Behind the veil of foreign jihadi brides

Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encourag
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her. Shannon Maureen Conley has pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She wanted to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria. This is the profile picture of a Twitter user known as @Umm_Talib. She is believed to be from Britain, and wants to move to Syria to join ISIS. ISIS women fighters training with AK-47 rifles in Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Experts believe ISIS is making a concerted effort to bring more women into its fold.PHOTOS: TWITTER PHOTO: FACEBOOK PHOTO: TWITTER PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encourag
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her. Shannon Maureen Conley has pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She wanted to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria. This is the profile picture of a Twitter user known as @Umm_Talib. She is believed to be from Britain, and wants to move to Syria to join ISIS. ISIS women fighters training with AK-47 rifles in Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Experts believe ISIS is making a concerted effort to bring more women into its fold.PHOTOS: TWITTER PHOTO: FACEBOOK PHOTO: TWITTER PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encourag
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her. Shannon Maureen Conley has pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She wanted to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria. This is the profile picture of a Twitter user known as @Umm_Talib. She is believed to be from Britain, and wants to move to Syria to join ISIS. ISIS women fighters training with AK-47 rifles in Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Experts believe ISIS is making a concerted effort to bring more women into its fold.PHOTOS: TWITTER PHOTO: FACEBOOK PHOTO: TWITTER PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encourag
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her. Shannon Maureen Conley has pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She wanted to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria. This is the profile picture of a Twitter user known as @Umm_Talib. She is believed to be from Britain, and wants to move to Syria to join ISIS. ISIS women fighters training with AK-47 rifles in Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Experts believe ISIS is making a concerted effort to bring more women into its fold.PHOTOS: TWITTER PHOTO: FACEBOOK PHOTO: TWITTER PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encourag
Aqsa Mahmood (left, and with a baby) was a radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her. Shannon Maureen Conley has pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She wanted to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria. This is the profile picture of a Twitter user known as @Umm_Talib. She is believed to be from Britain, and wants to move to Syria to join ISIS. ISIS women fighters training with AK-47 rifles in Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Experts believe ISIS is making a concerted effort to bring more women into its fold.PHOTOS: TWITTER PHOTO: FACEBOOK PHOTO: TWITTER PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Growing 'sisterhood' of young women from around the world who want to marry ISIS militants

On Twitter, @Umm_Talib comes across as a typical foodie. She cooks for friends, posts photos of restaurants and recently retweeted an appetising shot of a Vietnamese chicken salad.

But there is more to her than meets the eye.

Her posts, mostly in English, often include the word "jihad", and her profile picture is that of a women covered in a black niqab (a veil showing only the eyes), holding a gun.

The text across the photo reads: "I know what I am doing. Paradise has a price, and I hope this will be the price for paradise."

This price she speaks of is becoming a jihadi bride and moving from what reports deduce as Britain to Syria to join the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been making headlines in recent months for beheading two American journalists.

And she is not the only foreign-born woman who wants to be a jihadi bride. The Arabic word "jihad" means "struggling", but has been wrongly used to mean "holy war".

There have been female jihadists in the past, for example, the Chechen black widows who have carried out numerous suicide bombings since 2000 to avenge their dead husbands and family members killed in the uprising against Russia.

The most notable black widows attack was on Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow in 2002, where about 700 people were killed.

Security and terrorism experts interviewed believe that ISIS is making a concerted effort, on the order of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to bring more women into the fold, through photos and social media posts by and of the women in ISIS.

And what is most alarming is that women from as far as Britain, Germany, Australia, Malaysia and the United States are heeding the call.

Last Wednesday, Shannon Maureen Conley, 19, from Colorado, pleaded guilty to trying to help ISIS. She had joined the US Explorers, a military career exploration programme for youth, and had intended to use her American military training to aid Islamic militants. She told investigators her plan was to travel to Turkey, marry an ISIS fighter and eventually make her way to Syria.

