As the Islamic State loses ground in a US-backed offensive on Mosul, one anti-extremism campaign is trying to hit them where it hurts: the internet.
Amira* was recruited by an Islamist terror group in her late teens, over a decade ago. "I was radicalized at university, and my hopes and aspirations for better world were taken advantage of," she says.
Since ISIS first declared its "caliphate" in 2014, hundreds of women and girls have been lured to its territory in Syria and Iraq. ISIS has its own women's division, the Al-Khanssa Brigade, which has used social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to recruit younger women from all over the world. Amira is trying to stop that from happening by volunteering with a program called One to One, which uses Facebook to reach out to men and women in the process of radicalization.
"ISIS recruiters have been clever at selling this idea of a utopia," she says. "I was sold a dream in my late teen years. I want to warn others not to take this path; I want to say it's a waste, there are better options. [Neither] your religion nor your God obliges this."
One to One works by tracking people in the U.S. and U.K. who are at a particularly high risk of online indoctrination into extremism, then having former radicals like Amira reach out to these vulnerable individuals. Alongside nine other people recruited from the Against Violent Extremism network, a group of 309 former extremists from all over the world, Amira sends anonymous Facebook messages to women who appear to be supporting ISIS, and tries to deter them.
"Extremists have become incredibly savvy and they are using the internet to their advantage, and we don't really have anything online to counteract. So we identified this gap and the aim is to begin to plug it," explains Moli Dow, the project coordinator at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, the London-based think tank behind the One to One program. The group has so far identified a total of 154 men and women with links to either the far right in the U.S. or Islamist extremism in the U.K., and assigns former extremists from each movement to reach out to them accordingly.
One to One chose which vulnerable individuals to reach out to on the basis of the information they had shared publicly and their Facebook activity, such as liking pages that promoted extremism or joining extremist groups on the social network. "We spent a lot of time identifying the right candidates," Dow explains. "For One to One, we target violent extremists—interventions are appropriate for someone who is at the hard end of an extremist narrative. The candidates were not subtle in their support for violent extremism. We are dealing with people who are almost over the edge."
ISIS are currently fighting off the U.S.-backed military offensive into Mosul, and have managed to recruit around an estimated 30,000 foreigners to Iraq and Syria since 2014. According to Martin Reardon, the former chief of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Operations Center, women are "by some estimates as many as ten percent of those traveling" to the region in order to join the terrorist group.
Though the volume of foreign fighters traveling to Syria has dropped dramatically this year, the percentage of women leaving their homes to join ISIS has actually increased. "In the past 24 months we have seen huge increases in women going," says Dr. Erin Saltman, a gender and terrorism researcher from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Saltman has been tracking and assembling a huge database of female emigrants within ISIS. "So as this wave has peaked for male foreign terrorist fighters, there has been a secondary wave of female fighters going out—to the point that in some countries such as France they estimate up to 40 percent of the people going are women."
Women are not just targeted by ISIS for recruitment—they also play key roles in the organization's propaganda machine. Analysis of 40,000 ISIS supporters' social media accounts by a team led by Dr. Neil Johnson from the University of Miami found that 16,000 accounts were run by women. Using open source information from VKontakte, a Russian social network that is a hotspot for jihadi activity, Johnson found that women in ISIS were far from passive jihadi-bride cheerleaders—in fact, many played key leadership roles in sustaining the group's online networks.
"We [have] seen that 40 percent of the people in these groups were women, and the positions they were holding were very special positions within the network," Johnson says. "They were kind of a glue—in mathematical terms, they were sitting in the places within the network where if you cut them out, the network would fall apart."
Johnson's team also found that groups with female members were better at evading online detection for longer. This is no mean feat, as social media companies are working to remove extremist content at an ever-growing rate. Female jihadis can post frequent online updates on social media or initiate private connections with people online to encourage their journey to Syria.
"It's good for propaganda, for recruiting, to show that Islamic State was bringing people from all over," Reardon explains. "But really their role is also tactical and practical, as they need people if they want to build a state—someone has to run those schools, and they need female doctors, and medics, and other professionals."
Fewer men are traveling into Syria, according to Reardon, and the prospect of a suicide mission appears to have lost some of its shine among male recruits. But radicalization campaigns that encourage women to make the journey still appear to be working. According to Johnson's research, women occupy a more important position within recruitment campaigns previously understood, and they pose a great threat to other women—clusters of women become more entangled together on their journey towards radicalization, and they can pull each other deeper into extremism.
Younger girls appear to be more susceptible to this form of recruitment. In 2014, three teenage girls from Denver aged 15, 16, and 17, made it as far as Frankfurt on their journey to join ISIS. Analysis of their social media showed that they had been in frequent contact with a number of high-level recruiters. In the U.K., three British schoolgirls aged between 15 and 17 also left their East London homes for ISIS territory in February of 2015. Police believe it was a result of being in contact with Asqa Mahmood, a 21-year-old Scottish woman who travelled to Syria at the end of 2013 and went on to become one of the group's most prolific propagandists.
So far, the One to One program has been surprisingly successful. "We expected death threats; we expected really negative responses," Dow explains. "We had lots of measures in place in case we received an immediate threat of violence. We actually didn't receive any death threats, and in total we only received two negative responses."
Of the people they found online, 60 percent started to engage with the former extremists, with a similar amount entering into what Dow describes as "sustained engagement," defined as an exchange of at least five messages and a "meaningful conversation" taking place.
Amira was by far the most successful of the formers at initiating and maintaining contact; 90 percent of the girls and women she contacted replied to her, which was by far the highest response rate in the group. She admits to feeling close to several of the young girls and women, but she says felt "more of a responsibility towards them," as she gently convinced them to put their faith in her and not their Islamist recruiters. Her tone was measured to be casual, non-judgmental, and caring.
"Women who have adopted a conservative strict version of Islam feel as though they don't belong [in the U.K.]," Amira explained. "With young girls, it's part of their identity-finding phase, and it's very exciting for them to move out with friends in a new place where they can be free to practiCe their religion, and everyone will accept them and be like them."
Amira said she shared her own personal experience of being a woman and a former member of an Islamist group. She says that she was most surprised at how the girls she spoke to were "immediately trusting" of her, and believes that the program has demonstrated the vulnerability of the girls on the internet—but that it is also possible to stem the flow of women being radicalized by ISIS, and efforts aimed directly at the demographic need to be urgently scaled up.
We don't expect to change anyone's mind in a few conversations, but we do try to sow the seeds of doubt.
"We need to be doing what ISIS does, and we need to be doing what they are but better," Amira insists.
"Formers" like Amira, Dow explains, offer female recruits an exciting and authoritative alternative to ISIS propaganda. "The formers have been right in the movements that [the new recruits] aspire to be, they can say, 'Yes, back in the day I travelled to fight.' That, for them, is exciting, and that is a thrill they are looking for."
There are plans for the program, which is currently in pilot stage, to be adapted and shared with groups working in other countries who are attempting to stop their young women venturing into ISIS territory. But it is delicate, sensitive work that is wholly dependent on a very small group of specialists—female former extremists willing to work on anti-radicalization campaigns—and they can be difficult to find.
"Deradicalization is a process which spans years; it is akin to an addiction," Dow explains. "We don't expect to change anyone's mind in a few conversations, but we do try to sow the seeds of doubt. And this is a crucial first step on that journey back."
*Amira is not her real name
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