Karen sat in a hotel room in Istanbul, grappling with a difficult decision. She had spent about $3,500 (£2,220) on the round trip to Turkey from her home in the US but, when she had bought the ticket, she had had no intention of flying home. The return bookings were for appearance’s sake. Her SMS mailbox was filled with promises for the future: messages from an Islamic State fighter who had promised to marry her. But as she sat in that Istanbul hotel room, something didn’t feel quite right.
Her prospective groom’s insistence on absolute secrecy had not seemed strange at first. Karen had met him through the swarm of Isis-friendly social media. They started by chatting on Twitter and Ask.fm, then moved to encrypted messaging apps such as Kik, Surespot and Telegram. Paranoia runs through most of the online interactions – no one’s identity is clear, and anyone could be bluffing. But the hint of danger was part of the glamour and Karen thought she was being careful. She was in her late teens and had recently graduated from high school, where she had been a lonely girl interested in Star Trek and computer programming.
She converted to Islam less than a year before her journey, after watching the news and deciding to learn more about the religion. She had been inspired by Isis’s apparent authenticity – they were as far removed from the west as it seemed possible to be. Her Christian parents worried whether she would be safe walking down the street wearing a hijab. She kept her real plans well hidden from them. Online, she disguised her identity by using a kunya – a traditional Arab title. Karen had created several of these, but mostly she went by Umm Khalid – “mother of Khalid”. The name derived from Khalid bin Walid, a military commander known as the “Sword of God” in the early days of Islam. Umm Khalid was also the name of a Palestinian village that was evacuated in 1948 and swallowed up by the Israeli city of Netanya. The name has its roots in violence inflicted and violence suffered.
When she met the Isis fighter Abu Muhammad online [not his real name; all names in this article have been changed], she took the chance to bring her new identity to life.
As she planned her trip, she asked him to put her in touch with some of the women who had already joined Isis from the west. She wanted to know that she could trust him. He promised that he would, but made an excuse the next time she asked, and the time after that. This made her uneasy, but so did the prospect of delaying the trip.
All the other Isis supporters she had met online said that it would only become more difficult and dangerous to get to Syria as time passed. Things weren’t easy at home: her parents “had a fit” when she tried to wear a niqab. And so she boarded the plane to Istanbul, hoping for the best.
Later, Karen did not like to talk about all the promises Abu Muhammad had made to her: it was embarrassing to think about how naive she had been. He had told her to board the bus from Istanbul to Urfa and make the 18-hour journey alone, as many others before her had done. At the other end he, or one of his friends, would be waiting to hear from her. They would come at once, and would help her to cross into Isis territory immediately. But to her, the plan seemed risky and rushed. He had told her so little. Things came to a head on the final day, when the tone of his texts became more sexual. When she confronted him, he argued that there was nothing wrong with doing, as she later called it, “things”. They were, he pointed out, just 24 hours from being married.
This was not, to Karen’s mind, how pious and devoted jihadis were supposed to behave. Unlike some girls, who flirted with fighters online, she never obsessed about true love. Marriage was a practical consideration – a means to a life with Isis. But she would talk, from time to time, about wanting to be a good wife to a good husband – one who behaved like a perfect Muslim. Sexting was not part of the picture.
I later contacted Karen in private on encrypted apps, and eventually she opened up. She had flown home to the US after two days in Turkey (“with great photos of Istanbul”, she added, “lol.”). One final piece of information had clinched her decision to call off the Isis marriage. She had heard about a woman similar to herself being kidnapped in Urfa by the PKK, the Kurdish nationalist group, then arrested. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU, but is also at the forefront of the fight against Isis on the ground. She began to wonder if Abu Muhammad was really who he claimed to be. “Talking to him, I realised that things weren’t right,” she said. She became convinced that Abu Muhammad was not from Isis but the PKK. It was by the grace of God, she told me, that she was still alive and free.
She had broken no laws, and no longer intended to do so. Others in Isis have since offered to help her to come over, but she trusted no one enough to take the risk. She issued some sharp advice. “Brothers lie to get a wife.”
