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The creepy blogs luring Australians into joining ISIS.

As a Melbourne teenager prepares to face court today charged over an alleged terrorist plot, Mamamia investigates the social media strategies used by ISIS to spread a rosy picture of life in the ‘caliphate’ — with the terrifying aim of recruiting young westerners.

On 17 February, three British schoolgirls told their parents they would be out all day, attending a wedding. Except that instead of attending a celebration, the girls — Amira Abase, 15, Kadiza Sultana,16, and Shamima Begum, 15– travelled to ISIS’s stronghold in Syria.

There in Raqqa, the teenagers are now thought to be living under the control of the radical group — and are expected to be married off themselves to ISIS fighters as ‘jihadi brides’.

Frighteningly, the teenagers are far from alone in their decision to flee a safe country for a war zone. They are just a handful of the hundreds of western women lured to the Middle East by ISIS’ masterful social media strategy. That strategy is specifically designed to recruit young women as brides, mothers, or members of the group’s all-female brigades, which patrol the streets to ensure civilian women’s compliance a strict form of Islamist morality.

Related content: A father’s heartbreaking message to his radicalised daughter.

Given ISIS’s appalling treatment of women  — the organisation has published guidelines on “how to rape” and is involved in sex trafficking and forced marriages — it’s hard to understand why any woman would want to join a group known to violently enforce extremely conservative gender roles.

But women now account for nearly one-fifth of all foreign fighters — a phenomenon attributed to ISIS recruiters being  “very predatory and very targeted in going after young people,” as terror expert Professor Greg Barton from Monash University told Mamamia.

A photo of an extremist woman with a gun, posted on a pro-ISIS Tumblr.

“We need to understand it’s that sense of belonging, particularly at the grooming state, that makes young people vulnerable,” Professor Barton said.

“What typically happens is if people are curious they go onto the internet or social media to try to figure things out… and attend a chat group or attend a physical meeting [of] Hizb ut-Tahrir … or some other kind of extremist group that’s not necessarily violent ,” Professor Barton said. “And the meeting may not be about violence, but it opens the violence to considering a radical alternative.”

He added that young people tend to be idealists and could be attracted to “the idea of joining the counter-culture,” enticed by a message of, “‘we’re really the good guys who are fighting a global injustice’.”

Melbourne boy Jake Bilardi was a loner who fled Australia to join ISIS.

Principal child psychologist at TheQuirky Kid Clinic, Kimberley O’Brien agreed that marginalised young people may “absolutely” be lured into joining ISIS on the false promise of a sense of belonging promoted online by the militant group.

“Sometimes, if there’s a lack of belonging at school, kids feel like they don’t fit into the mainstream so they might be more interested in joining a radical group,” she said.

“If they have a lot of time on their hands and they do unsupervised research on the net and, when they don’t have structures like school in place, or after school activities, or family time- I think that’s something that might mean that they’re looking for something else.”

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Pro-ISIS memes, jihadist love poetry and the lure of social media

Once young western women are connected to these online networks, there are thousands of extremists to chat to online, some who bombard curious young Westerners with rosy images of life in the so-called ‘caliphate’.

Twitter and Tumblr accounts supposedly belonging to women living under ISIS rule list the ‘benefits’ of their day-to-day lives.

Why young women join ISIS
Twitter and Tumblr accounts supposedly belonging to women living under ISIS rule supposed benefits of their day-to-day lives. (Photo: Tumblr)

One blog allegedly run by a woman in the ‘caliphate’ describes life under ISIS control as “amazing.”

“The apartment I’m living in is provided by ISIS. They provide electricity alhamdullillāh, and also they give food and clothes… to families,” the blog boasts.

“Today for example we received fresh bread. It’s almost like a normal town but the shops all close for salah (prayer) and you see mujahideen (men engaged in jihad) everywhere.”

Twitter and Tumblr accounts supposedly belonging to women living under ISIS rule list the ‘benefits’ of their day-to-day lives.

Mamamia understands that one ISIS bride and prominent recruiter, who moved to Syria in February 2014, runs a glossy Tumblr account which expertly juxtaposes fairytale-like fonts with photos of niqab-covered women with rifles.

Her most recent post, from April 6, contains a poem romanticising the life of women in the ‘Khilafah’ (caliphate).

“Women under the shade of Khilafah, they are protected from all sorts of evil,” the poem declares. “The law of Allah protects the women like a jewel.”

On the same blog, the ISIS bride shares tips for how women should dress under ISIS and memes promoting self-sacrifice in the name of Allah.

An extract from a poem published on the Tumblr of a woman claiming to be an ISIS bride.

