After the Islamic State announced its self-declared rule in mid-2013, the radical group started 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, according to a recent report in the Financial Times, an estimated 200 to 300 European Muslim girls have also made the trek so far.
Many of the women believed they were going to help the fight as a kind of jihad, according to experts, 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 Syria Deeply’s own interview with 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 M.A, or Umm Haytham, 23, who traveled to ISIS-controlled Raqqa in northeast Syria.
Umm Haytham said she was of Moroccan heritage but was born and raised in an eastern European country.
She said she speaks and writes Arabic and has two siblings, but declined to disclose any more information about her background or family, and mostly repeated 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 thinking 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. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim women, men and children, and only Muslims, had been killed. I saw the world and the country I was in assist in the killing of Muslims in Syria and turning a blind eye to infidels, Shias and Alawites massacring Muslims every hour,” she said.
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. I saw the world fight against [the caliphate] in a desperate attempt to dismantle it,” she added.
She said she had 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 perform jihad with ISIS.”
She did not inform her family about her decision. Instead, she bought a flight to Turkey after saving up her pocket money and her future husband sent her some money.
“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. We got married that same night,” she said.
Umm Haytham is now pregnant with her first child. 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 – indeed that this was 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.”
Umm 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 my decision. I told them I’m doing well here in Raqqa and that I 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 hasn’t stopped trying to get her to return, but that she is more committed than ever, having also joined the al-Khansaa women’s brigade.
Now, she says, her dream is to convince her family to join her in Raqqa. “I was delusional thinking the life of misery I had [in eastern Europe] 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. ISIS offers the land of Islam and civilization.”