Karwan Faraj is a Swedish author, producer and documentary maker who recently premiered the radio documentary Hennes resa till IS ("Her Trip to IS") on national public radio. In his documentary, he speaks to "Sara", a young Swedish mother who joined the Islamic State. Sara was raised Muslim, and became radicalised in her younger years, around 9/11, spending days on online jihadist forums. Right after the US invasion of Iraq, she wanted to travel there to join al-Qaida, but her responsibility for her young children kept her from going through with it. In 2014, after reading and hearing about the caliphate in Syria from friends and family, she made the decision to pack her bags and leave with her children for Syria, to join IS.
Karwan Faraj has spent the last four years following and mapping out the travels of foreign jihadists for different projects. He has kept in touch with Sara as well as other Swedish women who left the country in order to join IS in Syria, by texting apps and social media since the end of 2013. The information he's collected he has used for this documentary and other projects he is still working on. By doing this, he has been able to follow the women in real time, from their time in Sweden before the travels, during their time in Syria, and after they've arrived back in Sweden. After hearing the radio documentary, I reached out to him to ask him how this documentary came to be and what insights he had gained after interviewing the women.
VICE: Hi Karwan! What inspired you to make this documentary about women from Sweden leaving the country to join the IS?
Karwan Faraj: The media were always talking about the Swedish men leaving for IS. When I got into contact with some of the men, I started hearing about their wives, girlfriends and female friends down there. I met these men through friends and acquaintances of mine – I have a lot of connections in Gothenburg, and some of these men are pretty big IS-supporters. As I understood it, women were not allowed to fight and that's when I started wondering – what exactly are these women doing there? About two or three years ago, I came into contact with one of these women and started asking her questions. Through talking to her, I started to understand that these women travel to Syria with big ambitions.
What kind of ambitions?
Before I started talking to these women, my perception was that there were only men traveling there to build this caliphate. But the more I spoke to the women, the more I heard about them wanting to be a part of that process. They wanted to go there to whip other women, to join the all-female morale police. The wanted to do the same things as the men there and help building the caliphate by spreading terror.
How many women have you interviewed?
I regularly spoke to four women from Sweden that I knew have gone down to Syria for different reasons. Two of the women I spoke to went down there with their husbands – one actually got married there to a man she was introduced to by a friend. But Sara and another woman went down there on their own.
So what plans did those last two women have?
Sara in the documentary travels there to end her life – she even brings her kids and risks their life to be able to build this caliphate. Another Swedish girl I was in contact with was ready to blow herself up or commit suicide bombing.
How did you keep in contact with these women?
Through apps mostly. We would talk on Viber, Whatsapp, social media or just texts.
Would you say there's a degree of commonality in the reasoning of these four women?
They're attracted to violence and the men who commit brutal acts of terror. These men are like role models for them. All the women I've been talking to experienced violence in childhood. But even so, I don't see them as victims of their background.
You simply can't justify that you join the most violent terror sect in the world. Nothing in the world can justify that, but you need to understand the mechanisms of why these people join IS.
Do they all have a background of extremism in their families?
It depends. Some of them come from families with roots in extremist environments, but some come from families that are against it. Just like Sara's dad. He told her to fuck off when he found out about it, but when I spoke to her that didn't seem to make her change her mind at all. She was a bit sad about it but she told me she met other foreign jihadist women in Syria whose family had reacted the same way. Besides, Sara had other relatives who sympathised and were active in IS. As far as I'm aware, Sara still isn't talking to her parents.
You've been following these women for some years now – can you, in some way, understand why they go to Syria and join IS?
Never. I've been trying to see this through their perspective and understand them, but it's impossible. I'd maybe understand if they'd been from that area in Syria, if they'd belonged to a stigmatised group in Iraq, if their whole family have been killed. But I can't see why someone would be traveling all the way from Scandinavia to Syria to cut someone's throat, to whip people and to commit brutal acts.
Do you think their choice to join IS is just driven by religion?
No, they get a certain degree of power when they get to Syria, a different social status.
A social status that they lack in Sweden because they are Muslims and tend to be marginalised?
No, they get a new status within their radical circle of friends in Sweden if they do the jihad. They are viewed as rock stars. Joining the holy war is romanticised among their radicalised friends. If you go to Syria and get married to the right person or work for the all-female moral police, for example – you get a higher status.
The women you spoke to, what do they do on a daily basis?
Well, they live quite all right as long as their house aren't at risk of being bombed. If that happens, they usually get transferred to another house temporarily, often to a house less luxurious. There are women from Sweden living in really nice houses, like villas with swimming pools. They're living some sort of decadent jihad life as they're portraying it.
What do you mean? Are they Instagramming their lives?
Yeah, they are Tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking. I don't know if they have Snapchat but they are communicating with friends via Viber and Whatsapp. They were pretty active online when I've interviewed them. They post pictures of themselves sitting by the seaside having picnics. Or they'll post a photo of themselves holding their husband's hand with a Kalashnikov hanging over their shoulder – they're creating an image where jihad is combined with a life together with a righteous man in a pure Islamic state. Their activities on social media amount to a lot of propaganda, but in reality, they're living under miserable circumstances – forced marriages, violence, imprisonment and other threats. Sara saw this huge inequality when it came to Syrians and Europeans – Syrians are treated with a lot less respect. She also witnessed the human trafficking and women being used as sex slaves.
Sara decided to come back to Sweden last year because she couldn't get behind the things she witnessed in Syria. There's a debate going on in Sweden about whether Sweden should deport returning IS fighters, or offer them therapy. What do you think?
Of course there should be some sort of punishment. They're joining the most brutal terror group in the world. But the problem doesn't disappear if we send them off to another country. So when we punish them, we should fix that problem here in Sweden. I've been in contact with people who are afraid of losing their sons to IS. The problem is that nobody can help these parents, not even if they call the police. They stood powerless while their kids walked right off and no government authorities could do anything. There need to be consequences for people who return from fighting for IS, but deportation is not the way to go.
You can listen to Karwan's documentary here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.