Report: 550 Western Women Fighting for ISIS, They're More Than Jihadi Brides

Raqqa
Veiled women are pictured in the northern province of Raqqa, March 31, 2014, where the Islamic State has imposed sweeping restrictions on personal freedoms. A new report has found that Western women are fighting for the militant group, playing a key role in the group's propaganda and recruitment process. Reuters

There are roughly 550 Western women fighting for the Islamic State, better known as ISIS, a new report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has found. The report, issued in part with the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College in London, studied the role of female recruits inside the terrorist organization.

Notably, the report found the majority of Western women who travel to join ISIS do not do so to become jihadi brides, which is a common misconception. "Reasons for females traveling are multi-causal and include a broad range of push and pull factors," the researchers wrote. While being a wife and mother are primary and important responsibilities for women who join the group, these women also play key roles in dissemination of the group's propaganda and its recruitment process.

The social media accounts of Western women, in particular, serve "primarily" as propaganda for ISIS. In the case of three teenage girls from London who traveled to Syria through Turkey to join ISIS, they were recruited through social media. Entire travel manuals are published online by Western women inside the terrorist organization, coaching their counterparts how to reach Syria, a long and arduous journey.

As for what motivates women to join, the report points to three main push factors: a feeling of social or cultural isolation, a feeling that the Muslim community is being persecuted and a feeling of anger, frustration or sadness for the persecution of the Islamic world. There are also three pull factors, motivations that drive women from feeling the push to actually joining the group: an "idealistic goal of religious duty," wanting to belong to a sisterhood and the romanticization of being a jihadist.

The report profiles various Western women within ISIS, including twins from Britain and a trio from Sydney. One woman in particular, whose identity is unknown but who says she was raised in Malaysia, holds an unusual role within the terrorist group: She is a doctor.

At her makeshift office, the woman, who uses the alias Shams, has antibiotics, a stethoscope and a blood pressure monitor. She vaccinates children, tends to pregnant women and gives basic medical exams. Shams's role, the researchers found, is very unusual: "The vast majority [of women] occupy very traditional, domestic roles within ISIS society and are not often permitted to engage in active employment."

Western woman inside ISIS don't fit a particular profile. They come from a variety of backgrounds, and different reasons motivate them to join the group. They are so different from one another that the report could not build a profile of age, location, ethnicity, family relations or even religious background.

Though some women romanticize their lives within ISIS on social media, others repeatedly point to how difficult it is and the numerous sacrifices they've made. In order to combat the rise of radicalization among Western women, the researchers suggest increased education and de-radicalization programs.

As recruitment grows, researchers believe the role of women within ISIS will become increasingly important.