People striving to find peace, who are religiously motivated but with little knowledge and often ridden by guilt are easy targets for political movements and militants who are using Islam for their political schemes.
To expose ISIS’s satanic tactics of misusing Islam to lure young women in their trap, I have interviewed a British Muslim teen who was caught by the ISIS trap but got out before she drowned. Sarah* is a young 17 year old from the United Kingdom. For her safety, I have decided not to use her real name, Twitter/Whatsapp screen shot conversations between her and other people who have joined ISIS, or disclose her whereabouts.
Sarah talks about a number of people who became friends online through Twitter 3-4 years ago. They regularly interacted on that platform and started referring to themselves as the “Asian Community” on Twitter. Over the time, hundreds joined their “Twitter group”*, many had 1000+ followers. They went through the pro Syrian War phases, many members took strong position during [the] Syrian rebellion, but earlier last year the group broke off as ISIS emerged and friends had to chose sides, while some turned into ISIS online recruiters and even took a few of them back to Syria. The Group was lost, grief was uncontrollable, friends turned foe but Sarah got out, and now wants to help keep as many girls from ISIS as she can.
UR: How long had you have your Twitter account?
Sarah: A bunch of my friends convinced me to make one around 3 or 4 years ago
UR: So you were on Twitter before ISIS?
Sarah: Yes, that’s how I got to know a lot of the people before they got brainwashed by ISIS. A lot of them went through phases with different religious or political groups before completely giving in to ISIS.
UR: What do you recall from before ISIS made an appearance?
Sarah: Before ISIS became the talk of the TL (Twitter vocabulary: the timeline) we were all a really close group of friends, not all of us knew each other in real life. Some had met up but the majority of us simply enjoyed each others online presence. We were known for our humor, no way would you scroll down your TL and not burst out laughing at the things people were tweeting. it was quite nice having people from the same religious and cultural background to talk to, at any hour of the day and i think that was what made everyone so close.
UR: How did it take a “religious” turn? Were all of you religious or were the conversations always about religion?
Sarah: Religion was always a main part of our discussions or jokes, again it is what brought us all together. These presumably “religious” Muslims who were super chill and super funny helping each other become better Muslims. Not everyone on what we called “Asian Twitter” was practicing, I remember some sisters didn’t even used to wear hijab or they would pluck their eyebrows. But after interacting with our group they started to take that kind of stuff more seriously. I think i would say it took a major turn when the war in Syria [Free Syrian Army– pre ISIS] had started and was getting more media coverage.
UR: Tell me about the conversations about Jihad or Khilafah?
Sarah: As I said after the war, the topic of conversation changed a lot on the TL. Jihad in defence of the innocent Syrians became a main topic. But not only that, both religious and non-religious brothers and sisters consistently romanticised jihad. This whole “loving someone completely for the sake of Allah and Islam” and sacrificing the “materialistic world” for jihad and the hereafter, it had such an impact on these people. The mixture of simplicity, violence and romance was a thrilling and exciting concept to them.
UR: So there were those who were already pro-Jihad (fight) and they were convincing others into it?
Sarah: Yes. There were many of those who wanted to engage in fight and they would just romanticize it and convince others, like the “J” brothers.
UR: Who were the “J” brothers?
Sarah: The “J” brothers were honestly some of the most sincere and genuine people I have ever known. They didn’t care about online popularity, they just really valued their religion and wanted to help everyone be a better Muslim. They were always advising others and getting asked for religious verdicts. But never the less after one of the brothers passed away when he went to fight for “Free Syrian Army. He went for a good cause, there wasn’t any ISIS at that time. But after his martyrdom everyone’s emotions were really high because we lost a “brother”. Then ISIS began getting really popular because of this whole khilafah thing, they began supporting and openly advocating what ISIS was doing. They had thousands of followers and i think they didn’t realise to what extent they were unconsciously bringing people to ISIS. At first it was fine but then they supported the destruction of churches and the murder of Shias and Christians etc.
UR: So is it fair to say that the people who were already pro-Jihad became the main ISIS supporters and recruiters?
Sarah: Yes. Not all became official recruiters but you don’t have to be officially involved with ISIS to recruit for them. Sometimes just supporting the ISIS-cause can make you an indirect recruiter.
