Experts say women have flocked to join ISIS, which has seized swathes of Iraq and Syria
One group estimates that up to 15% of ISIS' foreign recruits are women
In February ISIS formed Al-Khansaa, a female battalion with about 60 members, all under the age of 25
Umm Khattab is an online foodie. She posts pictures of Vietnamese grilled chicken and other recipes on the Web, peppering her conversations, like many young women her age, with emojis and lols.
Then there’s the photo of the AK-47 next to the Quran that she posted online, calling for British Prime Minister David Cameron’s head on a spike.
Welcome to the online world of the women of ISIS.
Umm Khattab, as she identifies herself online, is one of scores of women that have joined the terror group that has declared an independent Islamic state across huge swathes of Iraq and Syria in recent months. The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) estimates that as many as 15% of ISIS’ foreign recruits are women – possibly up to 200 women from at least 14 different countries.
It’s not the first time for women in a jihadist conflict. But it is the first time they have been recruited in such large numbers.
“The classic ‘mujahadiyah’ is in a supportive role – as a wife, mother, doing the house tasks for her jihadi male,” says Veryan Khan of TRAC. “They have same goals and ambitions as the men once they get there. Now granted, their roles may be much more limited to a 1950’s housewife role.”
That has been the experience of Aqsa Mahmood, once a shy Glasgow schoolgirl, now married to an ISIS fighter in Syria.
She left her family in November 2013 and headed to Syria with nothing more than her university backpack.
She is believed to write a blog under the name Umm Layth that reads as a how-to manual for any female ISIS recruit. Top tips: Before you travel, get your shots, pack sturdy boots and a warm coat. But also, pack plenty of hijabs and niqabs – full body veils – because they are not readily available in the self-declared caliphate.
“The Syrians (sic) view of Hijab is a complete joke,” she writes in the blog. “The abayas are skin tight and their niqaab starts from their forehead and ends at their nostrils.”
But her ambitions to take on a frontline role appear to have been thwarted by ISIS’ strict rules for women.
“I will be straight up and blunt with you all, there is absolutely nothing for sisters to participate in Qitaal,” she writes, using the Arabic word for fighting or killing. “We have plenty brothers (sic) who don’t even get selected on operations. The brothers get upset and start crying since they want to participate. So, what does that make you think? For the sisters its completely impossible for the now. InshaaAllah in the future (sic).”
In February, however, ISIS formed Al-Khansaa, a female battalion with about 60 members, all of them believed to between under the age of 25. They now have their own media channel with propaganda videos promoting their work.
The battalion has two roles: Manning checkpoints and inspecting all women that pass, and enforcing ISIS’ strict morality code for women in the caliphate. There are reports of the women conducting inspections of schools and markets, and flogging women who are not fully veiled in the niqab.
“We are seeing two notable trends that we need to pay attention to: one is women actively participating, or rather being right behind, the front lines. Second, their statements that they want to participate even more,” says Khan of TRAC.
“This is obviously rapidly changing as we speak. They’re being trained in weaponry, how to clean the weapon, how to fire the weapon. And granted these are just basic bootcamp skills, but they have the means to defend themselves.”
Despites the seemingly trivial exchange of recipes and designs, there is little doubt that these women are staunch advocates of the values and beliefs of ISIS and regularly call on other “sisters” from around the world to make the “hijrah,” or journey, to Syria.