RAQQA — After ISIS announced self-declared rule in mid-2013, the terror group began receiving a significantly higher number of Arab and foreign volunteers, including hundreds of women. Of those, many came from countries across the Middle East itself, in addition to an estimated 200 to 300 European Muslim girls, according to a recent report in the Financial Times.
Many of the women believed they were going to help the fight as a kind of jihad, experts say, although the vast majority have ended up being married off and confined to domestic roles.
Observers, including Kalsoom Bashir of Inspire, an organization that works with Muslim women to tackle extremism, have said that ISIS targets young, religiously illiterate women. "It's ideological grooming and sexual grooming too," Bashir has said in comments echoed by ISIS expert Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Syria Deeply recently spoke with one such female volunteer, who identified herself as Umm Haytham, 23, who traveled to ISIS-controlled Raqqa in northeast Syria.
She said her heritage was Moroccan but that she was born and raised in an Eastern European country. She told us she speaks and writes Arabic and has two siblings, but she declined to disclose any more information about her background or family, instead repeating ISIS talking points, making her story difficult to verify. A male ISIS representative was also in the room with her when she spoke.
Nevertheless, the interview gave some insight into the thoughts and beliefs that motivate female ISIS recruits, especially their deep desire to help the Syrian people, as well as the group's social media recruitment process.
"I decided to emigrate from the land of infidels to the land of Islam and to ISIS in Syria and Iraq after closely following what happened in Syria over the past four years," she said. "Hundreds of thousands of Muslim women, men and children, and only Muslims, had been killed. I saw the world and the country turning a blind eye to infidels, Shias and Alawites massacring Muslims every hour."
Staying on message
She claimed that by establishing a self-declared state in Syria and Iraq, ISIS was channeling the word of God for all deaths and injustice inflicted on Muslims, and that the group was battling all the "U.S.-led forces."
“The main reason I joined ISIS was my unshakable conviction in what ISIS announced when establishing the caliphate and applying Sharia law and setting up the borders of the caliphate," she said. "I saw the world fight against [the caliphate] in a desperate attempt to dismantle it."
Women calling for the application of Sharia law — Photo: Dying Regime
She said she agreed to be the wife of an ISIS fighter in Raqqa. "I met him on the social media platforms, and we communicated daily for over a month. We then agreed that I emigrate to Raqqa and we get married and we pursue jihad with ISIS."
She did not inform her family about her decision. Instead, she flew to Turkey after saving her money, and after her future husband sent her some of his own.
"After I arrived in Turkey, there was someone who was waiting for me and who smuggled me into Raqqa to meet the man I had agreed to wed," she recalled. "We got married that same night."
Haytham is now pregnant with her first child, and she said she hoped her child would grow up to be a fighter like his father. She added that she was very happy in her married life, that it has been the best time of her life. She also described her husband as compassionate and kind. "He teaches me the true Islam teachings, and not as we had learned it previously. Our finances are fine. We don't lack anything. We eat, drink and dress with what we've been given by God. I try to be a good, obedient wife to repay his kind nature and good treatment. His love and generosity made me forget that I was missing my family and friends back home."
Haytham said she contacts her family a few times a week by phone and over social media. "A few days after I arrived in Raqqa, I contacted my family. That was the hardest call to make after my family knew I was in Raqqa. My parents were devastated. They cried and asked me to return home, telling me that what I was doing was wrong, and they needed and loved me."
But that didn't affect her decision. She told them she was doing well in Raqqa and that she had married an ISIS fighter. "I'm living the good life, and it's so much better than the life I had in Europe," she said.
Her family has continued to try to persuade her to return, but she said she's more committed than ever, having also joined the al-Khansaa women's brigade.
Her dream now is to convince her family to join her in Raqqa. "I was delusional thinking the life of misery I had was the happiest life I could lead since I was in the land of 'civilization and progress,’"[when it] is actually they who are behind," she said. "ISIS offers the land of Islam and civilization."