Like the three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green, Karen was from a lower-middle-class background and had a decent education. Almost all the women I came across looked and sounded not unlike myself at 16. They were conservative Muslim girls, whether they were recent converts or the daughters of Muslims, who took their faith seriously. Although their interpretation of Islam rarely agreed with mine, the women I spoke to were driven in part by religious ideals. But few of these women were willing to engage thoughtfully with a variety of Islamic religious texts, traditions and interpretations. They hated disorder and ambiguity; the clear-cut doctrines issued by jihadist ideologues appealed to their political sensibilities. Opposing the west was their measure of religious authenticity.
‘It’s time for action’
“The sickest thing I’ve ever done in my life is cross that Turkish border,” said Umm Umar on Twitter. She was using “sick” to mean “good”. “I’ll never forget that night.”
She was already in Syria and was the widow of an Isis fighter. In our private conversations, she tried to influence me with her single-minded energy. “It’s time for action,” she wrote. “Your Eemān [faith] will get sooo high during the border crossing,” she promised. “Big adrenaline rush.” After some thought, she added: “It’s sinful for u to be staying in UK whilst there is a khilāfah [a caliphate].”
Umm Umar was just 16 when we started talking. She was born in Britain but her parents were Bangladeshi. She walked out of her parents’ home in the middle of the night, leaving a letter on her bed explaining her actions. She seemed pleased to be able to share her experiences.
“Creep out,” she told me. “If u can take out a student loan pls do so.” What about our religious duty to repay loans? “No,” she said, without missing a beat. “The kuffar [non-Muslim] wealth is halāl [permitted] for us.”
Umm Umar did not enjoy her childhood in Britain. “Man I hated UK so much,” she told me the first time we spoke. She grew up in a part of the country where there were few migrants, and even fewer Muslims. Other kids often beat her up at school when she was small, she said, and spat at her on the bus when she was older. She was desperately lonely and alienated.
Her strongest bond was with her mother. “Give my mother happiness,” read a prayer she retweeted. “If sadness still lingers in her eyes, give her whatever happiness is left of mine.” But Umm Umar’s sentimentality was shadowed by a violent streak. When I asked her about hurting her parents, she reassured me that it was “halāl”. “I did it and I’m sure everyone else did it,” she wrote. “Right now we are in a state of war.”
Like most of the girls I spoke to, Umm Umar’s marriage to an Isis fighter in Syria had largely been a pragmatic affair. “Life without a mahram [close male relative] here can get quite difficult,” she told me. She had been matched with a fighter who was British Bangladeshi, just like her. His family were even from the same village in Bangladesh, she told me, relishing the coincidence of fate that had brought them together. He had been “so so sweet and caring”, but had been killed just a couple of months earlier. She was now the wife of a shaheed [martyr] and was being honoured. She seemed proud of her husband’s success, and never spoke a word of grief or sadness. Another western woman in Syria I spoke to – Umm Zahra – was almost envious when she discussed Umm Umar’s status. “U dnt hav 2 pay 4 ANYTHING if u r wife of a shaheed,” she told me. But she was careful not to seem discontented. All women, she promised me, were looked after. “U will still get money each month.”
Umm Umar had travelled to Syria because she wanted to join a perfect Islamic state. Like the other women, she painted a picture of an Islamic utopia. This was for the sake of propaganda and, I suspected, to reassure themselves that they had made the right decision in going over. To all these women, Isis was simply dawla [state], as if no other country existed or mattered. “U can come here and study btw,” Umm Umar wrote to me once. “Study fiqh [Islamic legal interpretations], hadeeth [sayings of the Prophet], medicine, etc.”
I once asked Umm Umar about al-Khansaa – the rumoured women’s brigade that enforces Isis’s harsh interpretation of sharia law on the women living there. “Yes u can do hisbah [join the religious police],” she said. “But if ur married your husband will want u to stay at home lol.” She added: “lots of ajar [reward for good deeds].” She had taken part in the hisbah patrols after being married, while her husband was away fighting. After he was killed, she had entered the traditional three-month mourning period. She had just a few days remaining when we last spoke, and planned to “resume my job inshaAllāh [God willing]” at the end of it. I asked her, that last time, if she had a happier life in Syria than she had in the UK. “Yep I do,” she answered, adding a smiley face.