Finding ‘the warrior who will treat them like a princess’

Perhaps most bizarrely of all, ISIS has successfully targeted female western recruits via romance narratives — luring women to Syria with propaganda suggesting they may find their place in the world as the loyal wife to a strong, Muslim, heroic fighter.

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A French reporter, who now goes by the nickname Anna Erelle and lives under police protection, learned about that romance recruitment tactic firsthand when she went undercover as a young French girl called Melodie online — and received a marriage proposal from an ISIS fighter.

Margarette Driscoll describes the bizarre encounter in an article for the Sunday Times of London, writing that Erelle set up fake Facebook and Twitter profiles under her alias of “Melodie” and joined the French Muslim community online.

She was contacted by French-born ISIS fighter Abou-Bilel, 3, who asked: “Are you a Muslim? What do you think of the mujaheddin?”

The two continued talking online, and Abou-Bilel soon declared his love for her urged her to travel to Syria so they could marry, promising: “When you get here, you’ll be treated like a princess.”

Abou-Bilel, a French-born ISIS fighter.

It’s not always men recruiting prospective ISIS brides, however: One Tumblr run by a former medical student — now the wife of an ISIS fighter — recalls falling in love with her husband during an intimate moment of prayer following their nikah (wedding).

“After we finished the salah, he turned back and smiled at me,” she wrote. “And I can feel something. Yes, I guess I just fell in love with someone — my husband!”

marriage in the feature image
“After we finished the salah, he turned back and smiled at me,” she wrote. “And I can feel something. Yes, I guess I just fell in love with someone — my husband!” (Photo: Tumblr)

Professor Barton emphasises that the narrative these young people may be enticed into is primarily “about falling in love with a new society- a creative, radical community, a new caliphate that will value them and then recognise them as heroes.” He also says that a significant part of that story often involves meeting “one dashing courageous warrior who will put them on a pedestal”.

“So it’s not just a knight in shining armour (story), although there is an element of that,” he said.

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Love poetry from a pro-ISIS blog.

Professor Barton said young women, more than young men, may be particularly vulnerable to “the idea of meeting the right one, the warrior who will treat them like a princess”.

O’Brien agreed that teen girls may be lured to Syria by jihadi ‘love interests’.

“Young girls aged 12 to 17 are often looking for the ideal partner, first boyfriend, so I guess part of that search might be looking for someone like a bad boy, someone they don’t find in their local community,” she said. “So there may be some appeal to travelling overseas or starting a long-distance relationship.”

“It’s not just a knight in shining armour (story), although there is an element of that,” Professor Barton said.

Linking with networks overseas

Whether initially enticed by radical politics or romance, young women’s journey to the Middle East appears disturbingly easy once they’re linked into the right online networks.

After they’ve established contacts online, the networks may secretly facilitate their travel, and link them up with expat communities once they arrive.

British schoolgirl Sultana, for example, had more than 11,000 social media followers before her flight to the Middle East, while Shamima followed 77 accounts, of which almost every single one belongs to a terrorist fighter or IS sympathiser.

Sultana’s friend Begum, meanwhile, allegedly used her Twitter account to try to contact British-born ISIS bride Asaq Mahmood directly, asking for her to open a private line of communication. Friends suspect the girls were in touch with former medical student Mahmood — he online contact of choice for those wanting to marry an ISIS fighter —  via their mobile phones in the weeks before Christmas, Daily Mail reports.

British-born ISIS bride Asaq Mahmood.

Despite the attractive picture painted by pro-ISIS social media propaganda, once young women ultimately arrive in the ‘caliphate’,  ISIS reportedly confiscates their passports — making it a prison for those who change their mind and want to leave.

Of course, westerners cruising the pretty blogs and Twitter accounts from home in Australia, the UK or France are unlikely to realise that fact — and to a misguided, lonely teenager who feels she doesn’t fit in at home, the rosy but fabricated image of life in the ‘caliphate’ is all too alluring.

Taking precautions

What can families or the community to do to prevent their daughter from becoming radicalised?

“I think it’s all about engagement with the local community and…  looking at what the girls might be missing,” O’Brien told Mamamia.

She added that schools and parents alike should work to make student feel “like they belong”, adding that teachers should incorporate discussions about the dangers of extremism in classrooms.

“So just as a preventative (thing)- if parents are engaging with the school and the student, then hopefully a lot of the gaps would be filled and kids would feel that they are really well supported and they don’t have to look outside the community,” she said.

She added one last, practical tip: “It’s always good to have computers in the family room so that you know what’s going on as much as possible”.

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