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ISIL turns to women to shore up its ranks

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo Monday, May 2nd 2016 10:17 PM
As the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) comes under fire in Iraq and Syria and its fighters desert in increasing numbers, the group is turning its attention to women to help it shore up its ranks, experts tell Al-Shorfa.
ISIL has been amplifying its efforts to reach out to women via social media and seeks to exploit them for a number of purposes, they said.
Women are being used to entice young men to join ISIL on pretext of "jihad" and recruited to join the group themselves in various capacities, including as part of the all-female battalions that enforce the group's harsh rules.
They also are sought after as ISIL brides, producing offspring who will perpetuate the group's extremist ideology, said Regional Centre for Strategic Studies researcher Maj. Gen. Wael Abdul Muttalib, a retired Egyptian military officer who specialises in extremist groups.
The threat posed by female ISIL recruits is not confined to those who travel to war zones but also includes those who stay in their home countries and engage in the online recruitment of youth, he told Al-Shorfa.
These women may also be used to carry out suicide operations, he cautioned.
ISIL recently appointed Nada al-Qahtani, known as "Ukht Julaybib", to head al-Khansaa Brigade, its all-female battalion in the Syrian city of al-Raqa.
Rima al-Juraish, or "Umm Muath", who was reportedly killed in a coalition airstrike on al-Shaddadi in Syria's al-Hasakeh province in February, used to head al-Khansaa's electronic propaganda team.
Both al-Qahtani and al-Juraish played a role in "inciting Saudi youth to join ISIL", Abdul Muttalib said, adding that ISIL aims to replenish its ranks which have been depleted due to the heavy losses it is suffering in coalition airstrikes.
In addition to its recruitment efforts, al-Khansaa Brigade has established a formidable presence in al-Raqa, local resident Mahmoud al-Amin told Al-Shorfa.
"The mere sight of them instills terror in the hearts of the city’s residents," he said. "You see them suddenly disembark from al-hesba ["religious police"] vehicles driven by ISIL elements and conduct patrols in the markets."
The brigade detains any woman it deems to be in violation of the dress code, no matter how minimal the violation, he said, and enters shops to ensure there is no mixing between the genders.
The brigade also inspects buses transporting people into and out of the city to ensure no woman is traveling without a mahram, al-Amin added.
Additionally, he said, members of the brigade also serve as spies, listening in on conversations in the markets, taking notes and submiting them to ISIL's leaders.
"Nary a week goes by without a woman being subjected to physical abuse or verbal rebuke in the market by these patrols in full view of everyone," he said.
Women often are arrested for violating the group's harsh rules, he said, and their male guardians are summoned to sign a pledge that these so-called "violations" will not be repeated, under penalty of being flogged themselves.
Al-Khansaa Brigade began operating in early 2014, making its initial appearance in the streets of the city of al-Raqa on February 24th, 2014, Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Al-Shorfa.
Initially, Tunisian women were in charge of the brigade, led by "Umm Rayyan", he said, adding that later on, foreign women began taking charge in other areas, such as the cities of al-Tabqa, al-Shaddadi and Manbij.
Members of the brigade began appearing at ISIL checkpoints on the outskirts and at the entrances of the city, and on patrol inside the city and its markets, he said.
"The emphasis at the time was on strict enforcement of the women’s dress code," he said, adding that the brigade would make sure women’s hands, faces and entire bodies were covered.
They also entered girls' schools and inspected the students’ attire, making sure there was no sign of cosmetics use or jewelry, al-Abdullah said.
ISIL's recruitment of women in general and adolescents in particular is a means to lure men into joining its ranks, political researcher and Al-Azhar University sharia and law professor Abdul Nabi Bakkar told Al-Shorfa in 2014.
"Sex jihad" is a common practice in the ranks of ISIL, he said, with the group focusing its recruitment efforts inside and outside the region.
An estimated 550 European women have traveled to Syria to join armed groups such as ISIL, according to Jean-Paul Laborde, executive director of the UN's Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate.
They now make up an estimated 30% of all foreign ISIL elements.
In a March 7th report, counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation estimated the number of pregnant women in ISIL-controlled territories at 31,000.
ISIL counts on these yet-unborn children "for its continued existence in Syria and the rest of the world", al-Abdullah said.
These children will grow up with the group's extremist ideology, he said, and are at risk of becoming "mobile explosive devices in the hands of the group’s emirs and a new generation of terrorists".
Female members of al-hesba, the 'religious police' of the 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant', detain a woman in a market in the Syrian city of al-Raqa. [Photo courtesy of Syrian media activist 'Abu Sham al-Raqa']
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