So far, the Islamic State has lured at least 100 European and American teen girls to Raqqa. Last week, Yusra Hussein from Bristol, England, went missing. This week, British teen Samiye Dirie followed. (Men are still flocking to the Islamic State in much higher numbers. The gender gap in Iraq and Syria is about 10:1.)
The Islamic State is wooing these girls on social media. Mahmood posts on Tumblr about the rewards young women will receive in exchange for their hijrah (emigration). In the Islamic State, Mahmood says, these girls will be taken care of, and they won’t be mocked for their faith.
Their ghanimah (war booty) includes worldly items like fridges, cookers, ovens, microwaves, milkshake machines, vacuums and a rent-free house with free electricity and water. This is in addition to the spiritual reward of being liberated from the lands of the kuffar (nonbeliever) and given over to Allah as a gift.
Of course, life for women and girls under the Islamic State is not the utopia Mahmood promises. In Raqqa, they can expect to be consumed by the three C’s: cooking, cleaning and child care. Most foreign girls will be married off to foreign fighters upon their arrival. (In fact, many are offered up as a form of compensation to the men fighting for al Baghdadi).
There are some exceptions. From 25 to 30 women are handpicked to join the Al Khansa’a brigade. This crew, limited to females in their peak childbearing years, patrols the streets of Raqqa as Islamic morality police, ensuring that woman are comporting themselves according to the strictures of the Islamic faith. These women guarantee that veils are sufficiently thick on niqabs and that no ankles or wrists are visible. According to TRAC, they may also be working at checkpoints to prevent enemies from leaving.
One defector from the brigade, “Khadija,” says she was trained to clean, dismantle and fire a weapon. Khadija says she was paid $200 a month and received food rations. On patrol, she says, she felt empowered, as if she had authority over those around her.
Some media sources have recently alleged that the British female jihadis are also running brothels for the foreign fighters in Raqqa for profit or even rape camps inside Mosul prison. Reports indicate that as many as 3,000 Yazidi woman are in these brothels, while other stories have circulated of Shi’a woman being gang-raped and of Sunni women who oppose the Islamic State being tied to trees, gang-raped and left for dead.
This news is gruesome. But it also provides a strategy for combating the Islamic State.
Khadija left when her image of the Islamic State began to crumble. She witnessed atrocities online and in person. Eventually, she decided she could no longer tolerate a group capable of such violence.
“The worst thing I saw was a man getting his head hacked off in front of me,” she said.
How can we get that message out to others? For starters, we need to engage in better community outreach. Muhammed Hamza Khan was stopped at the airport before she could board a flight to Turkey. Others are not so lucky. If the families of missing children fear being tagged as suspect rather than a victim, they’re far less likely to contact authorities when their daughters go missing. Other young Minnesota women who have reportedly gone missing have not been identified by the media.
Community leaders in Minneapolis have expressed the need for well-funded after-school programs that will permit productive activity during the times between when school ends and parents return home. States could establish an Amber alert specifically for teenagers (even those over 18) missing who might be en route to Syria.
Finally, we need to consider the way back for these misguided girls. If the United States revokes the passports (and citizenship?) of Americans who travel to Syria, how will anyone who changed their mind be able to seek asylum? Such disillusioned young people would make great spokespeople, able to counter violent extremist rhetoric with: “I went there, it was nothing like I expected, and it was not heaven but horrible. Don’t go!” This might be more effective than the current strategies that have had mixed success (and reviews).
There is a need to balance the security of the United States (preventing the return of dangerous foreign fighters) with allowing young people who made a mistake a way back home and back to their families.