Until late last fall, Aqsa Mahmood seemed like any other British teenager. She studied radiography at a local university, read the books of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling and had a crush on Zac Efron.
But in November, the 19-year-old Glasgow girl disappeared. Four days later, she called her parents from the Syrian border. When they begged her to come home, she responded, “I will see you on the Day of Judgment.” Pictures purportedly of her have since been published all over Britain, taken from her now-shut down Twitter account, @UmmLayth.
“‘I will take you to heaven, I will hold your hand.’ That’s what she said,” her father told CNN. “‘I want to become a martyr.’”
Months later, Mahmood had married an Islamic State militant in Syria and was using her Tumblr account to urge other women to join her there.
British media are reporting several cases like Mahmood’s — stories of young women raised in the United Kingdom who have been recruited by the Islamic State. According to reports in the British press Tuesday, one of them pumped out a tweet saying “the day will come when David Cameron’s head will be on a spike,” referring to the British prime minister.
Melanie Smith, a research associate at King’s College London, is tracking 21 of these women, including Mahmood, through their social media accounts. They post selfies and cat photos alongside quotes from the Koran and calls to violence, and they have discussions through Twitter and Ask.fm about ways to support the militant movement.
These online conversations say a lot about the impulses that drive women to become “jihadi brides,” Smith said.
“They are going for adventure, just like the young men,” Smith told the Guardian.
Young women are far from the only Westerners to have been recruited by the militant Islamist group, which has swept through Syria and parts of Iraq. The Guardian reports that about 500 British citizens have traveled to Syria to fight. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has said it knows of at least 100 American citizens who have traveled to Syria to fight with various groups, about a dozen of which are thought to have joined the Islamic State’s forces.
But Sasha Havlicek, founder of the London-based Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told The Washington Post that recruiting Western women is an important part of the Islamic State’s propaganda strategy. It helps build the idea that the group is about more than violence — it’s constructing an Islamic state.
For the foreign women who join, this message is a compelling one, Havlicek said.
“Given the choice of a fairly mundane life in a second-tier job in the West, and this rather heroic and romantic image of jihadi life being portrayed by Islamic State propaganda, which is very well crafted, in a paradoxical way this gives women a sense of agency and empowerment,” she explained.
Kalsoom Bashir, co-director of a British Muslim education organization called Inspire, added that life among jihadis promises status and a sense of belonging — another compelling “pull” factor for young Muslims who increasingly feel left out of mainstream British society.
“When they still feel as part of the other, and they have religious ideologies telling them that this a way to have purpose and duty, that provides a breeding ground for the next step,” Bashir told The Washington Post.
In many ways, “jihadi brides” like Mahmood are not so different from any other online subculture, Bashir added. Feeling marginalized in the real world, they are sold on the kind of alternate reality only the Internet can offer. Talking to NBC News, Smith echoed that notion; she called these women Islamic State “fangirls,” as though they were groupies for a boy band rather than a movement of violent religious extremists.
Mahmood’s Twitter handle was suspended after her story was reported by CNN last week, but her Tumblr still exhibits that same eerie mix of violent fanaticism and teenage exuberance described by Bashir and Smith. The blog features sunset photos from Syria alongside calls to militant Islam.
She also has advice for other British women hoping become “jihadi brides”: “Try and bring painkillers and Diahorea [sic] tablets… lol you will need it for the first month or so,” she posted in April. Later, she wrote, “I will be straight up and blunt with you all, there is absolutely nothing for sisters to participate in Qitaal [fighting].”
Only when Mahmood talks about her family does that zeal falter.
“When you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard,” she wrote in June. “Sometimes it would be easier for you to accept your parents disowning you and wanting nothing to do with you.”
Mahmood’s parents, meanwhile, publicly condemn her decision.
“She may believe that the Jihadists of ISIS are her new family but they are not and are simply using her,” they said in a statement. “Our daughter is brainwashed and deluded and helping those engaged in genocide.”
Bewilderment and betrayal are palpable in the two page-long press release, which was issued by the Mahmood family’s lawyer last week. In it, Aqsa’s parents say they spent months asking themselves whether they could have done better, but have concluded that “there is no smoking gun” that could explain how their daughter became a “bedroom radical.” And they worry that a “growing climate of fear” in Britain has pushed children into the extreme, insular online communities that urge women like Aqsa to join ISIS.
“We are not in denial and do not make any excuses for her,” they say. “But she is our daughter and we still love her, fear for her life and would urge her to return home whilst she still can.”