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What motivated these teenage girls to become Islamic State brides?

In London, three seemingly normal and high-achieving teenage girls recently left their homes to join the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, leaving their families to grapple for answers. Their story is the subject of a new multimedia report by The New York Times. Judy Woodruff talks to New York Times video journalist Mona El-Naggar and Steven Simon of Dartmouth College.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Last week on the program, we heard about the Islamic State's practice of institutionalized sexual slavery of non-Muslim women.

    Tonight, we focus on another New York Times report about three seemingly normal and high-performing teenage girls who willingly left their homes in Great Britain to join the terrorist group.

    We begin with a video excerpt that shows the family of one of the girls grappling for answers.

  • WOMAN:

    This is Kadiza's room. Very neat and tidy. She is very organized. But she wasn't sleeping here on the night that she left.

  • NARRATOR:

    This was Kadiza Sultana's home in London before she left to join ISIS. Her sister has been devastated ever since Kadiza disappeared.

  • WOMAN:

    The yellow jumper, that is her. So, she selected all these to put in — we went to Bangladesh. That was in 2009.

  • WOMAN:

    How did she get the money?

  • WOMAN:

    We asked the question. We asked it of the police, and they haven't got it for us, really.

  • NARRATOR:

    Kadiza was 16 and a straight-A student at this school. One morning, she told her mother she was leaving to study. But she never returned. The next time the family saw Kadiza was on the news.

  • WOMAN:

    International hunt for three young girls believed to be on their way to join ISIS.

  • MAN:

    At Gatwick, they boarded a Turkish Airlines plane for Istanbul.

  • WOMAN:

    Police are out in Turkey trying to find them.

  • NARRATOR:

    The girls weren't even old enough to drive, but they traveled thousands of miles to Syria and handed themselves over to ISIS.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And joining me now is the reporter from that report you just saw, that excerpt, New York Times videojournalist Mona El-Naggar. And Steven Simon, he's a visiting lecturer at Dartmouth College. He served on the National Security Council staff during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

    Mona El-Naggar and Steven Simon, welcome to you both.

    Mona, let me start with you.

    Tell us about the process of reporting this story, where you had to get to know that family, get inside that community.

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR, The New York Times:

    Sure.

    Well, it took a lot of time. You know, we — this is a community that one is — on the one hand, it's alarmed by the story of these three girls. An on the other hand, they also feel there is a very strong sense of, like, feeling like they are under attack, that they are — you know, that they are being seen and viewed with suspicion.

    And so it was very difficult to sort of win the trust of people. And the only way to do it was to really spend time and get to know people, get to know — try to reach the families of the girls, but also really just, you know, be in the streets, hang out with the people, get to know what is going on there, talk to young people, talk to older people, go to the mosque, the center of the community, and really just spend the time trying to understand some of the forces behind all of this.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And from that, did you understand what made these young women vulnerable to the appeal of ISIS?

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR:

    Well, it's a big question to ask.

    The most interesting thing here, the issue that we were trying to tackle is not just what happened with these specific three girls, but basically the bigger, broader forces that are impacting many of the young people in the community, and not just these three girls.

    Part of the reason people were alarmed by the fact that they left and joined ISIS is because they see that they resemble their daughters and their siblings, and that's sort of the bigger question, is, what is going on with the community in general?

    And this is a generation that is basically going up in a post-9/11 world. Their sense of identity is really polarized. Girls are more visible religiously, when they wear the head scarf. A lot of them face increasing Islamophobia in the West. At the same time, they are growing up and they're raised to become devout Muslims, at a time when the dominant sort of Islamic discourse is very conservative, literalist Wahhabi.

    The school is — that, in a sense, is putting them at odds with the bigger world that they are in. So they are being pulled in different directions. And it's very hard for teenagers to sort of strike a balance between these different choices, and, oftentimes, that can push them to an extreme.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes.

    Steven Simon — and we should say that all three of these young women we know are now married to fighters who are part of the Islamic State.

    Steven Simon, how much is understood about what is going on in these Muslim communities in the West?

  • STEVEN SIMON, Dartmouth College:

    Well, it's difficult to get access to these communities, a point that is usually underscored in conversations with European law enforcement and intelligence officials, because these communities are, as Mona said, quite closely knit.

    A lot of this stuff happens in the environment of a mosque, which is difficult to penetrate if you are not part of the community. So, things are a bit murky. But I think there's — the general trend is fairly well-understood. I don't think it's a huge mystery. In the case of these young women, I think what we just heard was quite right, namely, that what is pulling these young women to Syria is the same thing that pulls young men.

    There's nothing, you know, specific to the situation of these women or their desires or their habits or their patterns of thought that differs all that much in terms of their recruitability, that differs all that much from their brethren.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mona El-Naggar — and, again, we should say, out of, I guess — they estimate 4,000 Western young people have joined ISIS. Of that, maybe 500 and some are women.

    Is there something — is there a different argument, a different appeal made to women than to men?

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR:

    Well, we're seeing an unprecedented number of women actually going, compared to jihadis who left previously for, say, Afghanistan.

    I think the fact that the ISIS has gone as far as declaring sort of a caliphate and having the — sort of the propaganda that it has online, its ability to sort of really cater its message specifically to women in ways that it couldn't before, this has — this is in fact attracting and, you know, creating a bigger, wider appeal for women than it has before.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Steven Simon, are these women, once they are there, as much of a threat as the men are? Or are they playing a more supportive role?

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    You know, their role can be just as violent as the role that men play in the war.

    They staff checkpoints. They go on house raids. They enforce morality codes. They manage the rape brothels. They direct violence against targets, maybe in different ways than men do, but just as fervently.

    You know, this is something that's been going on for a number of years. And it's not just a Muslim phenomenon. Lebanese communists, Kurds, Chechen separatists, Tamil Tigers, Hindus, they have all used women as terrorists or to participate in violent insurgencies, so nothing new on that score.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, just finally, Mona El-Naggar, the sense is — and just quickly — that, once they're there, they stay?

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR:

    Once they are there, they stay.

    With the case of these three girls, we know that they're married. And it appears like they have no regrets, at least none that they expressed so far, about going to the Islamic State, to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this is despite communications from their families, I know, who have tried to reach them a number of times and tried to change their minds.

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR:

    Absolutely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mona El-Naggar with The New York Times, Steven Simon at Dartmouth, we thank you both.

  • MONA EL-NAGGAR:

    Thank you.

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