Selling the 'Fantasy': Why Young Western Women Would Join ISIS

Expert: ISIS sells "fantasy" to would-be female recruits.

ByABC News
February 20, 2015, 3:31 PM

— -- British authorities’ desperate race to track down three teenage girls who they suspect are on their way to Syria to possibly connect with the terror group ISIS has reignited a question raised when a young American woman put herself in a similar position –- namely, why?

Commander Richard Walton of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Command said today that the two 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old are hardly alone in their quest to join jihadists and that British authorities “are concerned about the number of girls and young women who have or are intending to travel to the part of Syria that is controlled by the terrorist group calling themselves Islamic State [ISIS].”

“It is an extremely dangerous place and we have seen reports of what life is like for them, how restricted their lives become. It is not uncommon for girls or women to be prevented from being allowed out of their houses or if allowed out, only when accompanied by a guardian,” he said. “The choice of returning home from Syria is often taken away from those under the control of [ISIS], leaving their families in the U.K. devastated and with very few options to secure their safe return.”

So why would young women travel halfway around the world to a combat zone to link up with a terrorist group that has boasted about countless atrocities, including those committed against women?

Mostly for the same reasons that young men do, according to academics.

“ISIS has been on a very strong female recruitment drive, and women are joining ISIS for a variety of reasons, many of which are the same as men,” Jayne Huckerby, Director of the Duke International Human Rights Clinic, told ABC News in January. “Feelings of alienation, feelings of inequality. [For] adventure. In some cases, romance. And in many cases too, these women are responding to quite a deliberate call from the Islamic State [ISIS] to have women come and participate in a form of state-building and to make a new country in which they can practice their religion.”

“Women see themselves playing a number of roles in the group. They see themselves as recruiters for other young women. They see themselves as a very important part of the propaganda machine of ISIS,” Huckerby said.

PHOTO: Scotland Yard issued an appeal for information on three schoolgirls who have been reported missing, may be heading to Syria. Feb. 20, 2015.
Scotland Yard issued an appeal for information on three schoolgirls who have been reported missing, may be heading to Syria. Feb. 20, 2015.

Katherine Brown, a lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, wrote for the BBC in August, “Women are joining [ISIS] because it provides a new utopian politics – participating in jihad and being part of the creation of a new Islamic state.”

“There is a great deal of romanticism in women’s accounts about being part of this political project with a new version of a political Islamic ‘good life’ built upon a particular idea of Islam and Sharia law,” Brown wrote. “The perceived failure of Western states to give Muslims a sense of belonging, purpose and value as Muslims and citizens is striking in the online accounts of these women jihadis.”

Mia Bloom, Professor at the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at UMass Lowell, said ISIS has been selling the girls a “fantasy” escape.

“Most of the girls are drawn by a combination of fantasy and the feeling that by joining ISIS, they will be empowered, have an exciting life, and do something meaningful with their lives,” Bloom told ABC News today.

The ISIS recruitment drive for women has also played out in the same arena as it has for men: online.

Twitter accounts supposedly belonging to women living under ISIS rule describe their day-to-day lives in a positive light and beckon other Western women to join.

“[ISIS] pays for our houses, we get money monthly, food aid, travelling aid, soldiers protecting our borders, everything,” one such account said this week, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. “…[W]ith every child we get extra money, No kafir [disbeliever] country does!”

Brown wrote that the women online “offer the women advice, support, help with travel, and are a source of propaganda for [ISIS], presenting idealized notions of an Islamic life and jihad.”

“Online networks facilitate their travel and help coordinate them with expat communities once they arrive,” she said.

Bloom also noted that male members of ISIS work to woo women online so they’ll to travel to the Middle East, where the men can marry one or more of them, or the women can be used as lures for other male recruits.

“It’s all about the social media that is being used to lure these young women,” she said. “Then the women are used as a reward. They are ranked according to value in terms of blondes and converts will be more desirable… By marrying them [the women] off and encouraging children immediately, it retains the men and makes it less likely that they will go back to their home countries.”

Huckerby spoke to ABC News in January when a 19-year-old American woman, Shannon Conley, was sentenced to four years in prison for attempting to go to Syria to join ISIS. The FBI had said Conley fell in love with a member of the group online and planned to travel to the Middle East to marry him.

FBI agents reportedly met with the Colorado woman repeatedly beginning in late 2013, trying to talk her out of supporting the terror group. But the AP reported that Conley flatly told the agents she was going to wage jihad in the Middle East, even if it was illegal.

Judge Raymond Moore said the four-year sentence was meant to deter others from following in Conley’s footsteps.