UR: Why were all these concepts of physically fighting and sacrificing the luxurious life exciting for people?
Sarah: No offense to a lot of these people, they led such boring lives. Most of them, even my friends were really anti-social in their colleges and universities. The only fun they had was on social networking sites (especially Twitter), it gave them a lot of confidence and they did on there, whatever they felt they couldn’t in real life. So for people who led extremely monotonous lives anything out of their daily routines or understanding would be extremely exciting or infatuating, hence the attraction to the concepts previously mentioned.
Sarah speaks to young women in the following video
UR: How did you know Aqsa Mahmood? What was she like on Twitter? Was she very religious? How did she become a part of ISIS?
Sarah: Aqsa and I met on Twitter then we followed each other’s blogs on Tumblr; we had also started talking on Whatsapp and Kik. We practically followed the same people and had the same friends. She wasn’t always as religious. I remember, she was super into Harry Potter and loved music. When she started getting more into her religion she stopped plucking her eyebrows and listened to lectures on YouTube. That was when her personality and online persona took a turn. She began getting extremely involved with the war in Syria, the lectures she listened to completely changed a lot of her views. We didn’t take note of these changes or class them as extreme at the time because a lot of our other tweeps (Twitter peeps) were already like that.
UR: You also knew Hoda? How would you describe her and why do you think ISIS attracted her?
Sarah: I didn’t know Hoda for as long as I knew Aqsa but we were still pretty good friends. She was the most anti-social in real life, she barely talked or hung out with friends. From what she told us her family was pretty religious and she would always praise the way she was brought up thanking her parents for teaching her about Islam. See the thing with [our] Twitter is that the more “knowledge” you showed you had, the more popular you would be. And for someone this lonely and isolated in real life but gaining popularity on Twitter because of her online Islamically religious persona is quite obviously what drew her to ISIS as she was the type of girl they would want to lure in.
UR: So when did ISIS take over Twitter? Or start recruiting per se?
Sarah: I guess they had always been recruiting in a sense when they began advertising their activities, it was a slow sort of calling to people. Recruiting doesn’t always mean or start by openly telling people come join us. You only do that once you’ve sparked their attention, which is what ISIS did later on. They began by casually talking about defending the Muslims in Syria against oppression and Bashar’s forces. Once they built a fanbase that agreed with their theoretical concepts, they started using their media connections to share activities and went on to post of a video of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi announcing him becoming the khalifah of the Muslims.
UR: Why do you think ISIS is so strong?
Sarah: What you can say is unique about ISIS and such extreme organizations is their ability to breach the isolated members of society. The strategic maneuvers in social media interactions and engagements along with their advertisements.
Not only are they strong militarily, they have created an extremely large fanbase; they have supporters all around the globe that if ordered can cause severe damage; they’ve planted recruiters. ISIS are well connected on the outside. The people who believe in them are extremely loyal because they’re only shown the positives. They are played [by] their emotions against oppressions and given ”religious motivation” to fight against injustice. So these supporters are stuck in a circle and they’re in denial of anything negative that comes up. Using the purity of the deen, transcending it materialistically, and transforming it into a main life goal. They reached out to everyone-”whatever you wanted you would find there”.
UR: Those people who were ISIS supporters, how would you highlight their main traits? Or what made them unique in their interaction with others online?
Sarah: I don’t know all of them but the ones I interacted with on Twitter were mostly antisocial in real life. A lot of these Twitter people were not raised on religion, but when they became religious they became harsh and extremely pro-refutations. Overnight Twitter scholars, they’d showcase their religion by “advising” anyone and everyone. They are not close to their families in the sense that they cannot open up to them. And they are looking for a “higher purpose” to live for.
UR: So they are the ones who take over online recruitment job, directly or indirectly?
Sarah: Pretty much. They are isolated from their Muslim communities and distant from their families. They just spend all the time online, supporting [the] ISIS cause, making young people feel guilty for living a comfortable life, and they target those who are either newly religious and looking for religious guidance, or the teens who have cultural[ly Muslim families who cannot understand their teens etc.
UR: Who would you say start “brainwashing” the girls into leaving their homes and joining ISIS? Who was convincing these girls into idealizing jihad or marrying soldiers?
