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Why more and more women are drawn to the Islamic State

Experts say that more and more women are making the decision to join the Islamic State. Who are they and what are their motivations? William Brangham finds out from foreign affairs and defense producer P.J. Tobia, the host of NewsHour’s “Shortwave” podcast.

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    When the man thought to have planned the Paris attacks was killed during a raid on Wednesday, a woman who was with him also died in the assault. It's not clear what role she played, if any, in planning the attacks.

    But experts say more and more women are joining ISIS, traveling to territory held by the group in Syria and Iraq. Why are they making the trip? And what do they find when they get there?

    William Brangham has more.


    Here with me now to discuss the motivations of the women who join the Islamic State is NewsHour foreign affairs producer P.J. Tobia. He also hosts our Shortwave podcast, which this week is all about the women of ISIS.

    So, P.J., how do we know what we know about these women? And who are they?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Well, first of all, everything that we know pretty much comes from social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. They're very active in documenting not only their radicalization in place before they leave their homes in the West or in Asia or really anywhere, their travel to territory controlled by the Islamic State, and then what life is like when they get there.

    And as to who they are, it kind of runs the gamut. Of course, there's the famous Bethnal Green case. It was three young women, high school-age girls from Eastern London who journeyed to the territory controlled by the Islamic State earlier this year.

    But there are also older women. There is a story of a 26-year-old woman who is a doctor from Malaysia who relocated to Syria last year. And she chronicled her journey through social media. And she says, along the way, that she saw women in their 60s, much older women who were making this journey.


    Do you have any idea of how many women we're talking about?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    It's hard to say.

    The number that is usually cited in media reports when talking about women who migrate to territory controlled by the Islamic State group is 550 foreign women have gone there. That number comes from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. It's a terrorism NGO think tank based in London.

    But speaking to the people who came up with that number at the institute, they say that that number is wildly out of date. It's from earlier this year.


    They think it's much higher?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    They think it's much higher.

    Over the summer, they had — Germany intelligence said that 100 women just from Germany had traveled to the Islamic territory controlled by the Islamic State.

    One researcher told me that one in four people leaving Europe to join the jihad in these territories is a woman, and the number of men has plateaued, while the number of women is increasing.


    So, what is it they do once they land in ISIS-controlled territory? Are they joining the community? What is their life like?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    The most important role for women in the territories controlled by the Islamic State is as a wife and mother. And that's been written about by the Islamic State group itself. They have written a treatise about the role of women in the Islamic State that's been published and translated.

    And that's primarily what they do. They get married almost as soon as they're there in most cases, according to researchers that study this stuff, and they're homemakers. They're provided for in an interesting way. They basically receive a weekly stipend. They have food. If they're married, they get a home.

    They try to show a kind of normalcy of life. Right? There is — one social media message, there is a picture of a Bounty bar. It's a candy bar that you can find in almost any Western convenience store on a pile of writing, with words to the effect of, I'm doing some work and enjoying some candy, just as you might be doing right now at your house in the West.

    Another thing that they talk about on social media, and you see this in many of the studies, is a culture of widowhood, where the men that they marry go off to fight and die. And they glorify this idea of being widows. One tweet said: "I never thought I would be a widow at 18. We plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners."


    So, these are women who have just recently married ISIS fighters. Those men then go off and get killed in battle, and the women are celebrating that?

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    That's exactly right.

    One expert that I spoke with said that a quarter of the women that she has been following on social media are widows. And most of them were widowed in the last six months. So, when you go on social media, you will see messages like "marriage in the land of jihad, until martyrdom do us part."

    And there is a sort of culture of glorifying this, because for the women who don't have a role fighting on the lines with the Islamic State group, having a husband who dies as a martyr in jihad is sort of the next best thing in. And in their culture, it's kind of looked at as a fast track to paradise.


    All right, P.J. Tobia of the NewsHour thank you so much.

  • P.J. TOBIA:

    Thanks, William.

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