How ISIS Uses Sexual Predators’ Techniques to Lure Western Women (Podcast)

November 12, 2014
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When Aqsa Mahmood left her home in Scotland to join ISIS at the age of 19, she didn’t cut off contact with the West. She tweeted regularly and kept up an active Tumblr account where she urged prospective jihadi brides to pack socks, underwear, dresses and hijabs – as well as a good pair of sneakers.

Mahmood’s story sounded familiar to Mia Bloom, a professor at UMass Lowell who studies crime and terrorism.

“They’re using the Western women to recruit other Western women,” Bloom said. “And for me, being in a school of criminology, it looks very similar to the way online predators recruit children. They are using a mixture of tricks and treats.”

Bloom spoke last Thursday at “Examining the Rise of ISIS,” a panel discussion at WGBH that also included FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith, whose documentary The Rise of ISIS explores how the group expanded so quickly.

PRI’s The World‘s Aaron Schachter moderated the panel, which also included Charles Sennott, the veteran foreign reporter who also founded the GroundTruth Project to train a new generation of international correspondents.

Listen to a podcast of the discussion:

Their wide-ranging discussion included ISIS’ successes in luring young men and women alike, its embrace of social media, and whether governments should pay a ransom to bring kidnapped journalists home.

For Smith, the answer to the ransom question is decisive: No.

“I’m not trying to sound heroic or brave at all,” he told Schachter. “It’s simply a risk that comes with the work. A lot of people have jobs that entail a certain amount of risk, and I accept that that’s a risk. And I believe that the payment of ransom only promotes more hostage-taking.”

“We live in a very difficult situation because a number of European countries readily pay ransom and the United States sits somewhere on the fence or doesn’t pay at all depending on the person,” Smith added. “I don’t expect to have a ransom paid.”

Sennott said Smith’s position was “a perfectly rational way of looking at it” and that he agreed with the American and British policy of not paying ransom. He said GroundTruth’s field guide says it doesn’t pay ransom.

But getting to know the family of James Foley complicated his position. Foley was reporting for GlobalPost, which Sennott co-founded, when he was captured and beheaded by ISIS.

“If it were my son, I would be thinking very hard about that equation. It gets a lot more blurry,” he said.

Sennott said the ransom debate needs to be pulled “into the light.” Oil executives are frequently kidnapped and their companies pay to save them, Sennott said. The ransom money, along with sales of stolen oil, are a major part of ISIS’s funding, he said.

ISIS may be best known to some viewers for its execution videos, including of Foley. But Smith said its members have also used social media to tweet to him personally.

One of ISIS’s most successful uses of social media, however, is to recruit.

As many as 15,000 people from 80 countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to join ISIS and other extremist groups, according to a U.N. report obtained by The Guardian. The FBI has estimated that the ISIS’s ranks include about a dozen Americans.

Bloom said ISIS appeals to young people who feel hopeless and want a sense of meaning.

“They’re tired of being not the agents of change in history. They are just the bystanders,” she said. “This allows them to participate in a way that at some level psychologically is empowering. Even though … probably within just a few weeks they’re going to be cannon fodder.”

On her Tumblr, Mahmoud has been blunt about the comforts Westerners give up when they join ISIS. She says electricity isn’t a sure thing and that women should know how to wash clothes by hand. But she said some might be lucky enough to have appliances like “fridges, cookers, ovens, microwaves, milkshake machines etc.”

Bloom was struck by the pie-in-the-sky promise of milkshakes in ISIS’s de facto Syrian capital.

“How much ice cream is there in Raqqa that they have milkshake machines?” she said.

She believes women lured to ISIS should be treated as victims, not traitors.

“Within a few weeks they’re going to be married and pregnant and basically that’s not the life that they’re anticipating in terms of their contribution to the cause,” she said.

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