Sarah: I am not sure because I never got to that point. But what some of us gathered from Aqsa, Hoda and other cases is that once these girls are manipulated through their emotions against injustice that is happening in Syria, Iraq and similar areas then they are thrown the religion bait for inspiration, and then everything becomes easier to motivate them to make big moves.
Also, another thing I noticed is that there is a lot of “mix interaction” [free interaction between the men and women] and a lot of male recruiters sweet talk these girls once they start chatting with them on Kik or Whatsapp. Girls are also complimented on their looks and beauty.
And quite frankly, girls always have a thing for “soldiers” and here they are told that not only they are soldiers but they are fighting for a higher purpose and they need support from these girls and that these girls will play crucial role in these strong, apparently good looking soldiers’ lives.
UR: How was your own take on ISIS initially?
Sarah: I agreed with their aim of having a khilafah and helping the Syrians. The “simplicity” and “humility” in the lifestyle appealed to me a lot.
When I was hearing good things, fighting corrupt govts and trying to establish “peaceful” khilafah. But who knows if that was even true or not.
UR: So what turned you away from ISIS?
Sarah: First beheading…
As far as I was in it, I was still a person of logic and in my 17 years of religious upbringing and studying, I had never come across anything that could justify an innocent person’s beheading. I did research [on] the person they beheaded, he was a good guy trying to help our kids, kids who’d been abandoned by so-called “Muslim” governments.
Nothing justifies that beheading and let alone publiciz[ing] it so audaciously. Since when did our Prophet ever allowed anyone to behead innocent people or even enemies on the streets of Madinah?! Since when did our sahabahs allowed their kids to roll the head of a dead person? Since when did that become an “Islamic” action?
“Sabaya” they brought back slavery. No one can enslave a free person. What do they think gives them the right to do that! They started demolishing places of worship and going against basic things in our religion. This completely made me back away from the whole idea of ISIS.
UR: You were a part of the same group from where a few girls left to join ISIS. You initially supported the idea of a Islamic khilafah, yet you completely turned away from ISIS. Why do you think these girls, who joined ISIS, can’t see what you are seeing?
Sarah: Because they are stuck in a box. When you are in it, you can’t see that you’re trapped. You’re forced into doing or watching whatever is given and shown to you. Some of these girls are extremely young, and they are brainwashed. I mean for a 16 year old to make the decision to leave home, she has to be brainwashed very well and then she is dropped into such a barbaric society. It’s extremely intimidating, or to be married to a man completely invested to the cause; it is hard to escape that mentality. The psychological stress it causes makes them block everything out and just continue on.
UR: These girls who left for Syria, get married there and then their husbands die and then they get remarried. What purpose do you think females are serving in ISIS? Do you think ISIS is giving them any leadership roles?
Sarah: ISIS show the rest of the world that they are offering these girls the opportunity to do something great. When recruiting they say that the girls will become something productive in the community and have influential leadership roles. The fact that these girls are forced into marriages without even getting the permission of their wali (guardian) ISIS are making them overlook main requirements for a marriage to be valid. When the soldiers die, the women are sent back to the sister’s only maqqar (place of residence) until their mourning period is over, then they move on and are encouraged to get married again. It is basically well presented prostitution and sexual slavery. The only role they are truly playing is aid in continuous community growth and recruiting other young girls, and keep the ISIS militants sexually pleased and satisfied. That’s the role of the girls in ISIS!!
UR: Some of the girls who left for ISIS blog/tweet from Syria, and they make it sound like they are very happy and everything is good. What do you have to say about that? That even after getting a “dose of reality” they don’t wake up to reality?
Sarah: Think of it this way. When you’re struggling with something, the world doesn’t know, you smile and go through it. The girls who are tweeting from there, we don’t know the exact circumstances behind it at all!
What if they are being forced, watched or monitored. They might even have guns put to their heads…Nothing realistic is ever posted, neither do we hear anything negative. It’s all overly romanticised [their blogs and twitter accounts have beautiful pictures of sunsets in Syria showing how peaceful and “romantic” it is, posts about how girls get married. Marriage is portrayed as very simple without a fancy wedding gown and the mahr was just some ayahs of Qur’an, or how thrilling and romantic it is for a wife to wait for her soldier husband not knowing if he was alive or dead etc.]
