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Women drawn to ISIS 'utopia' despite reports of rape, sex slavery

FILE - In this undated file photo released by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, militants of the Islamic State group hold up their weapons and wave its flags on their vehicles in a convoy on a road leading to Iraq, while riding in Raqqa city in Syria. When world leaders convene for the U.N. General Assembly debate Monday, Sept. 28, 2015, it will be a year since the U.S. president declared the formation of an international coalition to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State group. Despite billions of dollars spent and thousands of airstrikes, the campaign appears to have made little impact. (Militant website via AP, File)

As news reports continue to reveal brutality toward women in areas controlled by ISIS, analysts have attempted to grasp exactly what draws female recruits to a terrorist state that traffics in rape, sex slavery, and forced marriages.

Citing an "unprecedented surge in female recruits," Dr. Erin Marie Saltman and Melanie Smith explored why women join the group in a new report for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue titled "Till Martyrdom Do Us Part: Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon."

"Reasons for females traveling [to join ISIS] are multi-causal and include a broad range of push and pull factors, different in their influential weight for each case," they write. They note that these factors are often similar to those that attract male foreigners, but the propaganda used to encourage them to emigrate is very different.

The "push factors" include a feeling of isolation, feeling that Muslims are being violently persecuted, and anger over perceived lack of international response to persecution, according to the report. The "pull factors" are more idealized and romantic: building a utopian caliphate state, a sense of belonging and sisterhood, and the adventure of traveling to a new place.

The message of female-centric propaganda, which is often communicated by female members, is that "women are valued, not as sexual objects, but as mothers to the next generation and guardians of the ISIS ideology." The reality when they arrive, however, is often "significantly different."

Several recent news reports have detailed how different that reality can be for women under ISIS rule, particularly those of other faiths.

According to the Christian Aid Mission, 11 Christian workers and a 12-year-old boy were executed in August near Aleppo, Syria. Two female workers were reportedly publicly raped before they were beheaded.

Reports last month that American aid worker Kayla Mueller was forced into marriage to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and repeatedly raped and abused before her death outraged the international community.

Other reports have focused on the plight of Yazidi women, members of an ancient religion that is dismissed by ISIS as devil worship. They are often forced into sexual slavery and marriage to ISIS fighters.

One Yazidi survivor told CNN that women are treated as "the spoils of war" and the militants use a warped understanding of Islam to justify their actions. This sexual abuse is considered moral behavior.

Another CNN report alleged that pregnant women were forced to have abortions when they were sold into slavery, and that ISIS brought in gynecologists to determine which women were virgins.

A former Iraqi lawmaker told CNN that many Yazidi women and girls who have been sold and raped by their captors commit suicide when they lose hope of rescue.

Life under the caliphate can also be difficult for Muslim women.

A manifesto titled "Women of the Islamic State" was translated earlier this year by researcher Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremism think tank. It states that for Muslim women, there is "no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband."

The document criticizes Western ideals for women that "failed the minute that women were 'liberated' from their cell in the house." It dictates that women should stay in their husband's homes unless there are "exceptional circumstances" like studying religion, working as teachers or doctors, and being appointed to fight in a jihad.

"It is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of nine. Most pure girls will be married by 16 or 17, while they are still young and active," the manifesto states.

Often, this is not the life that western women are looking for when they arrive in ISIS territory.

"One of the things that ISIS is very good at is targeting recruitment messages to specific audiences," Jessica Stern, co-author of "ISIS: The State of Terror," explained at a recent event at Duke University.

Stern said reasons women join ISIS include humanitarian impulses to help the Syrian people, the desire to be part of a community, and the appeal of becoming "a jihadi wife." They may not realize that they could end up married numerous times if their husbands die in battle.

These women may be aware of reports of rape, violence, and executions by ISIS fighters, but there are a number of reasons why they dismiss them.

"Some of the people who see portrayal of ISIS's extreme acts of violence don't believe it. They think it's propaganda...and others believe it is justified," Stern explained.

Other analysts have observed similar trends and behaviors in their research.

"It is actually really critical to understand why ISIS puts so much energy and thought into its recruitment of women," said Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Gambhir said women play an essential role in the long-term "generational vision" of ISIS, creating a society that will grow and expand the caliphate.

"It needs women and it needs families to populate."

That is one aspect of the recruitment propaganda for women that differs from the sales pitch to men. The notion of supporting the caliphate and establishing Muslim power in the world resonates with both, but the role envisioned for men is as fighters and for women it is as wives and mothers.

"There are some women and men who have completely bought into the propaganda," Gambhir said, and they do not believe the stories of atrocities committed by ISIS. Some do believe them, but they convince themselves the brutal violence is a small part of what ISIS does or that it is only committed against non-believers who deserve it like the Yazidis.

Some women who have traveled to join ISIS have later come to regret it and escaped to tell their stories of disenchantment. Gambhir suggested there are likely many more women who try to get out but fail and are executed.