Karen, the American, also reflected from time to time about a “perfect” Islamic state – although she had become more jaded since her decision to return to the US. “I’m an 18-year-old cynic who still dreams of an Islamic utopia,” she wrote once, “which won’t ever exist on this planet.”
She argued that no “government with humans in charge” could ever avoid corruption and “truly implement shari’ah”. Karen’s newfound cynicism was rare among the women I talked to, most of whom really believed that they were going to help create an Islamic utopia. “Shariah is a perfect system who protects all,” wrote one female supporter on Twitter, “not just about cutting hands and stoning fornicators … like Saudi.”
Dr Katherine Brown of King’s College London compares the women who have travelled to Syria to join Isis to “individuals who went out to join the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s, who weren’t looking to fight, but were looking to become new citizens of the Soviet state. What’s interesting is that they believe it’s possible … Islamic State is saying: ‘You can have this perfect world – you just need to try a little bit harder.’” There is a totalitarian impulse behind this. By joining the state, these women think they will become, in Brown’s words, “perfect people”.
Melanie Smith of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue calls the “caliphate utopian ideal” one of the common “key pull factors” that draw women over.
They imagine a world in which there is little poverty and inequality, governed with perfect fairness under clear-cut, divine laws that work to the advantage of all. It is a vision that makes no allowances for the ambiguity and variety of traditional Islamic legal interpretations, or for the disorder of real life.
But there are also “push factors”, says Smith, that drive women away from their homes in the west: often loneliness and alienation. Isis propaganda is designed to appeal to people who feel like outsiders in their own homes. “Islam began as something strange and it will revert to being strange,” reads a hadith [teaching] that is popular among Isis supporters online, “so give glad tidings to the strangers.”
‘I miss my mum’
Umm Abbas came to my attention when she retweeted some popular advice: “Feeling alone and alienated? Stop sinning.” When I asked her how she had found life in the UK, her answer was terse: “Stress depression”. She was a British woman in her 20s with Pakistani parents.
Where Umm Umar was open and easy to talk to, Umm Abbas was brisk and wary. On Twitter, she talked enthusiastically about her journey to Isis. “The most amazing … experience of my life,” she wrote, “was crossing with a family of over 10 members who had a newborn baby with them! :)”
Like Umm Umar, Umm Abbas was relentlessly positive about life with Isis. I asked her what happened to girls who found themselves with abusive husbands: “Dawla has the best of men,” she promised, “and the shariah court here protects you from all types of violence.” There was a process, she and Umm Umar explained, for unmarried women to be matched with a husband.
After being placed in a maqar [a shared house for “sisters”], a woman writes down what sort of “brother” she wants to marry. The emir of the area matches her with someone and sets up a brief meeting, after which, if both parties are agreeable, the marriage quickly takes place. “They will still contact ur dad,” Umm Abbas told me. But if the woman’s father refused, the emir would go ahead and marry them anyway.
Chinks of unhappiness sometimes appeared. Umm Abbas’s marriage was much more difficult than Umm Umar’s had been. “Life throws all types of trials,” she wrote to me. “The biggest is listening n obeying to your husband.”
She wouldn’t say anything more except that her marriage was “sometimes tough”. She saw this as a test, requiring sabr [patience] on her part.
She wasn’t alone in her unhappiness. Umm Umar would occasionally issue quiet pleas for comfort and reassurance. “I miss my mum …” she tweeted once. Umm Zahra shared her jealousy of a possible co-wife, and even of hooris [the famous “72 virgins” that martyrs are said, in jihadist propaganda, to receive in heaven]. I pointed out that the Qur’an does not actually specify the gender of hooris or of those who receive them, nor restrict them to martyrs. She stopped answering my messages.
Complaints about difficulties in daily life were often couched in positivity. “Candlelight dinner with the akhawāt [sisters],” tweeted Umm Umar, “#CozTheElectricityWent #ItsAllPartOfTheStruggle.” Sometimes complaints were hidden in advice. “No good makeup,” Umm Abbas told me, “n clothes too. I brought 2 suitcases.” A recent issue of Dabiq, the Isis magazine, addressed itself specifically to the concerns of western women within Isis. The article urged those who had lost their husbands to “be patient”, and to “be wary of thinking of going back”. Dawla is not without its doubters, and utopian dreams are not easy to sustain, but few will be able to return home any time soon. “People risk their lives to bring you in,” Karen said to me once. She was still suffering from guilt at being a “coward” for not going through with her journey to Syria. But she knew that, once there, no Isis fighter would risk his life to get her out again.
‘Do we not have the right to defend ourselves?’
For each of the estimated more than 500 western women who have travelled to Syria to join Isis, there are more sitting at their computers at home, voicing their support online. Most won’t make the journey, but they will go about their lives with the quiet fantasy of one day being citizens of dawla.
There is a code that Isis supporters use to communicate online. Going to Syria is “taking a holiday”; “green birds” and “dusty feet” are references to hadiths about martyrs. A single finger pointing upwards represents the Isis brand of monotheism and a commitment to death and victory. But Umm Kulthum disapproved of all this. “We’ve turned [jihad] into a kind of fad,” complained a post she shared on Tumblr, warning against “trivilising” violent jihad. “We hold up our index fingers … like we’re all part of some über-cool club.” She had other things in common with the various women I spoke to. Many spoke of being constrained by everyday life, and of longing to be part of something bigger. “You can’t just live life waiting for the next weekend to come,” Umm Kulthum wrote once. “Your aspiration should be greater than that.” She shared one important trait with the bulk of online Isis supporters: a belief that a global war between “true Islam” and “the kuffar” was taking place, and that Muslims had to choose a side.
Umm Kulthum knew that Isis was associated with brutality. Some of the women I spoke to argued that the violence was exaggerated by the western media. Others defended it by arguing that the kuffar did worse, while a few, including Umm Kulthum, actively relished it. She shared pictures of Isis fighters with guns. In private, she was remarkably sweet and tender. She called me her “beloved sister”.
She was Libyan but had spent much of her life in England, and received her secondary education in a state school. She had been lonely there, and spent some time on antidepressants. By the time we spoke, she was back in Libya with her parents and siblings, hoping to have the chance to travel to Syria herself. But Britain still loomed large in her mind. It was there that she had been converted from the “jaahiliyyah” [ignorance] that she saw in her Muslim parents to “true Islam”.
Umm Kulthum was fixated on stories of Muslim oppression. Her social media accounts were a montage of Muslim suffering – Syrian children killed by Bashar al-Assad; Palestinian youths burned alive by Israelis. For Umm Kulthum, this justified almost any brutality in return. She felt all Muslims had a duty to “protect their siblings in Islam”; she was convinced that only violent jihadists took this seriously. “Jihad is our right even as just human beings, not Muslims,” she said once. “Do we not have the right to defend ourselves?” For all her hostility to the west, her western education had helped to shape her. Like the other women, she used the language of “human rights” and “girl power”. She shared stories of women in niqabs, with weapons, charging into battle.
Special contempt was reserved for Muslims who she thought were colluding with the west by failing to support violent jihad. Such people are known in Isis circles as “coconuts” – brown on the outside, white on the inside. The word has its roots in the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century. When I mentioned I had non-Muslim friends, Umm Kulthum was stern. “Habibti,” she wrote, “do not take kafir as your friend.” Umm Umar was pitying: “U have to understand that these kuffar are our enemies,” she wrote to me. “And they will never stop fighting us until we follow their … way.” Others were harsher. After the shootings of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Umm Abbas retweeted: “and muslims think that the west cares about them. you are a joke by Allah.”
For these women, there is no room for an ambiguous multicultural identity. No Muslim, a recent issue of Dabiq argued, has “any excuse to be independent” of Isis, which is waging “war on their behalf”. All Muslims in the west must make their choice to either live as “inauthentic” coconuts or to redeem themselves in death.
