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Islam

“From Zero to Hero,” Women and Men Attracted by the Islamic State

Girls interested in a career in social work, young men who desire combat: phenomenology of ISIS’s recruits

According to a recent report from British Intelligence, in the last year, the number of Western women joining the ranks of ISIS has increased by 21 percent compared to 2014 (today they account for 10 percent of all European foreign fighters). Melanie Smith and Erin Marie Saltman, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), revealed that women made up 10 percent of ISIS’s European members and their average age is between 16 and 24 years. At least a quarter of these women are recruited by family members — husbands, brothers or parents — while the other girls decided to leave by themselves or with one or more friends.

 

 

Dounia Bouzar, founder and director of the Center for the prevention of sectarian rifts linked to Islam, discovered that the young radicalized women all share a common trait: they are all interested in a career in social work or in the area of humanitarian aid. As soon as these aspirations are manifested, through channels like their Facebook profile, the Islamist recruiters start throwing their nets. They disguise themselves as “sisters or brothers in spirit” and they become friends of these young women. During this first phase, the conversations do not revolve around religious topics, but around an emotional world that is being created. The recruiters favor the emergence of sentiments of dismay and shock, using images of the children victims of bombs and gas used by the Syrian regime, or of Palestinian children, for example. Only when the targeted women are unstable enough, and when they start to question their world and their lifestyle, does religion come into play. The shocking images of the Syrian civil war, the massacres carried out by the Bashar el-Assad regime and the lack of empathy and support from the West (“the distant enemy”) and other Muslim-majority countries (“the enemy next-door”) motivates and pushes these girls to go to Syria. Atran and Hamid recount the response of an adolescent girl who lived in a suburb of Chicago to the FBI agents who stopped her just before she left for Syria: “Well, what about the barrel bombings that kill thousands? Maybe if the beheading helps to stop that it’s not so bad.”

 

 

Other women are attracted by the idea of marrying a combatant, a hero. “There is a blend of indoctrination and seduction,” says Bouzar. The “combination of violence and domestic life” is significant, as argued by Katherine Brown, professor at King’s College in London who has been studying the phenomenon for years. According to Mia Bloom, Security Studies professor at the University of Massachussetts Lowell, they are “young, impressionable, romantic, with dreams of a family.” As affirmed by Anne Speckhard, the women who travel to Syria idealize their role of populating the new Islamic State and supporting their men. The men aspire to be heroes, hard, strong and powerful.

 

 

Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies (GIRDS) highlights how some of them are also attracted by a sort of “jihadist emancipation,” a response the social and cultural isolation in which many Muslim girls live in the West - from the possibility to travel and go abroad by themselves and to marry who they want without the consent of their families to the participation in police and surveillance activities for those who are part of the terrible Al-Khansaa Brigade in Raqqa.

 

 

Many men, on the other hand, become combatants in order to satisfy their almighty fantasies. “They play god, thinking they can control life and death,” seeking greatness, “eternal glory and meaning in an intrinsically chaotic world,” says anthropologist Scott Atran. They exhibit their new omnipotent personality, their desire for revenge, the excitement that comes from the desire to kill and the fascination with their own death. They adopt a celebration for violence and Rambo-style jihad.

 

 

The appeal to masculinity, according to Christopher Daase of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, is at the forefront. Their recruitment videos are very revealing in this sense. They are political appeals to take up the struggle against the West by any means, living a proper life as heroes. From insignificant people they transform into heroes, from accused and “condemned” they become the unyielding judges of a society that they consider heretical and impious, from individuals that instill contempt to violent beings who are frightening, from being unknown they are discussed on TV and in newspapers, praised by themselves and their peers on social networks. What ISIS offers is a status, a reputation and prestige, recognition within and outside of the local community, both in the Syrian theatre of war and in their European homelands through the publication and sharing of the images of fighting on the internet. Coolsaet significantly describes this factor as the prospect of going from zero to hero: meaning, belonging, fraternity, respect, status, adventure, heroism, martyrdom and personal success are all intertwined in a “successful” cause.

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