Inside Islamic State’s Female Recruitment Machine

Aqsa Mahmood grew up in Scotland, but left behind her ordinary life to become a recruiter for the so-called Islamic State. Western women continue to leave home to join the violent group – and Mahmood’s journey may provide insight.

Written by Alexandra Bradford Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
In this undated file photo released online in the summer of 2014 on a militant social media account, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, militants of the so-called Islamic State group hold up their weapons and wave the group's flags on their vehicles in a convoy on a road leading to Iraq, in Raqqa, Syria.Militant photo via AP, File

By all accounts 22-year-old Aqsa Mahmood was an ordinary adolescent. She dreamed of being a doctor and excelled during her years at the private school she attended in Scotland. Her weekends were spent with friends and she was devoted to her family. Mahmood’s parents describe her as “the best daughter you could have.” Yet in late 2013, while her friends were studying for their exams and planning their winter break, Mahmood was preparing to run away from Glasgow to Syria, where she would join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State group.

But Mahmood is not only a runaway to the group also known as ISIS – she is a recruiter. She would go on to become the female role model for Western women seeking to make their home among the members of the terror group.

Her choice to radicalize and join the Islamic State was not sparked by a traumatic upbringing or psychological illness. Indeed, this holds for the majority of the more than 550 Western women who have migrated to the Islamic State. But if not a troubled upbringing, then what? The Islamic State’s recruitment mechanism.

Like many recruits to the Islamic State who migrated before and after her, Mahmood’s first step toward radicalization began as she watched the brutal Syrian civil war ravage the country. Mahmood’s parents told the New York Times how she became “increasingly vocal and angry” about the war in Syria.

Mahmood documented her anger on her Tumblr page (which has since been shut down), where she posted pictures of civilians harmed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s state-sponsored torture. She wrote about her anger at the West for its refusal to engage militarily to halt Assad’s cruelty. Simultaneously, she chastised America for its use of drones and subsequent deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan.

The Islamic State’s propaganda promotes the idea that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the West’s lack of military action in Syria against Assad, are all part of a constructive effort to oppress Muslims. This binary and simplistic narrative implies that Muslims are being victimized by the West, and that those Muslims who continue to live in the West are complicit in the war.

Mahmood’s anger against the West created fertile ground for her radicalization and played right into the hands of the Islamic State’s recruitment machine. “This is a war against Islam and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us.’ So pick a side,” she wrote on her Tumblr account on September 11, 2014.

The Islamic State’s recruitment machine not only spreads the message that the West is at war with Islam, but it offers potential recruits a solution: join an army that will defeat the West, while also joining a utopian caliphate where healthcare, housing and food are provided free of charge.

In 2014, the terror group made substantial strides in its goal of creating a so-called caliphate when it captured sizable regions of Iraq and Syria. As they began building a quasi-functioning state, they also established Sharia law and the trappings of statehood.

Women were needed for this proto-state to grow and run successfully. ISIS put out for women to join as nurses, doctors and teachers. More importantly, women were to marry Islamic State soldiers and produce the next generation of fighters. For many women – including Mahmood – the opportunity to play a crucial role in the Islamic State was too tempting to resist.

One morning in November 2013, after saying goodbye to her parents, Mahmood did not head to school as usual, but instead left for the jihad. Four days later, as she was preparing to cross the Turkish border into Syria, Mahmood called her parents and told them of her wish to become a martyr. In tears, her parents begged her to return. But their pleas did not bring Mahmood back home.

“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 … and what’s happened,” Mahmood wrote on her Tumblr account. “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?”

It is still unclear if Mahmood made the journey to Syria alone, but her Tumblr and Twitter pages show that she had made contact with several women who had already migrated to the Islamic State, indicating that they may have facilitated her journey from Scotland to Syria.

For many like Mahmood, making contact with someone living under the Islamic State would have been as simple as sending a connection request on social media. Social media has allowed for instantaneous connections between women in the West and those under the Islamic State. Women who associate with the terror group often indicate their association by using the group’s black-and-white-flag as their profile picture, or labeling their geo-location as “IS” for Islamic State.

Once a request is sent, and the potential recruit expresses interest in joining the group, the conversation would be taken offline into encrypted channels, such as WhatsApp messenger. It is here that travel plans from the recruit’s home to the Islamic State are made.

Once Mahmood was fully shrouded under the Islamic State, she went to work fulfilling the roles set out for women. She married a fighter and, by her own account, she reveled in her new familial role, describing spending her days as a homemaker who cleans the house and looks after children. “Haha I didn’t even know how to cook when I got married [three months earlier] but now I’ve had so much free time that I’ve learnt … Trust me sisters ‘practice makes perfect,’” she wrote on her Tumblr.

Mahmood’s defection to the Islamic State received immense press attention in the West, which resulted in her receiving celebrity status within the terror group and among potential recruits. The Islamic State appears to have cashed in on her celebrity by allowing her to assume a lead role in their Western recruitment program.

With her new status, Mahmood leveraged social media to promote Islamic State propaganda by, for example, displaying execution photos of civilians killed by the Islamic State. She even called for attacks against the West. On June 27, 2013, Mahmood posted on Twitter, “If you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself. Be sincere and be a Mujahid [a person engaged in jihad] wherever you may be.”

In February of last year, British authorities uncovered that Mahmood may have helped three young girls travel from their London home to the Islamic State in Syria.

If true, Mahmood would have come full circle: from a young girl, to a migrant, to a recruiter, who now draws other young girls into her orbit and, ultimately, into the hands of ISIS.

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