As I am searching the news over my winter break, I ran across this unbelievable story about three British school girls who left home to join ISIS in Syria. At first I thought this story was an anomaly, but after some research, I found out that this situation is becoming more of a common occurrence for young women from the West. So after finding out about this serious issue, I decided to share my research with my fellow school counselors. For school counselors, the question becomes if this is a passing phase or a dangerous new trend that may impact our teenage girls?
One last introductory comment, this was a very difficult post to write and I really thought about stopping; however, I felt it was really important information to share! I hope you will agree.
The ISIS Quiz
First, how much do you know about ISIS? Before you read this blog any further, please take this quick quiz to test your knowledge. Just so you know I failed…
What is ISIS?
Okay, so what is the big deal about this group called ISIS and why should we be concerned as school counselors?
The root of ISIS was originally formed in the early 90’s by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, al-Zarqawi formed the forerunner to the present day terror group which had a similar message as Osama bin Laden. Although al-Zarqawi and bin Laden had the same theology, al-Zarqawi targeted other Muslims who did not fall in line with his interpretation of the law. His violent campaigns eventually won him fame and even the praise of bin Laden. Eventually, al-Zarqawi emerged as a spiritual leader who began to insist that everyone should follow his harsh interpretation of Sharia Law. After the bombing of Iraq by the US, al-Zarqawi and his group faded and ISIS later reemerged after the US left Iraq in 2011. The new and current leader of ISIS, Baghdadi, expanded to Syria and reestablished their interpretation of Sharia Law. Baghdadi and his group target nonbelievers and the fighters are given discretion to bring any nonbeliever into the Islamic State by conversion or death. The goal of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is to bring Sharia Law to all nonbelievers even if it includes using foreign teens to accomplish their vision.
Resource: Short Political History of ISIS
|Current ISIS Controlled Territory|
So, why would a teenage girl leave her comfortable suburban home, travel to the Middle East, meet up with complete strangers, and join their cause?
Psychologists have postulated the reasons why people join extreme or violent groups like cults, gangs, or terror groups. Some of these reasons include:
- Searching for true friendship.
- Looking to find a sense of identity.
- Finding a worldview that determines right from wrong.
- Exploring security in an uncertain world.
- Searching for a lifestyle that has structure and order.
If these groups offer such positive rewards then why are they so dangerous to our youth?
Dr. Adrian Furnham found five characteristics that make extremist groups dangerous:
1. Extremist groups demand that members sever ties with all family, friends, and organizations from their past so that they create a new identify that models the group. When a young girl joins ISIS, she is not allowed to contact or go back home and she must dress in a hijab.
|Young Westerner Takes on the Identity of ISIS|
2. New members are required to show immediate obedience to all rules without question. Once the girls arrive in Syria, they are required to take courses to help the cause of ISIS which includes: cooking, first aid, and firing a weapon.
3. Members must complete long hours of tedious work which results in physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Girls are often ordered to cook for the soldiers, help with the sick, and serve as sexual slaves.
4. Because many of these groups need money to function, they involve their members in illegal activity. It is reported that many of the girls who travel to the Islamic State are often sold into slavery after their partners are killed. Much of the money made by ISIS is from the sale of women and girls.
Here is the price scale for women who are sold into slavery:
5. Extremist groups make it very difficult to leave their organization. Girls are not allowed to come back home and if they make it back it is almost impossible. Tareena Shakil, 25, left home with her boyfriend to fight with ISIS. After making it to Syria, the militants tried to force her to marry and she escaped to Turkey. After escaping bullets and begging for her life, Tareena made it back to the UK where she was arrested by police.
Source: A Living Hell
Recently, CNN ran a story on why ISIS was so successful in luring Westerners to Syria. Here are the five biggest reasons that teens gave for joining the group (Hint: Girls are not joining ISIS because of sweet images of kittens or to get Nutella as originally reported by CNN)
|Kittens and Nutella Do Not Attract Teenage Girls to ISIS|
- Many teens said they were disillusioned with the West and wanted to find purpose in life. To find this purpose, they decided to join a movement with a goal and mission.