And earlier this month, the parents of Glasgow student Aqsa Mahmood, 20, made a public plea for her to return home. She left Scotland for Syria last November to join ISIS, and has actively been encouraging other women, through social media, to join her.

Khadijah Dare, 22, supposedly from London, marked the beheading of American journalist James Foley - the video of which was released on Aug 19 - with a tweet that expressed her desire to be "1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terrorist".

While there are no concrete figures on the number of foreign women in ISIS, the Florida-based Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium believes the number is about 200, or 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the 2,000 or more foreign fighters in ISIS, which has overrun vast territories in Iraq and Syria.

The consortium's editorial director Veryan Khan says the women, usually aged between 20 and 30, fall into two categories.

Those in the first group are married with children, and leave for Syria with their husbands or to join them.

Those in the second group are aged between 16 and 20, and they go to Syria to marry ISIS militants.

Says Mr James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank in Washington: "ISIS appears to be recruiting women primarily to marry off to their fighters. It has even established marriage bureaus in some areas to facilitate arrangements."

One such young woman is Aqsa, a former radiology student who grew up in an affluent neighbourhood in Glasgow, listened to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books.

In news reports, her parents Khalida Mahmood and Muzaffar Mahmood (the first Pakistani cricket player for Scotland) expressed surprise that she had self-radicalised through the Internet and found her way to Syria.

Terrorism experts find it difficult to pinpoint what drives a person to religious extremism.

Says Ms Naureen Chowdhury Fink, head of research and analysis at the Global Centre on Cooperative Security in New York: "It looks like it is exciting to be part of something bigger than yourself, there are also real grievances about the war in Syria and Iraq, or maybe it is an opportunity to get out of negative dynamics at home."

Ms Fink also notes that the "rhe-toric of sisterhood" paints an inviting picture of the lives of jihadi brides.

The women's social media accounts show them bantering with one another and exchanging passages from the Quran; one woman even posted a selfie with two other friends - all three wearing the niqab.

The women extol their lives in Syria. The jihadi brides reach out to would-be jihadi brides, calling them "sisters" and giving advice on what to expect.

In a Tumblr post believed to be written by Aqsa under the name Umm Layth, she advises her "sisters" to bring "a good pair of boots and a thick warm coat" for winter, and also to "get all the shots and vaccinations" required.

She also describes her life in Syria.

"Your day will revolve around cooking, cleaning, looking after and sometimes even educating the children," she writes. "In addition, if your husband gives you permission, then you can go to the Internet cafe with a group of sisters or the market if you need anything."

Although women like Khadijah have expressed their desire to join the men in warfare, Aqsa states clearly on her blog that "there is absolutely nothing for sisters to participate in qitaal (fighting)... No amalia istishihadiyah (martyrdom operations)..."

Security and terrorism experts interviewed believe that this is an accurate picture of the role of women in ISIS.

They say that while there are images and videos online of women cleaning weapons and learning to fire guns, they are not known to have taken part in active combat. But they have found other roles outside of the household.

"They have organised their own brigades in Syria and serve as mo-rality police for women, arresting those women who are not covered properly," says Professor Yonah Alexander, senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

It has been reported that three Malaysian women allegedly became "comfort women" to ISIS fighters. While the Malaysian authorities say the claims are still being investigated, experts who spoke to The Sunday Times say that the occurrence of "sexual jihad" remains unverified.

Women also play a larger role in ISIS' grand plan to establish a caliphate.

Ms Fink says: "They (ISIS) purport to build a just society that repairs the damage done by infidel governments, and they recognise that to build this just society, they do have to engage women... in a society, you can't just have battle- hardened angry young men. You need families, you need women."

In the light of a rising number of jihadi brides, Ms Fink adds: "Whether it be messaging or training, or social support for women in the form of a hotline... there is an argument to be made that policies and programmes to counter violent extremism really need to proactively engage the gender dimension."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg