By Shannon Ebrahim
April 10, 2015
Girls are beguiled by images romantic and untrue. It’s powerful propaganda that exploits their naivety, says Shannon Ebrahim.
Johannesburg - South Africans have been asking all week why an innocent 15-year-old girl from a good middle-class family in Cape Town would want to go and join Islamic State. It is not like their ruthlessness and macabre aggression against civilians is unknown.
But the broader question is: Why are 15- and 16-year-old girls worldwide being lured by Islamic State at such an alarming rate? Daily, dozens of foreigners are entering Islamic State-controlled areas in Northern Syria, many of them Western girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
Since the Caliphate was established last year, there has been a spike in the numbers of girls making this journey. Over 550 young women are already settled in Islamic State areas, with a steady flow of recruits from over 83 countries. Western governments are desperate to stem the tide, but there is little they can do, given that minors are allowed to travel alone, and they cannot be prosecuted without proof that they have taken up arms.
Closing down websites and Twitter accounts doesn’t help; girls boast they have numerous profiles. And for every website that is shut down, another two pop up.
So does this simply come down to teenage rebellion or religious fanaticism?
The answer is much more complicated as Islamic State propaganda is arguably the most dangerously effective in the world today.
When young Muslim girls are sitting in their bedrooms on Twitter, as most teenagers around the world are, they are targeted not only by Islamic State female recruiters, but young Western Islamic State jihadists.
Once a dialogue has commenced, the girls are quickly advised to get off Twitter, which is monitored by intelligence agencies, and move to a direct messaging system. Platforms like Kick or Sharespot are not easily monitored, and recruiters have the opportunity to convince young impressionable girls of the romanticism of making the Hijrah or holy migration to Islamic State areas.
The persuasive arguments are not political, but appeal to a sense of adventurism, romance, purpose and a higher calling. There is no talk of fighting infidels or deposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; it is about being paired up to a jihadi of their choice to become a wife and mother of a new nation.
The Islamic State propaganda is full of symbolic images – a newborn baby holding a small black Islamic State flag in its tiny hand.
The women featured are often shown holding up what is known as the Islamic State finger, depicting one state.
There are images of jihadi couples walking hand in hand through the streets of Raqqa – the newly proclaimed capital of Islamic State in northern Syria.
The young good-looking married couples are holding roses and going for dinner at a café.
The image is laughable.
The reality is quite the opposite – severed heads litter the streets and town squares; there are weekly floggings, amputations, even mock crucifixions.
Islamic State is as ruthless as possible to invoke fear in its enemies through a brutal reputation. This is how it took Mosul in northern Iraq with 800 fighters against 30 000 Iraqi soldiers – the power of fear.
But what teen will realise this with all the imagery of romance, roses and kittens adorning Islamic State websites.
The Prophet Muhammad supposedly loved cats.
A new Islamic State documentary, The Flames of War, glorifies the macho young jihadis with their AK47s doing Allah’s work.
Once the girls are ferried across the Turkish border into Islamic-controlled northern Syria, they have sealed their destiny. They are not allowed to leave the Caliphate, but forced to marry within weeks. In addition to performing household duties, they are expected to undergo weapons and ideological training. Many are forced to wear suicide belts and persuaded to carry out suicide missions.
For those not thrust into battle, their babies – a result of these marriages – will attend the recently established schools for foreigners – one English-language school named after the Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, the other a Russian language school. The curriculum comprises Islamic jurisprudence and lessons in jihad, Arabic, maths and English.
This is the life of 15-year-old Shameema Begum, who left London to become a jihadi bride in December, followed by two of her friends. She had been an ordinary British girl who watched soap operas and wanted to become a doctor.
A similar fate would have befallen three teens from Denver, Colorado, and three Canadian teens from Brampton who were fortunately intercepted on their flight once it arrived in Istanbul.
This is not to say the teens who join Islamic State have not been radicalised or politicised in some way prior to taking such a life-changing decision.
The South African girl was noticeably radicalised in recent months and deeply angered by the injustice meted out against the Palestinians.
The greatest irony is that joining Islamic State would have done nothing to help the Palestinians, as their plight is of no concern to the Islamic State jihadists.
It was Islamic State that laid siege to Yarmouk, historically the largest Palestinian refugee camp outside the occupied territories. Home to 18 000 Palestinian refugees, the camp was besieged by Islamic State in recent weeks, devastating the civilian population in a matter which the UN has called “beyond inhumane” and “completely catastrophic”.
Some have even referred to this as the second Nakba or catastrophe.
The suffering of the Palestinians, which is supposed to be the cause which has traditionally rallied the Muslim world, has now become unbearable under Islamic State. Many Palestinians in Yarmouk have been gruesomely massacred and taken hostage.
The carnage has been so great that it has compelled Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah to march against the suffering inflicted by Islamic State on their brothers and sisters.
Our young South African girl was unaware of these realities.
If youngsters make such mistakes out of naivety, what can their families, communities and governments do to address the problem? The answer lies in communication and raising public awareness.
The Muslim Judicial Council, imams, parents and teachers all have a role to play in conveying to young Muslims the dangers posed by Islamic State recruitment and the associated consequences. Were they to take up arms, fighters would not be allowed to come back to South Africa and would face prosecution if they did.
One out of nine Islamic State fighters from the UK come back home wanting to commit terrorist acts.
This trend makes their recruitment a direct threat to the national security of their home country, and highlights the imperative that our government must do more in terms of prevention.
The Cape Town girl may have been one of the first minors to have been recruited, but there are probably adults who have already made their way to Syria.
Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s foreign editor.