it saves a life, particularly the life of someone to whom a woman is related to.
ISIS and al Qaeda have been successful at garnering loyalties in support of a transnational ummah (Muslim community) and building up the idea of a greater family (fictive kin, in the jargon of social science) through the formation of the so-called Islamic caliphate.
They have been successfully tapped into various dimensions of populism and promote a doctrine that not only attempts to play on Muslim sentiments worldwide but also unifies Muslim demands against a common enemy—the West.
Add to the mix the complex discourse on marginalization and discrimination of Muslim women in the West. Women in Europe who want to wear headscarves or a niqab (full-face covering), or a burkini for that matter, may find themselves on the wrong side of the law in some countries. They also may be sidelined in the workplace or passed over for jobs. Some may be harassed on the streets.
Recruiters who promise female empowerment and emancipation, both political and economic, can be very persuasive to women who are feeling disillusioned and distressed by living in the West.
They are told of a utopian state where all Muslims are included and where being a Muslim is an advantage versus a disadvantage; where personal dignity, honor, purpose, significance and the material benefits of free housing, job training, free health care, matchmaking and salaries are promised to all who join.
For many women who join ISIS, the geographical relocation to Syria and Iraq serves as an attractive escape from personal and emotional problems—for example an overbearing, violent, and drunk father or husband—or the inability to attract a man considered a proper mate.
Until very recently, when it started losing significant swaths of territories in Iraq and Syria, ISIS claimed to embody the actualization of Islamic ideals. Women were invited to join in hopes they could win forgiveness for their sins and thus attain paradise when they pass into the next life.
According to the caliphate’s preaching, any man or woman who has seriously “sinned” could redeem him or herself by joining the Islamic State and, best of all, by volunteering for a suicide mission. There is nothing like “martyrdom” to guarantee to the person who comes to believe in it an immediate place in paradise.
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).