Pictures of kittens and designer footwear are tweeted out alongside extremist rhetoric, descriptions of the “good life” in Syria, and pictures of battlefield gore.
Welcome to the so-called “Umm network” of well over 100 people who claim to be foreign female jihadists on Twitter.
“Umm” is an honorific name in Arabic, used to address women as a mother figure.
As with the Islamic State (IS) militant group, Twitter is apparently a favorite social media tool of the Umm network, according to analysts who monitor jihadist social media activity.
It is used in a variety of ways, including recruitment of women and men, dissemination of pictures and videos for would-be jihadists, and promoting IS messaging.
One of the best known members of the Umm network is @UmmLayth - a.k.a. Aqsa Mahmood, who identifies herself as a Scottish teen of Muslim descent who left home for Syria where she is believed to have married a militant. She no longer tweets, but authorities think she was likely lured to Syria through online networking.
While the number of European women jihadists may be as few as 30, according to London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, there is fear their ranks could grow.
In France, a hotline for reporting radicalization reported that 45 percent of the calls concern women. Recently, a 16-year-old French woman was arrested in France as she allegedly was making her way to Syria.
Erin Saltman of the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism think tank, puts the number of Western women who’ve traveled to Syria at around 200 compared to 3,000 men.
Western officials have expressed concern that Western jihadist fighters returning from Syria and Iraq could stage terrorist attacks in their home countries.
Need for women
IS militants want to establish their version of a fully-functioning Islamic society, known as a caliphate, and to achieve that, they need women as wives and mothers.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the self-proclaimed IS, has called for both men and women to join in the state-building process.
“With the influx of men, women are needed to serve as wives,” analyst Saltman told VOA. “Social media accounts of jihadi wives serve to spread IS propaganda, encourage other women to join and describe the life of a jihadist wife in order to reassure and give an idea of how life will be for potential recruits.
“Women are more likely to recruit fellow women to join IS, which is the primary goal of most of the female social media accounts,” Saltman said.
An American woman, 19-year-old Shannon Maureen Conley, was arrested in April by the FBI as she was making her way to Syria to join IS militants. On Wednesday, she plead guilty to a terror charge.
According to those who monitor IS recruiting efforts, the group targets women much in the same way they target men, identifying those who may have lost their way or are seeking a sense of belonging.
“The content of the Umm’s accounts strains to make extremism appear like a normal lifestyle decision,” wrote Jytte Klausen, a Brandeis University professor and founder of the Western Jihadism Project, which focuses on jihadi activities in the West, in an academic paper on the Umms. “An example is a posting of pictures with their children dressed in [IS] fan gear, much as Manchester United fans dress up their kids for fun.”
Other targets are disaffected Muslims.
Mia Bloom, author of several books on women and terrorism, said that some Umms paint a picture of a utopian society where women can live genuinely like a Muslim.
IS recruiters also take advantage of a would-be target’s lack of Arabic language skills.
“You can manipulate the Quran any way you want,” Bloom said. ”And they won’t be able to counter [a particular interpretation] because they may not well versed in the religion or language.”
Bloom added that once someone is recruited from a certain community, “they will be useful in recruiting from the community from which they came.”
Humera Khan of the Washingon, DC-based social activist group Muflehun, which works to counter violent extremism, said the Umm network provided foreign female jihadist with a sense “sisterhood,” while the men are away fighting.
“There’s a whole lot of internal communication there,” she said. “It’s not just outward facing.”
Further highlighting the importance of women to IS is that they don’t appear to be used in suicide bombings as is the case with other extremist groups.
“When they’re recruiting, they’re recruiting 18 to 25-year-olds, the peak childbearing years,” said Bloom. “If you’re going to set up a new caliphate, you’re going to need to populate. That’s why they aren’t usually active on the battlefield.”
Women as young as 14 have also been reportedly targeted.
Women can also give a powerful nudge to a Western man who’s thinking about coming to Syria or Iraq, Bloom said.
Some of the accounts question would-be jihadist manhood with taunts like “if you were a man, you’d step up,” she said. “Part of their goal is to shame men who aren’t going into going.”
And for those women whose husbands are killed, Khan said there are group homes for widows in Raqqah, the capital of IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
IS communication strategy
The Umm accounts appear to be part of a larger IS strategy to create resilience into its social media communications efforts, Klausen said.
“It’s part of an overall architecture of distributing messages, that makes it impossible for governments to take down,” she said. “It acts to create a perception of normalization of something that is not normal.”
Klausen said the accounts are also used to drive traffic to other sites and social media platforms.
“Supporters back home follow the fighters who post original content and retweet content from organizational accounts,” she wrote in her paper. “Information flows from organization accounts in Arabic and English via accounts of foreign fighters to a broader network of disseminators.”
Twitter has shut down several accounts associated with IS, but a report by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors the global jihadist movement, said the company needs to do more.
“Twitter must adapt to these new circumstances and become more proactive in deterring such activity,” the report said. “It has the capability to carry out account monitoring and suspensions on much larger scales than it has thus far. Meanwhile, amid the current inactivity, jihadists continue to gain support, recruit, and promote terrorist organizations through its service.”
IS did take note of Twitter’s shuttering accounts associated with the militant group. Other accounts associated with the group posted death threats against Twitter employees.
According to Klausen, none of the Umm accounts she has monitored have made direct threats.
A Twitter spokesman said the company would not comment on “individual accounts for privacy and security reasons.” They provided a link to the company’s rules for unlawful use.
But shutting down Twitter accounts en masse might not work.
“A lot of the Twitter accounts that have been shut have migrated to LinkedIn,” Bloom said.