Meeting The British Women Who Are Supporting ISIS
The Debrief: New Channel 4 investigation takes a look at the women from this country who are drafting young girls into ISIS
Over the last few years ISIS have been ever-present. But, in our reporting of their atrocities in and attacks on other countries, we have held them at arm's length. We receive news from Syria, the Middle East and Africa and read reports about how young people are fleeing Europe to join ISIS ‘over there’. That all changed 10 days ago, though, when multiple simultaneous terror attacks took place across the city of Paris on a Friday night, their biggest attack in Europe yet.
The last week has brought ISIS closer to home for Britain than ever before. And, as more reports came in, it became clear that the perpetrators of the attacks were Europeans, they had grown up here, not ‘over there’.
One of the subplots to last week’s dreadful story was that, after a police raid searching for the mastermind of the Paris attacks, a woman named Hasna Ait Boulahcen was erroneously and widely reported to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber. It later emerged that somebody else had actually detonated an explosive vest, killing her in the process.
The wide interest in Hasna Ait Boulahcen – photographs of her drinking and wearing a cowboy hat on the Daily Mail’s website - does tell us something though. A radicalised female terrorist is an anomaly and source of intense interest. There seems to be a common consensus that women cannot be terrorists. When we do read about women and ISIS it’s usually tales of ‘jihadi brides’ or the Shi’a and Yazidi women who are being kidnapped and enslaved by them.
But, as Channel 4’s new investigation shows, ISIS in fact, has a growing number of British sympathisers, non-violent female preachers who are crucial in recruiting more women in turn to the terror group. And, they’re operating in London.
Poppy Begum, the presenter of ISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled, airing tonight, tells The Debrief while extremist organisations have long recognised the power of women, the importance of their roles in often overlooked, ‘in the media it’s often men committing these barbaric acts but, actually, it’s just as important to recruit women. Women are integral to the utopia that they build in ISIS.’
The film is the result of a 12-month extensive undercover investigation. Over the course of a year Poppy and an undercover reporter, going by the name of Aisha, followed several London-based women who are active on social media with pseudonyms, where they glorify jihad, and run secret female-only ‘study groups’, where they urge Muslims to reject democracy and support the Khilafa (Islamic State).
One of the most striking aspects of the investigation is that these women recruit supporters online, particularly using Twitter. ‘The whole online sphere and social media is a huge catalyst in accelerating this route to radicalisation’ Poppy says, ‘it is phenomenal – the memes and the gifs – the power that ISIS have to recruit young British Muslims to join their cause.’
There is a moment in the film when Aisha, who is posing as a young woman potentially keen to make the journey to Syria, receives a message via Twitter from the infamous British Jihadist, Sally Jones, encouraging her to steal her parents’ bank card and book a plane ticket. ‘They have ways of luring in young, impressionable girls and very very sadly this is just one of them’ Poppy says. ‘The indifference and flippancy of that message – steal a bank card, book a plane ticket – they make out that this is normal.’
Aisha tells Poppy on camera, ‘ISIS declared they are the true Caliphate, where people live under a leader called the Caliph, which means the successor to Prophet Mohammed, so I think a lot of young British Muslims actually do think it’s their religious duty to go and live under ISIS.’
It’s estimated that of the 700 or so Britons who have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, around 100 are women and girls. The investigation seeks to understand what’s motivating them to go, ‘clearly someone out there is telling these young girls that they have something to gain by going and joining a terrorist organisation’, Aisha says.
The undercover filming shows female only ‘study groups’ in East London where these women, in their 30s, lecture other, younger, women and preach about the virtues of joining ISIS and give lessons about the Caliphate. What we see on film is ‘very, very extreme’ Poppy says, ‘these women are teaching young women who are unquestioning and uncritical that it’s their religious duty to travel to Syria… what you see these women saying… that was three days before Paris. It’s extremely damaging.’
On screen we see the women preaching messages of hatred and segregation. ‘They’re teaching that the “filthy Jews” are bad people and that the good days of the Caliphate are finally here,’ Poppy says. ‘They are ISIS sympathisers’ and while their extremist narrative might not call for physical violence, Poppy stresses ‘it’s still damaging, it’s an alienation of British society… you can walk this line for years and months but then it doesn’t take much to make you think ‘yes I want to do something.’ Indeed, some of what the women featured on screen preach at clandestine meetings would actually count as a racist or religious hate crime if they were to say it in public.
Hannah Stuart, of the Henry Jackson Society, is asked for her opinion towards the end of the programme. She says that the fact that there are women, young girls and even small children in attendance at the so-called “study groups” ‘is particularly worrying.’
‘At the moment we’re not just concerned about young men going to fight for Islamic State, we are concerned about entire families leaving this country to emigrate and live in Islamic State’ Hannah says, ‘and it’s lessons like this that will encourage women to do that and make them believe that its’ their religious duty to do so. This is a nation-building project.’
So what should we take away from this? ‘What we should take away from this is the fact that their methodology is important’ Poppy says, ‘it’s recruiting young people to that mind set. Once you’ve got young girls believing this stuff – whether the endgame is going to Syria or not - it’s the mind set’ which is damaging.
ISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled airs on Channel 4 on Monday 23 November at 9pm.
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