By Sara Khan
25 February 2015
Around 60 women and girls are estimated to have left the UK to join Isis so far. The latest female recruits are three girls from Bethnal Green: Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum. Responding to their departure, some voices in the media have argued that we should show no sympathy to them, and instead to just “let them go”, despite their age and naivety.
Such an argument ignores two points. First, it ignores the fact that we are not talking about adults – Shamima Begum is just 15-years-old, the same age as Yusra Hussein, who fled in October. But it also shows a complete lack of understanding of the actual process employed by Isis in targeting girls.
Isis’ success at recruiting females to their cause cannot be downplayed. Their propaganda is powerful. Using extremist theology and social media, they target young girls with the hope of persuading them to help build their so-called “state.” Its media outlet Al-Zawra, for example, is aimed specifically at women and girls. It romanticises the notion of the jihadi fighter seeking the ultimate goal of martyrdom, and sells the role of a wife to a martyr as the next best thing.
As we all know, these girls have been radicalised. But what many don't seem to appreciate is that they have also been groomed. And understanding how this works is essential to understanding why we shouldn't give up on these teenagers. As director of Inspire, my work includes looking at the nexus between extremism and women's rights. Seeing young girls groomed in this way is not all too surprising.
Isis grooms these girls for sex, “legitimising” it as “marriage”. Take the case of 15-year-old Yusra Hussein. It is alleged that she was groomed through a Twitter account called Jihad Matchmaker, which promises to “link up those seeking marriage in Syria”. Using religious language as a smokescreen, and with promises of strict religious ceremonies, it claims it will “keep it halal”. Yusra is now in Syria, and two weeks ago it was reported she had “married” a jihadi.
Isis deliberately targets these girls as a recruitment tool for jihadis,using them as a reward to entice and recruit foreign fighters. The promise of girls has been shown to be an additional motivating factor for some jihadis, who pose an immense threat to many of the women they encounter. Amnesty International and the UN have highlighted how thousands of Yazidi women and girls have been brutally raped by them.
Just like child abusers groom their victims online and persuade them to leave their homes and meet them, male jihadists contact women through social media and online chatrooms, and build trust with them over time. And like child abusers, they deploy flattery and false notions of love and desire. Their targets often believe their jihadi fighter “loves” them, and considers their relationship to be genuine. They don’t see themselves as victims.
In some cases, the normality of teenage crushes is also thrown into this mix. Instead of lusting after One Direction's Zayn Malik, the pin-up is an Isis fighter. One example you might not have heard of is the Dutch jihadi fighter Omar Yilmaz, who is seen by many girls as an Isis heartthrob worth fleeing for. And there are many more men just like him.
And it's not just Twitter that is helping Isis groom young women. As Melanie Smith at the King’s College Centre for Radicalisation has pointed out, social media sites like Ask FM are used by jihadis to collect information about young Muslim women. They ask them about their relationship history, how pretty they are, and their height and build. As well as providing them with all their details, the female targets are also encouraged to upload pictures of themselves, to be passed round handfuls of other jihadi fighters.
By the time they are at this stage, girls are already radicalised by the Isis propaganda, and the grooming can begin.
Women also often take part in grooming children. Women like Aqsa Mahmood - who Shamima Begum tweeted two days before she left - and other Isis female recruiters often build trust and relationships with these girls. Advising on everything on how to get into Isis territory to what to bring with them, these women are also often busy arranging “marriages” for their new recruits.
We must develop new safeguarding policies to help protect teenagers from this new twin phenomenon of grooming and radicalisation. Because as much as we despise their desire to leave for Isis, this does not take away the reality that they are being exploited and targeted.
Sara Khan is director of Inspire (www.wewillinspire.com), a counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation