Hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in western countries to join Islamic fighters in the Middle East, causing increasing concern among counter-terrorism investigators.
Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media.
Women and girls appear to make up about 10% of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with jihadi groups, including Islamic State (Isis). France has the highest number of female jihadi recruits, with 63 in the region – about 25% of the total – and at least another 60 believed to be considering the move.
In most cases, women and girls appear to have left home to marry jihadis, drawn to the idea of supporting their “brother fighters” and having “jihadist children to continue the spread of Islam”, said Louis Caprioli, former head of the French security agency Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire. “If their husband dies, they will be given adulation as the wife of a martyr.”
Five people, including a sister and brother, were arrested in France earlier this month suspected of belonging to a ring in central France that specialised in recruiting young French women, according to Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister.
Counter-terrorism experts in the UK believe about 50 British girls and women have joined Isis, about a tenth of those known to have travelled to Syria to fight. Many are believed to be based in Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city that has become an Isis stronghold.
Those identified by researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College London are mainly aged between 16 and 24. Many are university graduates, and have left behind caring families in their home countries. At least 40 women have left Germany to join Isis in Syria and Iraq in what appears to be a growing trend of teenagers becoming radicalised and travelling to the Middle East without their parents’ permission.
“The youngest was 13-years-old,” Hans-Georg Maassen, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, told the Rheinische Post. “Four underage women left with a romantic idea of jihad marriage and married young male fighters who they had got to know via the internet.”
In Austria, the case of two teenage friends, Samra Kesinovic, 16, and Sabina Selimovic, 15, who ran away from their homes in Vienna to join jihadis in Syria, may be “only the tip of the iceberg”, said Heinz Gärtner, director of the Austrian Institute for International Politics. An estimated 14 women and girls are known to have left Austria to fight in the Middle East, according to the interior ministry.
The US does not have available data on women and girls joining Isis fighters in Syria, a senior intelligence official said in an emailed statement. “We do not have numbers to share on the number of women linked to [Isis] or fighting for them,” the official said.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, downplayed the issue in the US, saying the number of women and girls joining Isis was of concern, but not an epidemic. “It’s a threat, but it’s [one] among many potential threats coming out of Syria,” he said.
Karim Pakzad, of the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said some young women had “an almost romantic idea of war and warriors.
“There’s a certain fascination even with the head and throat-cutting. It’s an adventure.” Some may feel more respected and important than in their home countries, he added.
But Shaista Gohir, of the UK Muslim Women’s Network, said little was known about the young women’s motivation or what happened to them after leaving home. “Some of these girls are very young and naive, they don’t understand the conflict or their faith, and they are easily manipulated. Some of them are taking young children with them; some may believe they are taking part in a humanitarian mission,” she said.
Social media plays a crucial role in recruiting young women to join Isis in the Middle East, according to many experts.
Some British women and girls have posted pictures of themselves carrying AK-47s, grenades and in one case a severed head, as they pledge allegiance to Isis. But they are also tweeting pictures of food, restaurants and sunsets to present a positive picture of the life awaiting young women in an attempt to lure more from the UK.
Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at Massachusetts University and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, said the recruitment campaign painted a “Disney-like” picture of life in the caliphate. Some young women were offered financial incentives, such as travel expenses or compensation for bearing children.
Women already living amid Isis fighters used social media adeptly to portray Syria as a utopia and to attract foreign women to join their “sisterhood in the caliphate”, she said. “The idea of living in the caliphate is a very positive and powerful one that these women hold dear to their heart.”
But the reality was very different, she said. Both Bloom and Rolf Tophoven, director of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, said reports indicated that women had been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry. “[Isis] is a strictly Islamist, brutal movement … the power, the leadership structure, are clearly a male domain,” said Tophoven.
Messages between a British Isis fighter in Syria and his common-law wife, read in a UK court last month, revealed that many fighters are taking several wives.
“For example, the United Nations last month estimated that [Isis] has forced some 1,500 women, teenage girls and boys into sexual slavery. Amnesty International released a blistering document noting that [Isis] abducts whole families in northern Iraq for sexual assault and worse.
“Even in the first few days following the fall of Mosul in June, women’s rights activists reported multiple incidents of [Isis] fighters going door to door, kidnapping and raping Mosul’s women.”
• Nora el-Bathy was an ordinary French schoolgirl who wanted to be a doctor. She was 15 but looked young for her age: a slight, smiling youngster in jeans and trainers posing for a photograph under the Eiffel Tower.
When Nora left her family home in the southern French city of Avignon one morning last January, with her school bag, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But, when her classes ended that day, Nora did not return home. Instead, she took a train to Paris, withdrew €550 (£430) from her savings account and changed her mobile phone to cover her tracks. She boarded a flight for flew to Istanbul, and from there took an second internal flight to the Syrian border.
Back in Avignon, her parents – practising but not strict Muslims – reported Nora missing to the police.
Her eldest brother, Fouad, trawled local hospitals convinced she had been in an accident, searched his sister’s bedroom, and examined her Facebook account for clues. There were none, except her hijab, which she had started wearing a few months before, in the wardrobe.
It was only when Fouad quizzed her closest school friends that the reason for Nora’s disappearance emerged.
The el-Bathy family discovered that found she had opened a second Facebook account where she was in contact with “jihad recruiters” in the Paris region and had posted videos of women appealing for recruits to go to Syria. In one picture, a completely veiled woman, brandishing a Kalashnikov, appeared with the caption: “Yes, kill! In the name of Allah,” in French.
Fouad, a former French soldier, was devastated. “She had a second Facebook account on which she spoke of making hijra [going to live in an Islamic country], and a second mobile phone to call the ‘sisters’,” Fouad told his local paper.
Nora had begun talking of wearing the full veil and of helping the wounded in Syria, particularly children; and shortly before she disappeared, she asked her parents if she could have her passport, claiming she had lost her identity card.
But nobody in the el-Bathy family imagined she was planning to run away to war. “We absolutely didn’t see what was coming,” Fouad said.
Three days after her disappearance, Nora telephoned her family. Police traced the calls to the Turkish-Syrian border. She told them she was fine, eating well, happy and that she did not want to return to France.
She also sent Fouad a text message to say she had arrived in Aleppo, Syria, and that she “preferred being there”. The family received two further phone calls: one from a man speaking Arabic and a second from a man speaking French. The caller asked them to give their permission for Nora to marry. Her parents refused.
Fouad decided to go to Syria to rescue his sister, but was turned back at the Turkish border. While there, he received a call from Nora. In the brief conversation, she described how she had learned to shoot, but promised she would not be fighting.
Fouad later succeeded in getting to Syria and seeing Nora. Afterwards, he said she had told him: “‘I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life.’
“She was thin and sick. She never sees any light. With other women she has to look after young children, orphans, but she lives surrounded by armed men.”
The el-Bathy family is now taking legal action for their daughter’s kidnap, believing that while Nora went to Syria of her own free will, she had been brainwashed by extremists.
Their lawyer, Guy Guénoun, told journalists that her recruitment and disappearance appeared to have been well planned. “It’s obvious she’s been taken in hand by a very intelligent and structured network,” he said.
The girls – whose parents came to the UK as refugees from Somalia – passed their GCSEs last summer after attending Whalley Range high school for girls in Manchester and went on to study at Connell sixth-form college.
They left home in the middle of the night and were reported missing by their parents. Now both are reportedly married to Isis fighters.
A social-media account believed to belong to Zahra shows her in a full veil posing with an AK-47 and kneeling in front of the Isis flag. Recent postings describe how she had lost her kitten, after her husband threw it outside.
Mahmood, 20, has described the difficulty of telephoning her parents from the Turkish border to tell them she wanted to become a martyr and would see them again on judgment day.
In her blog she wrote: “The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Your parents are already worried enough over where you are, wether [sic] you are okay and what’s happened.
“How does a parent who has little Islamic knowledge and understanding comprehend why their son or daughter has left their well-off life, education and a bright future behind to go live in a war-torn country.”
In a post earlier this month she described the type of young women who, like her, had joined Isis from all over the world.
“Most sisters I have come across have been in university studying courses with many promising paths, with big, happy families and friends, and everything in the Dunyah [material world] to persuade one to stay behind and enjoy the luxury. If we had stayed behind, we could have been blessed with it all from a relaxing and comfortable life and lots of money. Wallahi [I swear] that’s not what we want.”
She made a direct appeal on 11 September this year for others to join her. “To those who are able and can still make your way, hasten hasten to our lands … This is a war against Islam and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us’. So pick a side.”
Earlier this month her parents, Muzaffar and Khalida Mahmood, publicly appealed for their daughter, who was privately educated and went to university, to return home. Her father said: “If our daughter, who had all the chances and freedom in life, could become a bedroom radical then it’s possible for this to happen to any family.”
Shannon Conley’s plan to serve as a nurse for Islamic State militants in Syria ended in April when the Colorado teenager was arrested on the runway at Denver airport.
A 19-year-old nurse’s aide, Conley had converted to Islam. According to court documents, her family was shocked to find she was interested in “violent jihad”.
Conley was reported to police in October 2013 by a local pastor, after church staff became suspicious of her. For the next five months, Conley had a series of open conversations with undisguised federal agents, during which she repeatedly told them she intended to “wage jihad” overseas. “She also intended to train Islamic jihadi fighters in US military tactics,” the complaint said.
Agents said they attempted to dissuade her from taking up the violent cause, even suggesting she turn to humanitarian efforts instead.
Conley told investigators she planned to marry an Isis member she met online in early 2014. Agents believe this man is 32-year-old Yousr Mouelhi of Tunisia.
Mouelhi reportedly encouraged her to receive additional training so she could assist fighters once she arrived in Syria. In February, she attended a US army Explorers cadet training camp in Texas to learn US military tactics and practice shooting. In March, Mouelhi organised Conley’s flight, arranging for her to travel from Denver to Germany, and then to Turkey. At the time of her arrest, Conley was carrying a list of contacts, a National Rifle Association certificate and a first aid manual. In her bedroom, investigators found literature on al-Qaida and other jihadi groups.
Earlier this month, Conley pleaded guilty to providing material support to al-Qaida and other terror groups such as Isis. She faces up to five years in a US prison and a $250,000 (£154,000) fine.
The images of two young smiling schoolgirls – Samra Kesinovic, 16, and her friend Sabina Selimovic, 15 – have become symbols of Austria’s concern about young people being radicalised and going to fight in Syria.
The girls, whose families came to Austria from Bosnia, ran away from their Vienna homes in April to fight in the “holy war”, telling their families in a note: “Don’t look for us. We will serve Allah – and we will die for him.”
It is thought the girls were radicalised after attending a local mosque run by a radical preacher, Ebu Tejma. Samra’s school confirmed that before her disappearance she had been a vocal advocate of the “holy war”’, writing “I love al-Qaida” around the school.
Recent reports in Austrian media suggested that one of the girls had died, although police have not been able to confirm this and it was contradicted by a WhatsApp message from Sabina to friends that said: “Neither of us are dead.”
Police believe both the girls were married to Chechen fighters shortly after arriving in Syria and it is suspected that they are both now pregnant, as their names on social media have been changed to include Umm, the Arabic word for ‘“mother”. However, Austrian police have warned that it is likely their social media accounts are being controlled by men.
Samra and Sabina have been described as “jihad poster girls” whose story is inspiring other young women to join the holy war; earlier in September the government said they stopped two other young girls – a 14- and 15-year-old – from leaving the country on their way to fight. Authorities said they had been lured by “false promises” of a beautiful country and houses and had no intention of carrying out terrorist acts, although it was reported that one of the girls said she wanted “to support Isis – it doesn’t matter where”.
In October 2013, Sarah O, 15, did not come home from school in Konstanz, southern Germany. Her father reported her missing two days later. Soon after, she posted pictures of herself on various social-media sites holding a machine gun, wearing a burqa and black gloves. She said she was being trained to use the gun, and that her day consisted of “Sleeping, eating, shooting, learning, listening to lectures.” She also wrote: “By the way, I’ve joined al-Qaida.”
Sarah, who is half German, half Algerian, called her father a few weeks later with a young man, Ismail S, an Isis fighter from Germany. He asked her father for permission to marry Sarah; the father refused, demanding that she return home. She stayed in Syria and married Ismail in January.