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Meet the Female Recruiters of ISIS

09/04/2014
NY Magazine
By Katie Zavadski

Umm Ubaydah doesn’t have a blue checkmark verifying her as a muhajirah on Twitter.  And yet, she’s become, along with a group of other young Western muslim women, an active online surrogate for the terrorist group ISIS.

While their husbands are out fighting, these women communicate ISIS’s message to the outside world, and particularly to other women curious about the same cause. Because of their youth and Western upbringings, they do so in slang and emoji, intermixed with a handful of Islamic phrases that they have picked up. As the recent widespread distribution of beheading videos on U.S. social media has shown, ISIS brings plenty of propaganda savvy to its brutal campaign. Women like Umm Ubaydah, who uses the handle @al_Khanssaa (possibly a reference to the poet) are a critical component of that effort.

Mostly in their late teens or early 20s, these women meet through Twitter, Tumblr, and Kik, where they exchange verses of the Quran, statements of English- and Arabic-speaking radical preachers, and news about the advances of the Islamic state. The most ardent among them, including Umm Ubaydah and her friends — Umm Layth, whose real name was revealed to be Aqsa Mahmood; and Umm Haritha, a Canadian immigrant, whose online moniker is @bintladen, a portmanteau of the Arabic word for girl and Osama bin Laden — have gone further, moving to Syria from Europe and North America to find husbands among ISIS soldiers.

“We have a long history of women’s involvement online and as propagandists” in jihadi movements, says Mia Bloom, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s Center for Security and Terrorism studies and author of a book on female suicide terrorists. Dozens of purported jihadis have cropped up online in recent years, including over a dozen women. (Twitter has recently stepped up its efforts to suspend ISIS-linked users.) Some of them are likely fakes, Bloom says, but a few stand out as particularly believable. To evaluate the veracity of online accounts, experts like Bloom consider the person’s interactions with others, length of time active, and consistency across different platforms. Umm Ubaydah, like the others, checks out on all three.

Umm Ubaydah emerged on Twitter at around the same time as ISIS announced the creation of two female brigades in its territories, albeit not for active combat: one to keep men from the opposition from dressing up in traditional, concealing female clothing as they pass through checkpoints, and another to enforce ISIS’s strict standards of dress and morality on other women. But these Western immigrants, based on their online presences, are taking on even more traditional roles. According to Humera Khan, head of a think tank focused on preventing radicalization and extremism, Umm Ubaydah's off-line friendships are clear in her online interactions, and draw other women in.

When I reached out to Umm Ubaydah via Kik last week, she didn’t respond, although she quickly tweeted about Western journalists asking her for her thoughts on Nutella. But an analysis of her timeline tells at least some of her story.

From the ISIS-controlled city of Manbij, Syria, Umm Ubaydah gives advice to those considering making the crossing: what to pack, what to expect, and how to avoid detection on their way to joining the hundreds of Westerners now fighting on behalf of the Islamic state. ISIS propaganda and hopes about becoming a martyr are punctuated with teen internet slang — "#lol," "tbh" — and emoji. She writes about being a wife and aspiring to become a mother, and bringing up the next generation of mujahids, or jihadis. Umm Ubaydah tells women that there is not much for them to do in the state, that their contribution comes in the home and through reaching out to other women online. This, according to Bloom, is typical of successful militant groups: Women only join the front lines as suicide bombers or combatants if the group has trouble attracting men. If that’s not a concern, marrying jihadis to like-minded women serves to reinforce their motivations.

Believed to be in her teens or early 20s, Umm Ubaydah won’t reveal where she’s from on Twitter, except that it’s in Northern Europe (likely Sweden, according to Khan, the think tank director). Instead of a selfie, her Twitter icon is a spliced-together image of Osama bin Laden and ISIS Caliph Abu bakr al-Baghdadi. Among the few biographical details she openly shares is that she is of Somali descent.