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