UK

Female Muslim converts drawn to Islamic State

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Media captionWoman who works with female jihadists: "The majority of the cases... are generally converts who know absolutely nothing about the faith"

"Dnt b afraid to do wat u kno is best. Its better 2 b farrrr away frm da enemies of Islam, dan to liv next to dem"

This is a tweet thought to be from a young British girl in territory controlled by Islamic State (IS). She, like many of the other girls who have left to live in the so-called Islamic State, spends much of her time online, professing the virtues of life in the new "caliphate".

Their messages on social media and the hybrid British street vernacular laced with religious terminologies not always used correctly betray their young age. Often their language is inflammatory and selective in its reading of both current and historical events.

But in a virtual world and a murky war increasingly driven by propaganda, these sorts of messages are being heard loud and clear by a growing number of young Brits - both male and female - who think their religious destiny and sense of belonging will be fulfilled on the other side of the world.

In a recent study, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue estimated that of the 3,000 Western Europeans thought to have travelled to Syria and Iraq, about 500 were women. It is difficult to know for sure how many of these are British, but accounts on social media suggest they make up a significant proportion.

The report, entitled Becoming Mulan, found that the sentiment of building a new home for Muslims was the main draw for women, although some did express a willingness to fight. The title of the report quotes one girl who tweeted that she wanted to "pull a Mulan" by heading to Syria, a reference to the Chinese legend about a woman who took her father's place in the army, which inspired an animated film.

The report's co-author Ross Frenett explains why this was interesting. "We found this particularly striking because the first cultural reference she can come up with is actually a Disney movie, which is fascinating because these people are Western, but also simultaneously loathe Western society," he says.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption This woman, identified by the court as Jennifer Vincenza M, is on trial in Germany, accused of raising money for IS

It's that almost schizophrenic attitude and language that makes the phenomenon so curious. The Twitter and Facebook timelines of some of those thought to be in Syria and Iraq are striking in this respect - one minute a reference to a Disney film, or an image of a puppy rolling on its back, the next a gruesome picture of an IS victim, beheaded or brutalised on a public square.

But what do they want to do?

"The women that travel tend to have pretty similar motivations to the men," Mr Frenett says. "The ideological reasons - the wish to establish a caliphate, the hate of the West but also this sense of searching for belonging, a sense of sisterhood. We see this with the men that fight - but the thing that makes this different is that in IS-held territory, they have a role, in a way they didn't have in Afghanistan or the Balkans, because they are trying to construct a state."

As part of the "state-building" process, some see their role as homemakers, and a number of women have sought out jihadist husbands. Marrying a fighter, according to some of their accounts, entitles women to a house and other privileges. Messaging sites such as Kik and Ask.fm often feature individuals purporting to be in Syria, answering questions from users about the possibilities for marriage in the "caliphate".

Many of these unions seem short-lived, however, as the casualty toll amongst foreign combatants continues to climb and their husbands are killed. The women often subsequently take to Twitter to celebrate their deaths, calling them "martyrs".

One British girl's relative youth and naivety was clearly demonstrated as she described on her blog her reaction to hearing about her new husband's death: "I didn't believe it so I laughed and was just like really LOL [laugh out loud]."

Converts

One trend amongst women leaving to join IS is that unlike many of the men, the vast majority are converts to Islam. In one respect, this detail is even more baffling - what makes a young girl choose to enter this environment? We spoke to a Home Office interventions officer, who deals daily with young women being tempted into joining. She asked to remain anonymous in order not to jeopardise her work.

"I'd say the majority of the cases that I take on are ages between 16-25, generally converts who know absolutely nothing about the faith. And they've gone online to find out about it as normal people do to find information. And they've found a plethora of YouTube videos, extreme narratives, and been drawn in. That's the only access they have to the faith.

"They don't go to the mosque. They don't go to the libraries. It's purely YouTube and Google - 100% social media."

Image caption Two Austrian girls have been dubbed "poster girls for jihad" - Interpol is now appealing for information about them

Although there are some exceptions, she paints a picture of young girls with troubled backgrounds, looking for sisterhood. They come across recruiters online, and things can move very fast.

"They've had difficult upbringings and are looking for something in their lives. And they've come generally with good intentions because they are vulnerable individuals and they've been conned into thinking that's the correct way to believe. And the people on social media are very aware that there are going to be young, vulnerable individuals - it's almost like a trap. Once they've gone down that line, they have no other understanding of Islam. They become suspicious of everyone and they automatically form a trust with those people."

One such recruiter is Sally Jones, 45, the now infamous former punk guitarist from Kent who converted to Islam and left the UK to marry a 20-year-old British jihadist in Syria. Using various online pseudonyms on Twitter accounts that often get suspended, she exhorts the values of living life under IS.

Without any real foundation in faith, then, Islam becomes something very different for those that listen to recruiters like Ms Jones.

Teachings of Islam

The Home Office interventions officer says it is possible to reverse the messages of hate. "They become convinced in the idea of Western nations wanting to destroy Islam and everything about the faith. It's a matter of them believing in the 'them and us' idea. They've been made to believe that it's their duty."

"I get them to have a rethink about what their decision was when they became Muslim. And open them up to different ideas and views. And go back to the basic teachings of Islam, which are quite universal, which are quite beneficial. Being a good person. Doing good for the world, for humanity. These are views that they have never been subjected to before. But they are the views they naturally like to hear, so I do get their attention quite easily."

Although the number of Brits heading to Syria and Iraq is dwarfed by the scale of a war that has killed more than 200,000 over three years, the issue remains an important one for the authorities in the UK. The officer made clear schools and other relevant parties are on high alert and ready to refer anyone they think may be at risk of being lured by IS.

There may only be a few individuals, but "it's a few individuals too many".

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