All over the world, young, Western women are slipping out of their bedrooms, giving silent farewells and leaving heart-rending notes to their families, apologising for their sudden disappearances. Girls are leaving from Paris, London, Glasgow, Denver, Sydney and other cities all over the globe. Their stories differ, yet they are the same in many respects. The young girls are usually seduced over the Internet by older men already in the Islamic State (ISIS). Taking flights to Turkey and creeping over borders, they surreptitiously make their way into Syria and Iraq, often leaving little trace.
They leave home for multiple reasons – in a quest for romance, adventure, purity, seeking what they believe is the ‘true Islam’, reacting out of anger over geo-politics and disillusionment with the societies they live in, lured by promises of family, home, even riches if they go to join ISIS – to take part in and build up what they believe will become a utopian society. And those that considered going, but decide not to, may instead opt to ‘stay and act in place’, plotting for or actually carrying out lethal attacks in their own countries. Both types are lethal ladies – brides and servants of ISIS, whose roles are yet expanding and what they are capable of is still not fully understood.
What started as small drips from many places has increased to a steady stream of young women disappearing from their homes and families to later show up as terrorist cadres. Of the foreign fighters currently in Syria and Iraq, there are estimated to be over 500 female recruits, dozens of them from Western countries (Owens, 2015). Women and girls now make up nearly one-fifth of the 20,000 foreign fighters estimated to have gone to fight with ISIS and related groups.
Of the 30 to 60 Canadians that are estimated to have gone to Syria and Iraq, five to seven of these are thought to be women (Amarasingam, 2015). Scores of young Australian women have either gone, or contemplated going, as so-called jihadi brides according to Duncan Lewis, the head of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). “There are 30 to 40 women that are involved in this cohort that we know of, some of whom have been stopped, some of whom have been successful in getting offshore,” Lewis told the Australian Senate in February of 2015 (Owens, 2015).
“ISIS is more aggressively recruiting women than any other terror group has,” Michael Steinbach, the head of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, said in February of 2015. “ISIS is luring them by painting a false narrative about what life is like in Syria. We have seen everything from a female fighter – dedicated groups of women fighters – and those who have come over to support foreign fighters by marrying them.” Appearing before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in July of 2015, FBI Director James Comey announced that ISIS is using Twitter and encryption to recruit thousands of English-language followers and send out orders. According to Comey, ISIS reaches 21,000 followers on Twitter, some that are then moved onto encrypted messaging platforms as they are pulled into the terrorist group. “Our job is to look at a haystack the size of this country to find needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption,” Comey told the Senate committee. “This is an enormous problem… we are stopping these things so far, but it is incredibly difficult.”
Indeed, young women are being actively lured into ISIS via websites specifically set up for that purpose, through social media and Internet seduction, through chat, text and Skype conversations carried out by a terrorist group that, more than any of its predecessors, is adept at using the plethora of Internet platforms available to reach digitally accessible audiences.
These are the things that the author wrote about in her latest book, Bride of ISIS, describing a Colorado Fusion Center’s staff – US Homeland Security analysts, FBI agents and analysts working side by side as they really do, sorting through braggarts on the Internet and chasing terrorists, as they struggle and race to sort through and determine who is signalling serious intent to move into violent extremism. The book, which is based on a composite of actual cases and inspired by the true story of Shannon Conley (an American teen from Denver, Colorado, who converted to Islam, took the niqab and who ultimately ended up in the clutches of ISIS), Bride of ISIS follows the fictional character of Sophie Lindsay, (another ‘girl next-door’) as she is seduced over the Internet. It wrestles with the questions of why a ‘normal’ American teen would convert to Islam and then try to join a terrorist organisation and how terrorists seduce women over the Internet and lure them into travelling thousands of miles to become their wives.
