The perception that young women are joining the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) merely to get married is simplistic and hampers efforts to prevent other women from traveling to Syria, according to a report released Thursday by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London.
Young women are joining ISIS for many reasons, including anger over the perceived persecution of Muslims and the wish to belong to a sisterhood with similar beliefs, new research suggests.
Western societies must understand these varied motivations if they hope to prevent more women from joining the militants and potentially returning to their home nations to commit acts of terrorism, argue the report's authors, Erin Saltman and Melanie Smith. Thinking of them as all being brainwashed, groomed, innocent girls hinders understanding of the threat they pose.
"They're not being taken seriously," Smith said. "It's inherently dangerous to label people with the same brush."
The primary responsibility for a woman in ISIS-controlled territory may be to be a good wife and a "mother to the next generation of the ideology," but the study concluded that women are playing a crucial propaganda role for the organization by using social media to bring in more recruits.
"The propaganda is dangerous," Smith said. "It draws vulnerable or 'at risk' individuals into extremist ideologies ... simplifying world conflicts into good versus evil which allows someone the opportunity of being the 'hero' - an empowering narrative for a disenfranchised, disengaged individual."
Young women are often vulnerable to this kind of rhetoric because they are questioning their identities as they grow into adults. Many of the young women observed said they felt socially and culturally isolated in secular Western society, and saw the region controlled by ISIS as "a safe haven for those who wish to fully embrace and protect Islam," according to the report.
The authors combed the social media accounts of more than 100 female profiles across platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Photos, online chats and other accounts helped place the women geographically in Syria or Iraq. Researchers say the women came from 15 countries and were largely operating in English.
They consistently talked about the camaraderie they experienced after moving to ISIS-controlled territory, and often used social media to post images of "sisters" posing together.
"This is often contrasted with discussions about the false feeling or surface-level relationships they iterate they previously held in the West," the authors said. "This search for meaning, sisterhood, and identity is a primary driving factor for many women to travel."
About 550 young women, some as young as 13, have already traveled to ISIS-controlled territory, according to the report.