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Women in the Islamic State Aren’t Just ‘Jihadi Brides’ — They’re Crucial For Recruitment

Women are crucial to extreme networks like ISIS because they're better connected than men, helping make the networks get stronger, says a new study.

by Tamara Khandaker
Jun 10 2016, 7:25pm

Screenshot della squadra di polizia di IS al-Khansa, composta solo da donne.

Contrary to popular belief, pro-Islamic State women serve as more than just "jihadi brides," according to a new study that argues their online activities and influence make them crucial to the organization's survival.

The report, titled Women's connectivity in extreme networks and published on Friday in the journal Science Advances, also makes the case for why engaging these women should be adopted as a counter-terrorism strategy.

The study compares data from pro-ISIS' accounts online to the offline activities of women linked to the Provisional Irish Republican Army between 1970 and 1998 and concludes that regardless of the method of communication, women in extremist networks have "superior network connectivity" to men.

While men dominated in numbers, the study found that women had "superior network connectivity at the collective level," passing along recruitment messages, files, prayers, video and audio propaganda, connecting distant parts of the network and channeling funds, making them essential to the survival and "robustness" of the whole system.

Image via Program on Extremism at George Washington University

Using the Russian social networking website VK, which has about 360 million users and has been a hotspot for extremist users — but which tends to be relatively slow at shutting down pro-IS groups and accounts — the researchers, with the help of a Russian subject matter expert, used hashtags, like #ISIS, #dawla (meaning "state") and #caliphate in multiple languages to find groups that explicitly supported ISIS in their posts, and from there, tracked down individual members.

While pro-ISIS accounts are easy enough to find on Facebook and Twitter, they're usually suspended within hours, making it difficult to track data over a longer period of time. A quick search of the hashtags on Vkontakte, however, yields hundreds of groups, user accounts, and pro-ISIS content, like video and audio, that has been on the website for days, sometimes weeks.

The work is important and exciting, said Audrey Alexander, who wasn't involved in the project, but is a research fellow specializing in the radicalization of women at George Washington University.

"The message was that living under the Khilafah wasn't one of destitution, but plentiful, materially and spiritually."

"One of the problems with how we study terrorism is that it's been very centralized," she said. "We define terrorists as the people committing the actions instead of the entire network behind those actions, so in a lot of ways, what social media has allowed us to do is disaggregate terrorism, so it's not about perpetrators, but about the movement writ large."

On average, the results said, women had a higher "betweenness centrality" (BC) than men.

"If all your friends know each other, chances are you're not connecting your friends. If all your friends are in different circles of friends, chances are your BC is very high," explained Wuchty. "You're the knowledge broker if you're connecting many different groups that don't know each other. And that's essentially what happens on those extremist networks."

But female recruiters' methods can also be much more subtle, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, a researcher at the University of Waterloo with a focus on foreign fighters and jihadism.

Pro-ISIS women used to be highly active online — not just those in IS-held territory, but also supporters around the world, he said.

Women in Syria tended to showcase mundane details of their daily lives -- pictures of food and scenery, for example — "basically to show potential and interested recruits that life in Syria wasn't all about beheadings and war, that they could travel there and actually have a life like the one they had back home, but one that was also under Islamic law," Amaransingam told VICE News.

Image via Program on Extremism at George Washington University

"The message was that living under the Khilafah wasn't one of destitution, but plentiful, materially and spiritually."

This sort of activity was at its peak in 2013 and 2014, but began to die down in 2015, only decreasing from there, he said.

The women in Syria also made themselves available to other women, who would reach out for advice on things like how to make hijra (migrate in the name of Allah), what to pack, how much money to bring, and so on.

"They were not necessarily more active than men, but just worked in different circles and had different conversations," said Amarasingam. "Since there was less of them, they were more connected."

Since then, however, those networks have become more private, if they exist at all, he said.

Women affiliated with ISIS, said Anderson, are undoubtedly integral to bringing in new recruits.

"Women really commonly connect people, sharing content, including tactical and ideological materials," she said. "It's conceptualized as a support role, but it's growing the movement, so it shouldn't be underestimated."

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter at @anima_tk

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