In the real case, Shannon Conley was arrested in 2014 while trying to board a flight to Turkey with the alleged goal of travelling to Syria to join and marry an ISIS extremist she had met online. Conley believed her Internet mentors that ‘defensive jihad’ was not only permissible, but her duty. She told FBI agents that she believed US military bases, government facilities and personnel, public officials and law enforcement were all legitimate terrorist targets. Trained as a nurse’s aide and in firearms, Conley hoped to either fight jihad in Syria and Iraq, or if prevented from entering a combat role, to assist jihadi fighters. Lured by a romance that she carried out via Skype with an ISIS fighter, Conley was on the road to destruction – until her father turned her in to the FBI.
One of the downfalls of movements like ISIS is that those who get drawn into them often do so because of identity issues. They want to consolidate lagging egos, show their bravado as ‘men’ or purity as women, or be ‘jihadi cool’. This means that when they begin to go down the terrorist’s trajectory, they cannot resist bragging about it on social media, thereby giving out valuable clues to those who can stop them. Shannon Conley endorsed Anwar al Alwaki, a now dead jihadi ideologue, on her Facebook page and made other pro-ISIS statements, giving clues to the FBI of her beliefs. She also showed up at a neighborhood church and looked menacing enough that the police were called. When the FBI tried to talk sense into Conley she told them she was reading a jihadi manual on guerilla warfare and had considered carrying out a VIP attack inside the US. She also made clear that police, military and even civilians could be legitimate attacks in her mind for a terrorist attack.
When confronted with Internet endorsement of terrorist groups, one needs a tool to sort through who may be serious and who is unlikely to actually become a violent extremist. Was Conley serious? Should the FBI act? One way to judge serious intent is to use tools like University of Liverpool Jon Cole’s the Inventory of Vulnerable Persons (IVP) to rate individuals that endorse ISIS to learn what other signs they are showing of vulnerability to becoming violent extremists and then investigate and intervene with the serious ones. This has already been done and works well. Jeff Weyers, a Canadian researcher, identified 300 such persons who appeared to be vulnerable to becoming violent extremists and turned them over to law enforcement. When investigations were conducted, police found explosives, guns and other evidence of terror plots that were thankfully thwarted.
Preventing terrorism can also bring up the thorny issues of sting operations and the potential for entrapment, as well as the potential to miss real terrorists who are staging for an attack. In Bride of ISIS, one young man (also based on a real case) is the target of a sting operation and is caught trying to bomb the US Capitol building with the help of undercover FBI agents. Troubling to some is that he may have been moved more deeply into terrorism by agents that offered him social and material support for engaging in terrorism – without that he may have remained only a braggart. But without them he may also have carried out a successful and lethal attack.
All of these cases – male or females going to ISIS – beg the question of what can be done and how can authorities track violent extremists and figure out who are the dangers? Just as the problem is complex, so are the answers for how ISIS can be stopped. A multifaceted approach is needed.
For one, hotlines, imams and psychologists that can be called on to intervene early are needed. Shannon Conley, for instance, was on the FBI’s radar and agents spoke to her nine different times, but were unable to dissuade her. Finally, her father called and alerted them that she had a one-way ticket out of the country, to join ISIS. Mohamed Sidique Khan, one of the 7-7 London bombers, came back from Pakistan highly radicalised and his family members became concerned, but did not know where to turn for help. Family members often realise when a loved one is radicalising, but they need easier alternatives other than calling law enforcement that can result in something other than arrest – early prevention if possible.
Youngsters can also be inoculated against violent extremism by teaching them about violent ideologies in civics classes before they encounter them on the Internet. It is important to give them a baseline of knowledge and teach that there is no cause that justifies framing problems and their solutions in violent terms, including justifying attacking innocent civilians in terrorist attacks, no matter the cause. A baseline of abhorrence for terrorist ideologies can be created if it is approached creatively at a young enough age.
Many believe Western societies need to wait for Muslims to delegitimise terrorists’ claims. In fact, Western societies can use their own marketing and persuasion skills to fight the terrorist ideologies. They just need to be as slick, emotional based, knowledgeable and savvy as the terrorists are. And using tools like the IVP, authorities can track and rate the vulnerability of individuals moving into extremism and stop them before they attack. The important thing is, as ISIS gets more sophisticated, authorities and society in general must have the will and the smarts to get out in front of them and prevent and thwart potential attacks.