The online grooming of 'jihadi brides'

Within 24 hours of meeting a fighter from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) last year, Malaysian Umm Baraa married him - willingly.

The 27-year-old doctor recounted her impulsive move in a recent post on her Tumblr blog, in words that seem to come straight out of a cheesy romance novel.

"He looked at me, our eyes catch each others'. I had palpitation that is faster than the speed of light," she wrote.

"He smiled. And he asked a question that I shall never forget for the rest of my life. 'Can we get married today? After Asr (afternoon prayer)?'

"Deep inside my heart shouted, noooo. But I have no idea why I answered 'Yes'."

While her response may intrigue, her role in ISIS heralds a new battlefront in the war against the extremists.

Increasingly, women are making their presence felt in ISIS' propaganda campaign, especially in recruiting females for the fight.

But this phenomenon of women engaging in the activities of terror groups has a long history.

More recent instances were the women suicide bombers of rebel groups like Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and terror organisations like Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS.

The ISIS case, however, is unlike any other as the young women and teenage girls it attracts travel from countries across the globe to be part of the terror state.

And the number doing so is "unprecedented", said Ms Nur Irfani Saripi, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

Last month, a report by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said about 550 women from Western countries have travelled to join ISIS.

The burgeoning number would be higher if it were to include women recruits from other regions such as South-east Asia, but such figures are unavailable.

Although published figures show more than 500 Indonesians, about 200 Malaysians and at least two Singaporeans have joined ISIS, there is no breakdown according to gender.

The Singapore Government, however, has said that one of the two Singaporeans is a woman married to a Malaysian, and that they left for Syria with their two teenage children. The woman was unidentified.

Several factors draw these women to ISIS, the ISD report said.

The push factors include social and cultural isolation, a misconception that the international Muslim community is being violently persecuted as well as anger over the perceived lack of international response to this persecution.

But more important are the pull factors: the radicalised ideology of building a so-called caliphate, the promise of belonging and sisterhood, as well as the romanticising of life in Syria.

Experts believe governments have failed to combat these fast- spreading influences in their anti- terrorism fight.

Women like Umm Baraa, who was known as Shams before she married her Moroccan husband Abu Baraa, are important contributors to the terrorist group's success.

Commonly called "jihadi brides", they are more than just stay-at-home wives and mothers, said the ISD report.

With the strict laws of gender segregation imposed by ISIS, these women take on important jobs as doctors and educators.

Many, like Umm Baraa, work as propagandists and recruiters. They describe and share pictures of their life in Iraq or Syria over social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. They also give tips on how to travel there, said Ms Irfani.

"Often, these female propagandists and recruiters lace their discourse with misinterpreted religious narratives, hashtags and younger slang, making them relatable to youth," she added.

Young women who are most vulnerable to such romanticised propaganda tend to have a superficial understanding of Islam as they do not come from religious families.

"Those from a religious background know very well that ISIS does not conduct itself according to the tenets of Islam," said Dr Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at RSIS.

"Those most vulnerable and susceptible to ISIS' radicalisation and recruitment come from a secular background...because they are unable to distinguish between the version of Islam preached by ISIS and the true spirit of Islam," he added.

But despite the pretty images the propagandists portray online, many women have found life in ISIS miserable, rigid and full of anxieties.

Dr Gunaratna said about half of the women who have gone to Syria want to return home.

"The women go there with a very romantic picture in mind. But once they start living in Syria, they realise how different the reality is and want to go back," he added.

Last October, two Austrian girls - aged 15 and 17 - contacted their families and expressed their desire to return home after being disillusioned with life in Syria. They became pregnant after being forced to marry ISIS fighters.

Briton Tareena Shakil, 25, ran away to Syria with her baby son last October. Regret crept in and she fled to Turkey in January. She was arrested in February when she returned with her baby to London.

But few are as fortunate as Sha-kil. "Leaving ISIS' clutches is not easy," said Ms Irfani. "Many more women may want to leave but can't find a way to escape."

Life for Umm Baraa is less than blissful too. Last October and November, she posted on her blog that two ISIS wives lost their husbands within weeks of each other.

With each death, her own weariness grows as she waits for news about her husband.

"Should I tell him that I died a little everytime I heard the news of a shaheed (martyrdom)? Or should I pretend to be strong?" she wrote.

In April, she disclosed on her blog that he had been injured, with fractured bones and nerve impairment, but is alive.

Despite her candid posts, Umm Baraa's blog still draws supportive comments and queries from young women keen to join ISIS, including from Malaysia.

Her blog is among several sites monitored by analysts for insights into ISIS and those radicalised by it.

There is an army of online forces linked to ISIS: 47,000 Twitter accounts, 9,800 websites and more than 10,000 Facebook accounts.

Many have been shut down by the social media companies but new ones pop up, with different names.

On the other hand, anti-terrorism websites and social media accounts set up by official sources such as governments and religious organisations only number in the hundreds.

"Government anti-terrorism messages online are five years behind terrorist propaganda," said Dr Gunaratna. "Terrorist groups like ISIS are miles ahead in using social media for spreading propaganda."

As for Singapore, he said, a lot has been done in the physical space but much more can be done online.

Community groups have to work with the Government to put out more counter-terrorism messages online and on social media, promote moderation and get young Muslim leaders to play a more active role in countering the extremism, he said.

The recent arrests of two self-radicalised Singaporean youths, including one who wanted to kill the President and Prime Minister if he could not leave to join ISIS , is a strong reminder of the terrorism threat.

Dr Gunaratna said there may be more arrests in Singapore as ISIS gains ground in spreading its extremist propaganda worldwide.

And among the ones arrested could be a woman, said Ms Irfani. "But in Singapore, we would do our best so that we do not have any female detainee."

This article was first published on June 14, 2015.
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