Since the fall, ISIS has stepped up its social media campaign (especially in English and French) directed at luring young Western women and teens to be their wives. The recruiting and matchmaking is most often spearheaded by women residing in the Islamic State.
What many people don't realize is that men within most Arab countries do not have access to women before marriage. For the most part, there is no dating, no premarital sex and no fooling around. But marriage remains a costly endeavor, and most men don't or can't get married until their thirties. In fact, more than 50 percent of men aged 25-29 remain unmarried because of the high cost. This has resulted in all kinds of stop-gap measures that confuse researchers who study gender and sexuality. It appears to have also resulted in more men engaging in same-sex practices.
"One way to ensure that the fighters do not leave is to create anchors to ensure they will stay: a job, a house, a wife and a child."
ISIS has emerged as the perfect solution to the so-called "marriage crisis." In addition to being promised a salary, male foreign fighters considering joining the Islamic State are also promised a wife -- and perhaps more than one. This goes a long way towards explaining why so many men from the region are flocking to ISIS. While Belgium has a disproportionate number of foreign fighters and the media focuses on those leaving from North America and Europe, the vast majority of foreign fighters are more local and from the region.
ISIS is an attractive option for men who are unemployed or underemployed and are highly motivated to find a spouse. The group will also rank the women, considering the foreign women and converts to be especially valuable. And it will reward these women to the most prized recruits. On top of this, ISIS has hundreds of Yazidi and Shia sex slaves.
But ISIS worries about loss of troops and defection. One way to ensure that the fighters do not leave is to create anchors to ensure they will stay: a job, a house, a wife and a child. ISIS has instituted a payment system wherein you are paid a stipend for every child you have in the Islamic State.
"Female recruits are promised a wonderful husband and a free house with top-of-the-line appliances, such as a fridge, microwave and even a milkshake machine."
On the female recruitment side, women like Umm Layth (Aqsa Mahmood) use Twitter accounts solely dedicated to jihadi matchmaking. They promise the girls a wonderful life and say all of their needs will be taken care of. They are promised a wonderful husband and a free house with top-of-the-line appliances, such as a fridge, microwave and even a milkshake machine. Most importantly, they are told that their husband will care for them and that if he dies, she will instantly be transformed into a hero -- the wife of a martyr. ISIS has even reportedly established a marriage bureau in Raqqa, Syria to register potential spouses.
The female recruiters are adept at lowering the girls' guard and putting them at ease. Through a series of online interactions, the recruiters will establish rapport, build trust and create an environment of secrecy and exclusion of other friends and family members.
Women and very young girls have been disappearing throughout Europe, North America and Australia following the siren's call by women such as Umm Ubaydah and Umm Haritha. Most recently, a 23-year-old woman from Edmonton, Canada was recruited online by a female recruiter when she tried to take a course about the Qur'an. Instead, the young woman's sister said she learned how to get to Raqqa.
"ISIS pays members for every child they have, creating a new brainwashed generation to ensure the longevity of the group, even as men are killed in battle."
The disconnect between what the women think their life will be like and what their life will actually be like is best exemplified by a recent report called "Becoming Mulan" [the Disney character], by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The report takes its title from an October 2014 tweet by Umm Ubaydah. "I wonder if I can pull a Mulan and enter the battlefield," she tweeted. Both Umm Ubaydah and Umm Layth posted online their desire to be martyrs or active in the battle. But women do not have this option when joining the Islamic State.
In January 2015, ISIS released a guide for women in the Islamic State. The document was intended for women residing in the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. While the document explained that women could make more of a difference in ISIS than they could in their home countries, it made clear that women's roles would be limited to the household: to cleaning, cooking and childcare.
ISIS wives are encouraged to get pregnant quickly and have many children. This functions as an anchor for the men but also as a way of growing the Islamic State. Babies and children ensure that there is a new generation ready to be trained, brainwashed and able to ensure the longevity of the group, even if the men are killed in battle.
"These young girls are being preyed upon and should be allowed to return to their families rather than be criminalized."
Understanding how ISIS is using women will go a long way towards devising counter messages to prevent young teens from leaving home for Turkey and Syria. Knowing what awaits them and what ISIS hides in Arabic and does not reveal to Western women, might give the girls pause or plant the preliminary seeds of doubt that will discourage their departure. But also understanding that young girls are being preyed upon may allow for more creative ways of allowing some of them to return if they can get out rather than criminalizing their actions and not allowing them to reunite with their families.
We have seen a few such successes. For example, three girls en route from Denver to Syria were found and stopped at Frankfurt airport. But this story had a happy ending only because the families reached out to the FBI when the children went missing, and the FBI in turn did not turn them into suspects. The girls returned to Denver, unharmed and without any charges. Preventing the girls from leaving is the first priority but getting them back safely should be the second.