Such posts don’t tell us anything, they’re trying so hard to portray normal lives but it’s so silly, the contradiction is crazy. These sunsets and food pictures you can see it anywhere…no one will move and leave everything for a sunset or the Euphrates River that considered a so called “hotspot for couples”. Let’s be honest half of these girls know they’ve made a mistake, now either they let ISIS know that they’re not into it anymore and most likely get killed or tortured or they make the most of it which is busy themselves with social networking.
UR: So it is possible that there are young women who want to run away but it is not easy for them to run away?
Sarah: Of course! Once a prey is caught in a trap, their fate lies in the hands of the hunter. So when ISIS paints the rituals such as: burning passports or cutting ties with family members who don’t agree with what is going on (like when Aqsa told her parents she would see them on the day of judgement) as brave and courageous, the girls are naturally going to go along with it. These acts isolate them and put all the power in ISIS’s hands. the fact that these girls are subconsciously forced into marriage by being told of the so called “benefits” that the “ government” provides or their aid in creating a generation that is more religious and not corrupt, strongly ties and roots them down to/with ISIS. Clearly the borders are under heavy control, and as they are so extreme, to them anyone who wants to leave is considered a traitor and will be executed. Their main objective in regards to these girls is to get them on the inside, without women they are nothing. They cannot satisfy their soldiers or keep a stable society going. They will never let these girls leave, once they are in and have realised their mistake, it is too late for most of them to turn back.
Also, keep in mind that one of the rituals that these girls have to do once they get to ISIS is burn their passports. So even if they want to run away it is almost impossible for them. But we know that there are girls who have ran away but they are too intimidated to speak about it or they don’t want to say anything to not make it hard for other girls who are thinking of leaving ISIS.
Also, there must have been other girls who are trying to run away but might have gotten caught and either killed by ISIS butchers or being tortured.
UR: If you get access to the girls in ISIS, what would you say to them?
Sarah: Honestly I don’t even know where to start. But I will ask them if they found what they were looking for. If they say, yes, then I would ask them to check their intentions, and sincerely ask Allah to guide them to the path that is pleasing to Him. I will try showing them how un-Islamic ISIS is but to be honest, if they can’t see the obvious, there is nothing we can do more than simply accepting them as gone case and just pray for them.
But if there are girls who are there and have realized their mistakes, I have one thing to say to them, “Run” as soon as you get an opportunity. And if they can’t then maybe they can serve the greater purpose by weakening ISIS from within in whatever way they can.
Lastly, I just want to remind everyone that the girls who are leaving, are not necessarily malicious, evil or with a history of violence. When there is a bigger scheme then innocent get hunted…
Usually innocent and stupid people get caught because they are stupid and they are genuinely innocent…However, their stupidity doesn’t undermine their genuine innocence.
*It wasn’t a group like Facebook group, rather certain people on Twitter who were following each other considered themselves a “group” and even gave themselves a name.
When Iblees tempted Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, he didn’t just appear in front of Adam and asked him to disobey Allah openly. That would have been too obvious and Shaytaan’s traps are almost always hidden tracks leading to haram.
Rather, Iblees coaxed Adam until he was deluded into believing that eating from that tree would make him from among the angels, “Your Lord didn’t forbid you this tree save you should become angels or become of the immortals.” After inviting them to disobey Allah, he then even swore by Allah to convince Adam of his sincerity, “And he (Shaytaan) swore by Allah to them both: ‘Verily I’m one of the sincere well-wisher for you both.’” (7:20)
Shaytaan’s tradition is to cause confusing in believers’ minds by disguising haraam with the cloak of “higher purpose”, or justifying end with impermissible means or taking permissible actions to such an extreme that they may actually become impermissible.
ISIS, the Hizb-as-Shaytaan, has also used the same tactics on many minds. Firstly, the members/recruiters portray to be very sincere and people of knowledge, quoting work of Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Taymiyyah and others to fool young minds into thinking that the knowledge being given to them is authentic, as many of these the girls being recruited by ISIS have recently started practicing Islam. Next, young minds are made to feel guilty because they haven’t done anything to help the suffering Muslims in the oppressed lands, rather live a luxurious life in the west. Then the idea of khilafah, jihad and physical sacrifices for the so-called “higher purpose” is thrown in, while misquoting the rewards in hereafter to bring them to a “religious high”. It is easy to strike when the iron is hot.