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How Online Radicalization Is Drawing Young Western Women to the Islamic State

A new report, titled "Becoming Mulan," studied the tweets of 12 Western female migrants who have traveled to join the Islamic State in an attempt to unravel their journey.
Image via Twitter

The internet is full of young women expressing their support for the Islamic State and a desire to become part of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate, which has been painted as an Islamic utopia.

As many as 550 women are said to have migrated from Western Europe to join the Islamic State in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria. Seemingly obsessed with violence, and becoming domesticated goddesses to their jihadi husbands, these women are playing a key role in the organization's state-building mission. And it appears to be this sense of purpose that is the main factor in driving them to migrate.


The internet is the main tool for radicalizing these young women and creating a culture of peer pressure. And a report by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) released last week studied the tweets of 12 Western female migrants who have traveled to join the Islamic State, in an attempt to unravel their journey and better understand the phenomenon. The paper, titled Becoming Mulan, also explores the reality of their lives there and the potential threat they pose.

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These female sympathizers, such as Aqsa Mahmood, who is also known as Umm Layth, openly tweet advice to other young Muslim women on traveling to the Middle East and encourage violent attacks on the West similar to the murder of Lee Rigby, the soldier killed in a London street in May 2013.

The title of the report is pulled from a tweet by Umm Ubaydah which read, "I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battlefield," referring to the Disney movie Mulan, in which the central female character disguises herself as a man in order to take part in war. The paper notes that the women regularly express a desire to be involved in violence, including beheadings. However, there is not yet any evidence that they have actually taken part in violent acts.

Rashad Ali, a counter-terrorist practitioner and director of the Centri organization, talked at a launch event for Becoming Mulan on January 28. Ali spoke about the case of a second-generation Muslim from a migrant family in her late teens who Centri worked with after her journey to the Islamic State failed. Having been a practicing Muslim, attending mosque regularly, and sporting a jilbab, she was only exposed to radicalization after her friend started spending time absorbing the negative sentiments of online preachers and then pressured her into making the journey.


My dear sister and I ?'•?'•?'? — Al Britaniya (@UmmAbbass)January 31, 2015

Breakfast in the Islamic State ???????????? — Al Britaniya (@UmmAbbass)January 31, 2015

Dr. Erin Marie Saltman, senior researcher at the ISD, said at the event that such cases are key evidence of a lack of targeted surveillance and monitoring. Calling the internet a "new frontline," Saltman suggested that a solution for this would be counselors directly reaching out to potentially vulnerable people online.

Though women are currently prohibited from participating in combat, the report warns that the nature of the war against the Islamic State could eventually lead to women taking up arms, as previously happened with the female suicide bomber group known as the Black Widows of Chechnya.

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Families are seen as the biggest burden for women who are seeking to migrate, in both an emotional and practical capacity, and they often mention the struggles they face in leaving behind relatives, especially their mothers. The report advises that "policy makers should endeavor to support families in their efforts to prevent their daughters from migrating." Many of these young women experience either a cultural or generational gap with their parents, something that can be exploited by online radicalization, and lead to a lack of family communication.


The research also suggests that policymakers should take advantage of the negative accounts of these women, such as the case of the migrant who was denied help at a hospital while clearly bleeding due to miscarriage. It claims that Western countries could use such stories as counter-narratives to work against the propaganda and utopian idea of life under the Islamic State.

Ali is a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir himself, an Islamic group which seeks to establish a global caliphate. He spoke of how the young girl he worked withnow looks back aware of the peer pressure she was exposed to, admitting that this wasn't the Islam she was brought up with, and like any young person she was excited by the camaraderie and adventure.

Ross Frenett, co-author of the report and director of the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network, claimed at the event that these women's lives are not so different to the 1950s housewife. He explained that their sole day-to-day duties are domestic ones, but with a "slight twist." Frenett also referenced a photograph posted up by Twitter user BintMBMA, one of the 12 accounts they studied, which featured a photo of cheesecakes she and a friend made, with a grenade also visible in the shot.

Syrian woman reportedly survives Islamic State's execution by stoning. Read more here.

Follow Aws Al-Jezairy on Twitter: @Aws_A_