‘You’re a muslim and love democracy???’
Theological ambiguity was also difficult for these women. They believed that Islam was defined more by opposition to today’s western world than by any religious ideal. After the Chapel Hill shootings, one female Isis supporter argued that candlelight vigils for the victims were un-Islamic because they involved “imitating the kuffar”. All believed that “pure Islam” lay in whatever was as anti-western as possible.
Umm Kulthum presented democracy as the binary opposite of a utopian caliphate. “The law of Allāh should not be voted over,” she said, quoting Anwar al-Awlaki, the jihadist propagandist who was killed in 2011. I tried, occasionally, to argue that there are many different interpretations of sharia law, and that Islam has contained some democratic ideas – the first four Sunni caliphs did not inherit their positions, and the idea of community consensus in legal interpretation has a long tradition. The response was usually confused or hostile. “You’re a muslim and love democracy???” one of Karen’s online friends said, “hmm.”
What troubled me most was not that these women didn’t agree with my interpretation of Islam. It was that none of them seemed willing to form independent religious opinions at all. Brown of King’s College pointed out that few of the women seemed “empowered to find faith on their own terms”. When I asked each of the women about their beliefs, they told me to read Anwar al-Awlaki, or to watch popular jihadist ideologues on YouTube. Whenever I tried to ask Karen why, on religious grounds, she supported Isis’s interpretation of sharia law, she avoided answering the question. She was busy, or had a headache. “It hurts to think right now so I won’t,” she wrote.
Each of these women struggled with ambiguity or disorder – in theology, in identity and in life. Each was convinced that there could be only one valid interpretation of Islam and of sharia law, and that it lay in whatever appeared to be as anti-western as possible. To find it, they had to erase their western identities. Joining Isis offered them an opportunity to do so.
‘We don’t fit in here or there’
For some women, erasing the western part of them was a struggle. Converts “have different battles to born Muslims”, Umm Raeesa said once. “Muslims thinking u r a fake Muslim.” She was one of Karen’s closest online friends. They had bonded over their shared difficulties: both women had been accused by other online Isis supporters of being spies. Their only recourse was to emphasise their religiosity on social media.
Umm Raeesa was vicious towards critics of Isis, affectionate towards her online friends and professional in her daily life. She was 25 and worked in finance in Australia. She had converted to Islam two years earlier, but she wore just a headscarf and left her face uncovered. “I’d prefer to wear niqab at work,” she told me once, “but would have zero chance of a job lol.” She had been raised a Catholic, but didn’t connect with the faith. She supported Isis vehemently online, but had no imminent plans to make the journey. “This area is unstable,” she told me. “I think it needs to settle down.” For the time being, she was content to fight for Isis online without having to give up her life in Australia.
More than anything else, Umm Raeesa craved human connection. She had a deep yearning to belong. I woke up to fresh messages from her almost every morning. “Asalaam Alaikum dear sister,” she always wrote. “How r u?” Sometimes she wanted to talk about Isis or about Islamophobia; sometimes she just wanted to chat about her day or to ask me about mine. Many of the women I contacted sought affection and praise in the arms of the Isis sisterhood.
Smith and Brown describe this as another “pull factor” that can draw women away from their homes and towards a greater sense of belonging. To Umm Kulthum, I was always “habibti”. Karen often tweeted about the “baqiyah sisterhood”: “Muslimah’s of the Ummah make sure you got each other’s backs!”
All these women knew what to expect of life under Isis. They warned me that their days would revolve around being a wife and a mother, and would be spent largely indoors. One of Karen’s online friends was once asked, on Twitter, why she didn’t just go back to her home country if she didn’t like the west. “We don’t fit in here nor there lol,” she replied. When I last spoke to Karen, she had decided to remain at home, in the US, for the time being. But she worries that she is being a “coward”, and still considers a possible future with Isis. “Sometimes I wish I could just leave this place,” she tweeted once. She still might.
All names have been changed
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