New Zealander Mark Taylor would appear to be an eligible bachelor. He lists some appealing attributes in his online profile on a dating site — including work as a teacher, and he says he’s got a “good sense of humor.” He says he has an “understanding about marriage life.”
The warning signs come with the divorced 43-year-old’s current location — the de facto Syrian capital of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, Raqqa.
Taylor, who was designated a “global terrorist” by U.S. authorities on March 30 and appeared in an Islamic State propaganda video, is advertising himself on islamicmarriage.com — one of several IS fighters in Syria and jihadist sympathizers in Europe and the U.S. using the matchmaking site that enables Muslims from around the world to form friendships and marital connections online.
Researchers at the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington-based policy research organization that monitors jihadist online activity, suspect islamicmarriage.com might not be the only mainstream matchmaking site jihadists and their supporters are using. It was the easiest singles site to investigate for jihadist activity, they say.
On islamicmarriage.com Taylor calls himself Abujohndaniel. He says he arrived in the caliphate 10 months ago and converted to Islam 13 years ago. “I need a righteous practicing Muslim lady who wants to do Hijrah [immigrate] here inshallah.”
“While the majority of the users on the website appear to genuinely be seeking love and marriage with someone who shares similar religious and cultural beliefs," MEMRI analysts say, "the platform also serves those with more radical beliefs.”
They include a 26-year-old Somali-American woman claiming to be living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and calling herself ModestMuslimah. “I hope one day to go into Jihad and fight side by side with my brothers and sisters in Islam,” she says on her profile.
In 2014 and 2015 some militants used their own niche matchmaking site on Twitter to form connections — and to recruit and groom. “Jihad Matchmaker” was used by the British girls 17-year-old Samya Dirie and 15-year-old Yusra Hussien, who traveled together to Syria in September 2014.
Anat Agron, a MEMRI analyst, first noticed jihadists were using islamicmarriage.com last May. She suspects curbs by Facebook and other social-media providers to block IS members and fellow travelers outside Syria from using their sites has forced some jihadists to resort to mainstream dating sites.
“Previously Twitter and Facebook were more popular options for marrying off jihadists,” Agron told VOA. But Western intelligence surveillance may have prompted caution. “I think that many realized these options were increasingly unsafe, and some folks probably got thrown in jail,” she adds.
Islamicmarriage.com is part of a network of matchmaking sites owned by World Singles — other sites include ArabLounge, EligibleGreeks, IranianPersonals and TurkishPersonals. A VOA email asking for comment from World Singles on the MEMRI findings went unanswered.
The site stipulates members must be at least 18 years of age. In its terms and conditions section managers say they don’t screen members or conduct criminal background checks, adding users “are solely responsible for interactions with other members via the service.”
Among other jihadists from English-speaking countries currently in Syria using the site is a teenage British user calling himself MujahidSham. He says he’s looking for a wife “to come join me.”
And another member, a married 24-year-old user profiled as Abu.Bakr1, appears to be searching for a second wife. “Trying to follow the Quran and Sunnah want my partner to do the same, I would like my partner to do Hijrah to Syria where I am right now.”
Jihadist use of the dating site may suggest also it is becoming harder for IS members to find Western or foreign jihadi brides in a caliphate that’s been shrinking fast in recent months thanks to an anti-IS fight-back by a coalition of states and local forces.
The stream of mainly young, impressionable Western and North African girls traveling to Syria to marry a fighter appears to have fallen off, according to analysts. There are increasing physical obstacles trying to get into Syria: from more intense surveillance at European airports to tighter Turkish control of its border with Syria.
On top of that, Raqqa is now besieged on three sides by Kurdish-led ground forces.
Horror tales related by some foreign girls, recent converts or daughters of Muslims, who’ve returned from Syria may also have dented enthusiasm and acted as counterpoints to the IS narrative of an Islamic utopia.
In 2016, details emerged from former Tunisian jihadists of how an Austrian teen, Samra Kesinovic, who fled Europe to join IS was used as a sex slave for new fighters before she was beaten to death.
How many Western jihadi brides there are is unclear — authorities in London say about 100 British women have traveled to the caliphate since 2015. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a British think tank, estimates there might be 500 Western jihadi brides.