‘It was like a normal life, with bombs’: inside the mind of a jihadi bride
Their brains were warped by a barbarous ideology, but what were the motives of young women who joined Islamic State?
Widowed, homeless, having already lost two young children and utterly alone save for the unborn baby she is soon to give birth to in a Syrian detention camp, one might expect to detect a note of contrition in the east London accent of teen jihadi bride Shamima Begum.
Yet any remorse was startlingly absent from the 19-year-old’s testimony about her life in the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) – a period that “actually really did” fulfil her aspirations, she told the journalist who discovered her.
“It was like a normal life. Like the life they show in the propaganda videos. But every now and then there are bombs and stuff.”
The only flicker of disillusionment in her testimony about life under IS came from its “corruption and oppression”. That this didn’t stretch to discovering the severed head of an enemy soldier in a rubbish bin hints at the extent to which the poisonous ideology of the extremist group has warped her young mind.
Begum is one of 1,323 foreign women and children from IS families to have arrived at the al-Hawl, northern Syria’s so-called Camp of Death, in the past two months, fleeing from the battle of Baghuz where the remnants of the terrorist group are fighting to the death on a sliver of territory on the banks of the Euphrates. Foreign jihadi wives are tightly controlled in the camp and restricted to a designated section without any access to cellphones, while local intelligence units discern their level of indoctrination and the potential threat they pose.
The successful recruitment of foreign women is something that marks IS out from other terrorist groups. From the official declaration of its territory in 2014, it displayed an extraordinary ability to attract and enlist young Western women, in spite of shredding their rights to naught. What led those like Begum to abandon their lives, as she did back in 2015, and align themselves to its barbarous ideology? Only now, as they emerge from the ruins, might we begin to understand the true motives of a jihadi bride.
Gina Vale, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, co-authored a major report published in 2018, which shed light not just on the actual number of women and minors who had travelled to join IS but the threat they pose on their return. Of 850 British citizens affiliated with the terror group, the study found 145 were women and 50 minors. Although only two women are confirmed among the 425 British jihadists believed to have returned to the UK, this is thought to underestimate the true picture.
Some women compelled to undertake Hijra (emigration to IS territory) have expressed a desire to conduct violence in the name of the group’s cause; for others, it has been ideological fervour, or a desire to join those with whom they had previously communicated online.
Begum and her two Bethnal Green school friends, Kadiza Sultana, then 16, and Amira Abase, 15, had spoken online with another British jihadi teenager, Aqsa Mahmood, who was a prominent propagandist for the group. On Twitter, Mahmood described the joys of being a wife to would-be recruits: “Only after becoming the wife of a Mujahid do you realise why there is so much reward in this action,” she wrote. Other women, Vale says, have travelled simply for a sense of “sisterhood”.
“They said they were entering a new family, for marriage or to raise a child and to grow up themselves in what they saw to be an ideologically legitimate Islamic state.”
US academic Mia Bloom, author of Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women and Terrorism and the forthcoming Veiled Threats: Women and Jihad, likens IS’s use of social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, Telegram and Kik to that of paedophiles grooming children. Recruiters have proved highly skilled at using the internet to disseminate propaganda, showering women with offers of friendship and belonging. Others have been incited by bloodshed.
Zahra Halane, who fled Manchester with her 16-year-old twin, Salma, in June 2014, posted on Twitter about her frustration at not being allowed to commit violence after arriving in Syria. “Maybe one day soon, it might just happen ... which I cannot wait for,” she wrote.
Bloom explains that female IS recruits are persuaded that joining the group will be an adventure, the chance to become a “founding mother” of a divinely driven utopia. “They are led to believe that all worldly pursuits pale into insignificance compared with serving the IS jihad.”
The reality is they have been used for what Bloom calls the three Rs: to recruit, retain male foreign fighters and, above all, to reproduce the next generation of jihadists.
The testimony of Begum, who within 10 days of arrival was married to a foreign fighter and could not leave their house without his permission, is not uncommon. Through interviews with other women who lived under IS, Gina Vale has pieced together a picture of what it has been like for women to live under the so-called caliphate.
Women were not allowed to move freely without a mahram (male guardian). They were required to dress in a full-body abaya and niqab. Over time, Vale says, increasing restrictions were placed on clothing, to the point where even their eyes needed to be covered with several layers of thick cloth. Women who did not adhere to these strict codes of behaviour were punished for being too promiscuous.
Much of the enforcement was carried out by all-female morality police, known as the al-Khansaa Brigade, who were permitted to carry AK47s, drive and arrest and torture women who did not conform. Vale describes them as the enforcers of a “warped sense of Islamist feminism”.
Even for a group as keen to emphasise its barbarism as IS, Vale says that the execution of women was rarely publicly promoted – which is not to say it has not occurred. A recent discovery of mass graves in former IS territory near Mosul contains the bodies of beheaded women.
Everything about the role of a bride, according to Vale’s research, is to support their husband in jihad – with propaganda even suggesting the right recipes for meat stews and pancakes to fuel success on the battlefield. Male fighters would get a monthly salary depending on their set-up, at one stage receiving $50 (R700) for each wife (they were allowed up to four), $35 for each child under 15 and $50 for each sex slave. While the official mourning period for a widow was once four months, over time, as the group grew more desperate for recruits, women who had lost their husbands were forced to remarry almost immediately.
Listen to Begum’s matter-of-fact descriptions of caliphate life and you glean a sense of the weight of the propaganda to persuade women they have been serving some divine cause. Bloom believes she is experiencing “cognitive dissonance – an inability to realise travelling to Syria was a fundamental mistake” – and says this makes her an especially precarious candidate for reintegration to Britain.
Vale remains hopeful, however, that with specialist support Begum may one day be able to realise the horrors IS inflicted on others, and herself. For now, though, she speaks coldly and without remorse; as its servant.
– © The Sunday Telegraph