- Most teens felt that ISIS appealed to their sense of duty in serving Allah.
- ISIS use of video, social media, and technology has a great attraction for teens to join the cause of ISIS.
- ISIS is masterful at using deceptive propaganda techniques to lure teens to “the promise land”. Many of the propaganda films used by ISIS show an exciting adventure where teens can serve as heroes. For instance, in the propaganda films, ISIS uses their successes (i.e. beheading) to show great strength.
Why are Teen Girls Attracted to ISIS?
The Anti Defamation League found in its research, Homegrown Islamic Extremism, that 32% of those who joined ISIS have been females. Ferran and Kreider believe there are many reasons why young women are attracted to ISIS. Some of the main ideas include: the idea of living a fantasy life, finding a spouse, experiencing excitement, ability to practice their religion, and finding the need for meaning in life. In a Huffington Post article, Milevsky explains the history behind teens joining risky adventures (like the Crusades). Since adolescence is a time where teens are trying to find their identity, it is important they have a warm and nurturing environment that allows them to explore their interests in a healthy manner. Lacking this type of environment, teens may choose to join a group (gang, cult, or terror group) to feel a sense of belonging and identity. Dr. Phyllis Chesler believes that girls may be disillusioned by the West and are looking for their Arabian Night to take them away from their pain. Chesler knows too well about the dream of being taken away by her knight. In her book, “An American Bride in Kabul”, she writes about her experiences as a naive Westerner married into misogynistic society. Chesler outlines the future for young Western girls who decide to join the Islamic State in three different scenarios:
1. The young girl may enter a proper marriage– In a proper marriage, the young woman will be forced to wear a veil at all times, live among co-wives who fight for dominance, and will often be beaten. She will experience genital mutilation, a constant state of pregnancy, and her children will never belong to her.
2. The young girl may enter a temporary marriage or sexual jihad– In a temporary marriage, she may be passed from soldier to soldier and her marriage may only last for a hour or a day.
3. The young girl may be the victim of sex trafficking – Many young Westerners who are blond or red headed, have large breasts, and exceptionally white may be sold into slavery into harems in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, or the Gulf States.
Source: LA Times: Islamic State’s Soft Weapon
What are the Steps in Joining ISIS:
1. First a young girl must find a jihadi mentor either online or in person. Some jihadists recruit in colleges and high schools under the cover as a student group while others use social media outlets like twitter or Ask.Fm.
2 Next, a vetting process is conducted to decide who is a spy or a true convert.
3. Once, the vetting is complete, travel plans are arranged for the new convert to go to Turkey.
4. When in Syria, the convert must pledge allegiance to the Islamic State.
5. After an allegiance is made, the training process occurs and an assignment is given.
For instance “al-Zawra” is a campaign that uses social media and videos to teach women to edit software and fight along with cooking and cleaning. This finishing school for girls teaches classes in five areas:
- cooking and sewing
Tips to become a “Jihadist Jane”
- medical first aid
- Islam and Sharia Law
- social media and computer editing
Their website offers tips for girls who want to train as a jihadist:
- Get fit: “Take a half hour every day to go jogging. Keep adding distance every day in order not to be a burden on your jihadi brothers.” (They also recommend that women watch YouTube videos on how to use various weapons.)
- Learn first aid: “Watch videos of first aid operations on the Internet and try to apply them on your young sister.”
- Learn how to sew: “You are going to sew the clothes of Allah’s soldiers. Go to your mother and ask her to teach you about the sewing machine.”
- Learn how to cook: “Open a Word document and write down quick recipes for cooking. Open the Internet and copy recipes from it. You are going to cook for Allah’s soldiers.”
Source: Isis Opens Jihadi Finishing School for Women
6. Finally, the recruit is adopted into the Islamic State and receives a stipend, wedding money, and a weapon.
Source: How ISIS Recruits Westerners
Who are the Westerners Traveling to Syria?
