Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

‘Jihadi brides’ are not soldiers, they are exploited children

The news of three teenage schoolgirls leaving their homes in East London to join ISIL has featured heavily in media outlets both in the UK and internationally for the past three weeks.

Yet these bright teenagers are not an anomaly. They follow in the footsteps of around 22 other British teenagers who have left the UK to join ISIL, and around 550 women from across western Europe.

They are termed “jihadi brides”, a title that conjures up an image of women drawn to jihadism, displaying a hatred for western nations and openly glorifying ISIL’s violence. Highlighting this to be the case, 40 year old British convert Sally Jones, who married a jihadist and now lives in ISIL’s territory, tweeted: “You Christians all need beheading with a nice blunt knife and stuck on the railings at Raqqa … Come here I’ll do it for you!”

Aqsa Mahmood, a privately-educated 21-year-old from Glasgow, highlights her extreme religious ideological beliefs through her blogs. Stressing her disgust for non-Muslims, she writes that “their blood will be spilled”.

These jihadi brides undoubtedly glorify ISIL’s violence and brutality and little sympathy could ever be shown for them. However, the term “jihadi brides” is often used and perceived monolithically for all women, regardless of age. And it is partly because of this that some of the response from western commentators has been that we should hold no sympathy for such girls and instead let them just go and join ISIL.

Such a view is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it ignores the difference between the aforementioned adult women, and children such as two 15-year-olds, Yusra Hussein from Bristol and Shamima Begum from East London – both A grade students. Secondly, it exposes a lack of understanding of the actual methods employed by ISIL in targeting girls; a twin process of radicalisation and online sexual grooming.

ISIL’s success in recruiting females to their cause cannot be downplayed.

Using extremist theology and sophisticated social media, the group targets young women with the hope of recruiting them and persuading them to help build this so-called “state”. ISIL propaganda is powerful and it seeks first and foremost to radicalise. The suggestion that making hijra to this so-called caliphate is obligatory is enough motivation for some women to join ISIL. The group’s media foundation Al-Zawra, for example, is aimed specifically at women and girls.

But having ideologically groomed or radicalised girls and young women, some ISIL fighters and even female recruiters seek to also sexually groom them for sex under the pretence of “marriage”.

Take the case of 15-year-old Yusra Hussein. It is reported that she was groomed on a dating site called Jihad Matchmaker. With its use of religious language as a smokescreen and promises of strictly “halal” religious ceremonies, such sites pretend and convince others that this online grooming is religiously lawful.

Social media sites like Ask FM are used by men asking women and girls details about their age, whether they’ve been married before, how pretty they are, their height and build, and asking women and girls to upload pictures of themselves which are often passed around and viewed by handfuls of other jihadi fighters.

The Jihad Matchmaker site insists it is “keeping it halal” through the use of marriage. But tear away the overflowing use of religious rhetoric and the hypocrisies of those using these sites are clear for all to see. Just as Islam is routinely used by ISIL to justify violence and killings of both Muslims and non-Muslims, again Islam is used as a cover to justify the online sexual grooming and exploitation of girls.

As is the case with online grooming, jihadi men, using social media and online chatrooms, build trust, sometimes over a relatively short period of time, deploy flattery and false notions of love and desire, all in an attempt to groom teenage girls to travel to Syria.

Like victims of grooming, these teenage jihadi brides believe their man “loves” them and consider themselves to be in a genuine relationship, not one of control. These girls don’t see themselves as victims, let alone victims of grooming.

A French journalist, Anna Erelle, recently wrote about her experience of pretending to be a 20 year old woman from the south of France and her online interactions with 38-year-old ISIL fighter Bilel.

Referring to him as her ISIL boyfriend, she describes how, in a relatively short space of time, he was encouraging her to come to Syria.

In between telling her she’d be treated like a princess, that he loved her and wanted to talk to her “1,000 times a day”, Bilel, a man almost twice her age, would also describe to Erelle his enthusiasm in the beatings, beheadings and torture he inflicted on prisoners in ISIL territory.

Young girls however could find such obsessive attention and false romance exciting. Teenage crushes are easily developed.

ISIL’s official call to women is to help build this so-called state as mothers and wives, as opposed to active leaders in public life.

But the more insidious and central reason is their exploitation of women, using them as a reward to entice and recruit foreign fighters from across the world. For some of these fighters, the promise of sex has been shown to be an additional motivating factor for jihadis coming to ISIL territory.

Sex, the exploitation and objectification of women, repressed sexualities, all play a far more central role than is ever acknowledged by these men, who pretend to profess purity as fighters in God’s name. They deliberately cloak and disguise their perversions in religious discourse. Many young girls will be unable to recognise such nuances.

ISIL seek to control, marginalise and exploit women for their own ends; whether seeking to sexually exploit girls or to deny women their most basic rights.

Which is why rather than turning our backs on teenage girls who join ISIL, we instead should urgently develop safeguarding policies to prevent more girls from being groomed, whether ideologically or sexually.

Sara Khan is director of Inspire, a counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation based in the UK



Uefa Champions League semi-final, second leg result:

Ajax 2-3 Tottenham

Tottenham advance on away goals rule after tie ends 3-3 on aggregate

Final: June 1, Madrid


Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others


Company name: Klipit

Started: 2022

Founders: Venkat Reddy, Mohammed Al Bulooki, Bilal Merchant, Asif Ahmed, Ovais Merchant

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Digital receipts, finance, blockchain

Funding: $4 million

Investors: Privately/self-funded

The biog

Nickname: Mama Nadia to children, staff and parents

Education: Bachelors degree in English Literature with Social work from UAE University

As a child: Kept sweets on the window sill for workers, set aside money to pay for education of needy families

Holidays: Spends most of her days off at Senses often with her family who describe the centre as part of their life too


Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Timothee Chamalet, Zendaya, Austin Butler

Rating: 5/5

Australia World Cup squad

Aaron Finch (capt), Usman Khawaja, David Warner, Steve Smith, Shaun Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Jhye Richardson, Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jason Behrendorff, Nathan Lyon, Adam Zampa


Company name: Nomad Homes
Started: 2020
Founders: Helen Chen, Damien Drap, and Dan Piehler
Based: UAE and Europe
Industry: PropTech
Funds raised so far: $44m
Investors: Acrew Capital, 01 Advisors, HighSage Ventures, Abstract Ventures, Partech, Precursor Ventures, Potluck Ventures, Knollwood and several undisclosed hedge funds


Founders: Sebastian Stefan, Sebastian Morar and Claudia Pacurar

Based: Dubai, UAE

Founded: 2014

Number of employees: 36

Sector: Logistics

Raised: $2.5 million

Investors: DP World, Prime Venture Partners and family offices in Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Our legal consultant

Name: Dr Hassan Mohsen Elhais

Position: legal consultant with Al Rowaad Advocates and Legal Consultants.


Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)


Thalassaemia is part of a family of genetic conditions affecting the blood known as haemoglobin disorders.

Haemoglobin is a substance in the red blood cells that carries oxygen and a lack of it triggers anemia, leaving patients very weak, short of breath and pale.

The most severe type of the condition is typically inherited when both parents are carriers. Those patients often require regular blood transfusions - about 450 of the UAE's 2,000 thalassaemia patients - though frequent transfusions can lead to too much iron in the body and heart and liver problems.

The condition mainly affects people of Mediterranean, South Asian, South-East Asian and Middle Eastern origin. Saudi Arabia recorded 45,892 cases of carriers between 2004 and 2014.

A World Health Organisation study estimated that globally there are at least 950,000 'new carrier couples' every year and annually there are 1.33 million at-risk pregnancies.

Most Read
Top Videos