The women of the Islamic State are using social media to convince friends and contacts in Western European countries to come join the movement, a development that could lead to the militant group spreading abroad, experts said today.
The Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank focusing on anti-extremism work, said in a report released Tuesday that the Islamic State is effectively using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms to recruit fighters from Western Europe, including "young women travelling to become wives of jihadists."
"Some women from Western Europe that are residing in IS (Islamic State) territories have embraced their role, further, radicalizing, and proselytizing off and online, calling for more women to join the caliphate," the report said.
Policy experts in the US echoed those findings today, saying that the Islamic State has been successful at recruiting Western women to come to Syria and then using them, in turn, to reach out to their friends back home and convince them to come join the caliphate.
"They have been on Facebook and also chatting with these warriors in Syria who would portray to them a very glamorous picture of life: you could come here, marry a warrior, give birth to jihadis who would then fight for the cause of Islam and your life will have meaning, you won't lead the frivolous superficial life that you are conducting in the West," Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told VICE News.
'They see their friends covered in a veil and holding a machine gun and maybe they find this very intriguing.'
"They see their friends covered in a veil and holding a machine gun and maybe they find this very intriguing," she added.
The statistics cited by Esfandiara are jarring: about 60 women from France had joined the Islamic State, 40 or 50 from the UK, 50 from Germany, and two high profile girls from Austria. The girls, mostly aged 13-26, typically traveled to Turkey and crossed the border into Syria to meet up with contacts they made on the internet. Once in Syria and under Islamic State control, the women are typically married off to fighters. They cannot return home even if they want to, Esfandiara said.
"In most of the cases they become housewives," she said. "They have access to the internet and they chat with their friends in Europe and try to recruit them. Whether they are supervised and watched over about what they can write is unclear. You have not seen any complaints (from the women), it's mostly glorifying the kind of life that they are having there."
James S. Robbins, a senior fellow of National Security Affairs for the American Foreign Policy Council, told VICE News that Islamic State recruiting tactics resemble those of a cult. New members are acquired, and then trained to tap into their own social networks to recruit more members.
"It's not unusual in these types of movements to entice people, using — I don't know if in this case, you wouldn't necessarily call it sexuality — but the promise of something, paradise, or just something better," he said. "Mass movements, cults, they appeal to disaffected people in liberal societies who maybe don't have a place, or are questing for something maybe bigger than themselves. So this plays into that, the idea that if they join up with that movement it will be their realization of something they're seeking."
Like Esfandiara, Robbins pointed out that none of the women who have left their homes in Europe and joined the Islamic State have made any negative public statements about the group. He said the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is savvy about maintaining its image, and would rather kill disaffected members than have them speak out.
"ISIS rigged up this interview with (Austrian teen) Sabina (Selimovic) to say it's great here, we love it, we have corn flakes, they're halal but they're good," Robbins said. "There's a quick reaction to that, it's a sophisticated social media presence and media presence in general, and, in that respect, it is a highly sophisticated and highly dangerous group of individuals."
The women who travel to join the militant group from Europe are far better off than the women who are forced to join when their towns are taken over violently, such as the Yazidi women who were taken captive earlier this year. Those women and girls, who were previously in school, watching satellite TV, playing with dolls, and listening to the radio, are then either sold into slavery or raped.
"When ISIS captures a town, they separate the women from the men and children, then separate the older women from younger women and young girls, and they put them in houses, in prisons basically," Esfandiari said. "They sell the older women as slaves, there are makeshift slave markets, and so they sell them for $500 to $1000 dollars and the fighters buy them."
She added that, in some cases where the women are raped, they become pregnant and are ostracized.
"Some become — by force — prostitutes because they have been raped so many times," she said. "The treatment is very barbaric and cruel."
Some of the female slaves actually end up working for the Western women who join the Islamic State as wives of the fighters, Esfandiari said. Other local women work in brigades that enforce strict dress codes and other rules, she said.
According to Robbins, even the Western women are immediately handed off into marriages with fighters where they have no rights and are mainly used for sex and procreation. He said one of the direst aspects of the militant group's social media outreach is the potential ability to convince "lone wolf" actors abroad to carry out terror attacks in their home countries.
Even if social networks try to remove the accounts of known Islamic State members, Robbins said, their messages are often still circulated widely — not just by their supporters, but also the media.
"They just jam it out to the people they know and off it goes," Robbins said.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen