Muslim terrorists are doing more than beheading men. They're also reaching into Europe and the United States, coaxing teenage girls to sneak away, travel to the Middle East and marry jihadis -- and occasionally pose for photos, brandishing AK-47s.
There has been tons of coverage of this issue in advocacy publications, with The Daily Beast leading the way with its whole "bedroom jihad" wave of digital ink. Now, this angle and more has been captured in an extraordinary newsfeature in The Guardian, which fielded six reporters to scan the tragedy in five nations: France, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The 3,000-word story is sweeping yet precise, penetrating yet personal. And rather than sensationalistic adjectives and metaphors -- the favored tools of tabloid papers -- The Guardian lets the horrific facts speak for themselves:
Girls as young as 14 or 15 are travelling mainly to Syria to marry jihadis, bear their children and join communities of fighters, with a small number taking up arms. Many are recruited via social media.
Women and girls appear to make up about 10% of those leaving Europe, North America and Australia to link up with jihadi groups, including Islamic State (Isis). France has the highest number of female jihadi recruits, with 63 in the region – about 25% of the total – and at least another 60 believed to be considering the move.
For now, the known numbers of "schoolgirl jihadis," as The Guardian calls them, are small: 63 from France, 60 from the U.K., 40 from Germany, 14 from Austria. (Astonishingly, the U.S. apparently has no matching numbers.) What sells this story is the emotional shock of seemingly content girls reading blogs, connecting via Facebook, and deserting their loved ones. And at least one expert says the reported cases may be only the "tip of the iceberg."
The Guardian story is well-stocked with expert sources from think tanks and universities. But what a commentary on our times that we need organizations with names like International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, or Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy. Or authors like ...
Mia Bloom, a security studies professor at Massachusetts University and author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, said the recruitment campaign painted a “Disney-like” picture of life in the caliphate. Some young women were offered financial incentives, such as travel expenses or compensation for bearing children.
Women already living amid Isis fighters used social media adeptly to portray Syria as a utopia and to attract foreign women to join their “sisterhood in the caliphate”, she said. “The idea of living in the caliphate is a very positive and powerful one that these women hold dear to their heart.”
But the reality was very different, she said. Both Bloom and Rolf Tophoven, director of Germany’s Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy, said reports indicated that women had been raped, abused, sold into slavery or forced to marry. “[Isis] is a strictly Islamist, brutal movement ... the power, the leadership structure, are clearly a male domain,” said Tophoven.
And The Guardian doesn't stay 30,000 feet high. Most of the story is a gallery of what it calls "Jihadi poster girls," some of the worst cases from the five focus countries. The seven girls' stories offer some insight on the mechanics of the defections, and the anguish of the families they left. Included:
* A French girl didn't return home one night. Her family found she had opened a second Facebook account, which showed a photo of a veiled woman holding an AK-47, captioned, "Yes, kill in the name of Allah." The girl later called from Syria, saying she was going to marry a jihadi.
* A blogger left Scotland for Syria and now uses her site to get other girls to join her. Her blog gives advice on how to travel and how to handle the difficult first callback to the parents.
* A 19-year-old American in Colorado told federal agents -- and her own family -- that she wanted to travel overseas to wage "jihad." She was finally arrested trying to board a plane at the Denver airport. By then, she had attended a U.S. Army Explorers cadet training camp in Texas "to learn US military tactics and practice shooting," The Guardian says.
Among the few flaws in this massive story is the case of a 15-year-old German girl vanished, then began posting selfies on social media sites "holding a machine gun, wearing a burqa and black gloves," according to the article. How do we know it was her under the burqa, a garment that hides even the eyes? It's probably because the postings were in her name. But The Guardian should have specified.
Why are the girls doing this? That's where the expertise falls short. You’ve already seen the guesses about the lure of being part of a new caliphate and the projected "Disney-like" picture of life in the Middle East.
The darkest suggestion comes from a French expert, who says some girls have “an almost romantic idea of war and warriors. There’s a certain fascination even with the head and throat-cutting. It’s an adventure.”
Yet none of the reasons seem to account fully for why the girls would suddenly leave the people and places they’ve loved in favor of men they don't really know, for a group that hates everything their homelands stand for.
Nor do they point to a clear recipe for countermeasures. We can only hope to God, or Allah, that the experts come up with some.
And I hope The Guardian will be there with more extraordinary reporting.