Out of all the Westerners traveling to Syria, 10% of them are females. The majority of girls range from ages 16 – 24; university educated; come from middle class families; and travel from France, UK, Canada, US, and Australia. Researchers believe that many of the young women are naive, easily manipulated, and do not understand the origins of the conflict. Those Western women who choose to join the movement are lured by propaganda to join the cause and often become wives of the fighters.
Three straight-A British teenagers on their mid-term break leave home to join ISIS in Syria.
Teenage Girls Flee UK for Isis
A young French girl, 15, found a recruiter on Face Book and left home to join ISIS in Syria. Her family received several messages that she was okay and being treated well. The young girl’s brother traveled to Syria to find her thin and sick and tending to the wounded and orphans. The family decided to take action and file kidnapping charges against her kidnappers.
Twin sisters from the UK followed their brother to Syria to fight with ISIS. After arriving in Syria, they married ISIS fighters.
A 19 year old US citizen and nurse’s aid was found guilty of conspiring with ISIS. She was arrested and sentenced to 5 years.
Two Austrian teenagers, 17 and 15, were recruited by a cleric, married Chechen militants, and traveled to Syria to join the fighting. After becoming pregnant, the girls contacted their families asking for their help to return home. Austrian officials reported that one of the girls is now missing and the other one has been killed while fighting.
|Teens from Austria meet a sad fate|
How Can we Prevent Teenage Girls From Joining Extremist Groups?
While Western countries often fail to recognize the true needs of teens, extremist groups have been able to attract them by offering excitement, security, and identity. While buying expensive programs or hiring experts to come speak to our students and parents is an answer, there are some ways we can help teen girls find meaning in their lives. Currently, there are no simple answers to this issue and there are hopes that there may be more guidance coming from The White House for schools.
- Encourage young girls to participate in community service projects that provide humanitarian relief to marginalized groups or partner with groups that provide help in the community. One such organization is the Red Cross Leadership Club which offers service learning projects and disaster services possibilities for students in grades K-12.
- Provide opportunities for students to participate in leadership opportunities to help them form a positive identity.
- Train students in conflict resolution skills so that they are able to solve their conflicts and help others who are experiencing conflict.
- Help students get involved in causes that help others in their schools. One great cause is National Bullying Prevention Day where students display upstanding behaviors in their school.
- Hold a parent internet safety night for parents to help them keep their students safe online. Here are some additional links for Canadian parents.
- Terrorism Analyst, Evan Kohlmann finds that it is imperative that parents communicate regularly with their student and listen to them as this is one important way to identify concerns early.
- Check the social media accounts of their students for any unusual or extremist comments. For example, some of the teens from Colorado had posts that were radical in nature.
“I started to notice the people I called ‘friends’ weren’t my true friends. But the people who reminded me about my Deen (religious path) were my TRUE friends.”
“Those who identify as ‘gay’and ‘Muslim’ at the same time deserve death.”
“Muslims handing out apologizes (sic) because of 9/11 are a disgrace to the Ummah (global community of Muslims).”
- Check the history of their students’ computers for any propaganda sites. Anti Defamation League highlights two sites that target women as Al Zora Foundation and Khansa Foundation.
If you have parents or students who may think have loved ones involved with an extremist group, here are some resources you can share with them.
- Extreme Dialogue – This website aims to reduce the appeal of extremist groups among youth by offering positive alternatives to extremist propaganda.
- FBI Guide to Internet Safety – Although not specific to extremist groups, the FBI provides guidance to parents if they suspect their child is peaking to an online predator.
- In the state of Minnesota, if a parent suspects their child may be thinking of joining an extremist group they are encouraged to contact their religious leaders, family counselor, or mental health clinician before they contact the police.
Message of The White House Summit
- In the state of Colorado, students are encouraged to report if they suspect their friends are talking to online predators.
Additional Resources for Counselors:
I would love to hear feedback from other Western counselors and your thoughts about this issue. Thank you for taking the time to read this post!