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Western Women New Face of Radical Islam

  • Lisa Bryant

Fouad, the brother of 15 year-old Nora who left her home in Avignon for Syria nine months ago, shows a portrait he took last September on his cellphone as he attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, Oct. 6, 2014.

Fouad, the brother of 15 year-old Nora who left her home in Avignon for Syria nine months ago, shows a portrait he took last September on his cellphone as he attends an interview with Reuters in Paris, Oct. 6, 2014.

As the battle against Islamic State group unfolds, many nations are increasingly worried about casualties closer to home.

Hundreds of young Europeans and others have joined the jihadi fight in the Middle East.

Experts estimate that up to 10 percent of them are women, seduced by an idealized version of a true Islamic State ... and the combat to achieve it.

Two weeks ago, Assia Saidi disappeared from her home in southern France, leaving the reason on Facebook page: off to join the Jihad in Syria.

Investigators and her panicked family launched a massive search. And last Saturday, they found the 15-year-old working at a Marseille bar.

Assia told French radio she had been tempted by the jihad through the Web. But in Marseille, people told her the recruiters were terrorists.

Hundreds are leaving

There are plenty of less happy endings.

Hundreds of girls and young women are leaving Western nations to join the Islamic State group and other radical groups. It's hard to say how many. But France appears to be a leading exporter.

Out of nearly 1,000 jihadi recruits from here, more than 60 are female.

Today, the spotlight is shifting to this other - female - face of radical Islam.

"This idea of radicalization is very popular at the moment, but our understanding is very limited. Because what's become really, really clear is that individual motives are very diverse," said Katherine Brown, a lecturer in the Defense Studies Department at King's College London.

Brown has been analyzing the role of women in jihadi movements - and scouring social media sites to find out why Western women are signing up.

"Women join radical groups and travel to Islamic states both for personal and political ideas. ... I really resist this idea of saying it's all about emotion, it's all about finding a husband," Brown said. "It's all impulsive or irrational."

She said some do head out to become so-called "jihadi brides." But others are drawn by the vision of an utopian Muslim nation - the one the Islamic State group is trying to sell, despite its brutal methods.

"And the third thing is a sense of adventurism - it's because they can," Brown said. "International travel is possible now - you can much more easily go abroad. And with the online networks, there is a lot of help and self-help groups enabling them to do that."

Trying to prevent radicalization

Jihadi recruiters use different methods of indoctrinating men and women, said Dounia Bouzar, a French anthropologist who heads a new Paris center to prevent radicalization.

Men are captivated by more classical arguments of fighting evil. Recruiters use more humanitarian arguments to lure women, she said.

"They persuade them they must die in the holy land to save those they love. That's the first method of indoctrination," Bouzar said. "The second is they have to do humanitarian work there - that's why it draws lots of women who want to get into medicine, nursing, social work - altruistic jobs."

But the Islamic State group is also sending a more activist message, said Louis Caprioli, an Islamist expert and former senior counterterrorism official.

"The Islamic State pushed for a major change - they supported the role of women in the Jihad," Caprioli said. "So it's not just going out to do social work, but actually playing a role. Videos show women using tough language, saying they're going to kill people and holding a Kalashnikov."

These images have a big impact, Brown said - even if very few women actually head out to battle.

"The reason it's significant is because of our biases - because it's powerful to see in our society women engaging in acts of violence. So it's a propaganda coup," Brown said.

Western backgrounds

Many recruits come from surprising backgrounds.

Some may be Muslims who feel rejected by European society. But 17-year-old Helene grew up in an atheist household in the Paris suburbs, converting to Islam two years ago.

France's Le Monde newspaper recounted how she traded her tight jeans for a hijab, watched videos of a Kuwaiti preacher and had an Egyptian boyfriend who promised to take her to a country that respected Sharia law.

In reality, Bouzar said, these young women have only a sketchy notion of the Islamic faith.

"Three-quarters of the young people (women) have never put their foot in a mosque," Bouzar said. "On Tuesday they can eat pork - and on Wednesday they could be ready to go to Syria. The religious question is never pushed during the indoctrination ... only at the end."

Islamist expert Caprioli said young Roman Catholics are also attracted by militant Islam.

"They find through Islam a certain rigor that Catholism doesn't have," Caprioli said. "They discover Islam is more respectful of women, because they live in a Western society where women are aggressed and raped. So they idealize the position of women in Islam, thinking they don't submit to this kind of violence."

The reality, of course, is different.

Atrocities against women

A new United Nations report describes massive atrocities by Islamic State militants against women in Iraq, for example, including killing and sexual slavery.

Researcher Brown said these Western jihadistas get another, less gruesome reality check.

"What we're tending to see is it's quite a lot harsher than they imagined," Brown said. "So there are tweets like 'where can I find a hairdryer?' Or that toilets are communal. Things that I don't think they particularly thought about when they left."

Once there, some start campaigning for others to join them, claiming they are living their out dreams.

Others, like 16-year-old Noura el-Bathy from the French city of Avignon, are trapped.

In May, her brother Fouad managed to cross into Syria to visit her. He described to local media his unsuccessful efforts to bring her home. And how Noura told him that she'd made the "mistake of her life."

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