Mia Bloom, a professor at Georgia State University and author of "Bombshell: Women and Terrorism," has interviewed some of those female defectors who became disillusioned.

"We get the sense that some of the women feel like they were sold a bill of goods...The level of violence far exceeds what they thought," Bloom said.

According to Bloom, those women could provide powerful examples to discourage others who consider joining, but they face many challenges in trying to get back home. Some do not speak Arabic and have difficulty navigating safe passage out of the region. Others have lost their citizenship or will face criminal charges in their home countries.

Bloom also pointed to the idea of "building this new utopian society" as one of the major selling points for female recruits. The message of sisterhood is also appealing.

When they get to ISIS territory, though, they are married off based on youth and virginity. If their husband dies, they will lose their home and be married to someone else, usually with a lower status.

Because of this practice, Bloom said ISIS is recruiting younger girls and virgins. FBI Director James Comey observed at a recent Senate hearing that recruits monitored by his agency are increasingly female and younger than in the past.

While it is not the slavery that Yazidi women endure, according to Bloom, "in essence, it's still a form of trafficking because they're gifted to the men."

These women sometimes find themselves sharing a home with their husband's Yazidi sex slaves. If they believe the distorted religious justification that ISIS offers for rape, they may not feel any sense of sisterhood with the Yazidis.

Bloom described women under ISIS rule as being "commoditized" as part of the recruitment package for male fighters.

"These are not men who are going to be particularly liberal in the role of women in society," she said. "These are not men who are looking for a woman who will be their equal."

It is difficult to tell if these stories of the reality women face in the Islamic State are impacting recruitment, according to Alejandro Beutel, researcher for countering violent extremism at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. It is becoming more difficult for women and men to emigrate to Syria and Iraq, but they are being advised to go to ISIS-controlled provinces in places like Libya and Yemen instead.

Beutel also observed the notion of "contributing to this grand utopian society" as part of the appeal for women. In addition, some women like the idea that they "get to be married to a jihadi bad boy."

Measuring the satisfaction of women after they get to the Islamic State is also challenging.

"The words say one thing and the behaviors say another," Beutel said. While some women seem to be happy, there are many high-profile stories of wives and mothers leaving.

The mass migration of refugees from Syria is often seen as a crisis, but Beutel said it could be "a potential counter-narrative opportunity." Many of the people fleeing are women and children, and that fact could be amplified to dispel the idea that the Islamic State is a utopia.

They come to realize, he said, that "it is not paradise on earth." For some women, it is the opposite.

Beutel suggested that those trying to fight back against ISIS propaganda should look at the ways anti-trafficking campaigns have educated the public about sex trafficking. The methods used to recruit young women are similar to those used by sexual predators to groom their victims.

Gambhir said western governments have struggled with combatting the effectiveness of ISIS social media campaigns. "Highlighting ISIS atrocities" is not working because the terrorists celebrate those acts.

Like Beutel, she said it would be more effective to undermine the utopian vision and discredit the claim that ISIS is providing for the people under its rule. It is also necessary to create a more crowd-sourced information campaign that resembles the voice and style of ISIS propaganda.

One effort to develop such a counter-propaganda campaign was launched earlier this year by a group of imams in Britain. Their online magazine, Haqiqah, released its second issue last week, focusing on the refugee crisis as evidence of the failure of ISIS.

The issue includes a letter from Shaykha Safia Shahid to other female Muslims urging them not to be lured in by ISIS.

"The 'mujahids' of ISIS are preying on the vulnerabilities of our sisters, living both here in the UK and abroad, by enticing them with promises of a life in a 'perfect' Islamic State and of marriage to a 'mujahid,'" she writes.

She tells the story of a British woman who escaped ISIS in Syria by "scrambling over a barbed wire fence" to avoid a forced marriage to a one-legged jihadist.

"Do not engage, online or otherwise, with Jihadist propagandists that offer you marriage as a means of escaping from your world to theirs," Shahid cautions.

She also argues that nothing in Islamic teachings justifies the killing, maiming, and raping of innocent people. "Its apparent authenticity is nothing but deception, no matter how much its adherents pray and fast," she says of ISIS.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have attempted to shine light on the systematic rape and torture of Yazidi women. Several women described their suicide attempts in a Human Rights Watch report that accused ISIS of numerous violations of international law.

"Many of those held as sexual slaves are children--girls aged 14, 15 or even younger. IS fighters are using rape as a weapon in attacks amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity," said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International in a December 2014 news briefing.

Aid groups have complained about a lack of mental health resources for women who escape ISIS and are trying to recover from the trauma.

The rape and abuse of women--which has also targeted members of other faiths and even Muslims who oppose ISIS--exemplifies for Beutel how deeply ISIS has perverted its interpretation of Islam to justify its actions.

"They're just terrible, terrible people...That's what it comes down to," he said.

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