The girls of jihad and the secret weapon one woman is using to turn them back

Why young women want to join men who behead and burn people alive. And what happens to them after they join

British teenage girls

In the war on terror, Edit Schlaffer is deploying an increasingly important weapon—mothers.

Schlaffer runs the nonprofit Sisters Against Violent Extremism, or SAVE, which works with mothers to prevent their sons and daughters from joining jihad. “The threat has arrived at our home front,” she says. “We need to encourage women to be the first line of defense, right where they have the best access—in their families and communities.”

Daughters are in demand, with ISIS “attracting and extracting women from Western territories in growing numbers,” she says. “This is a big triumph for them.” In February, three British schoolgirls headed to Syria, reportedly to join ISIS forces. Two months earlier, another British girl made the same trek. Last year, two Austrian girls reportedly made the journey as well.

Why would young women want to join men who behead and burn people alive? Schlaffer, who will speak at the Women in the World summit in New York this week, says a misguided sense of “romanticism” often plays a role.  “We are working now with mothers across Europe who lost their girls to Syria, and many were ready to be in love,” she says. Recruiters for ISIS offer an immediate path to marriage and children. For girls in conservative or patriarchal families, controlled by fathers and brothers, the idea of heading off to become a wife and mother can be appealing, she says, adding that girls who join jihad often dismiss reports of ISIS extremism as Western propaganda.

“In one of our groups, we have a mother whose daughter was groomed online in the heart of Europe. She fell in love with her recruiter and followed him to Syria,” says Schlaffer, who runs training groups for mothers across the world, including Pakistan and Nigeria. “The mother did not give up on her and was in touch on a weekly basis, keeping the connection via regular text messages. Over the first half-year, the daughter was still excited and passionate about her new life—already pregnant and managing the home. Then the husband became more abusive, and the daughter felt she could confide in her mother since she stood by her. They even worked out a rescue plan together.” That plan fell through, but “the bridge is built,” she says.

Edit Schlaffer

Courtesy of Edit Schlaffer

Rukmini Callimachi, who recently won a George Polk Award for her terrorism coverage for The New York Times, says jihadi recruiters connect with young women on social media and become their confidantes—spending hours each day with them, discussing their “joys and sorrows.” The recruiters “have all the time in the world,” she says. “Even families don’t have that much time to devote to their daughters.” The recruiters seem kind and genuine, and they don’t mention jihad. “It’s really important for people who feel lonely,” she says. “The familiarity and intimacy fills a hole in people’s lives.”

For girls who have been abused or who are uncomfortable with their sexuality, the relationship feels safe, she says, because the men never say anything sexual. They talk about the importance of mothers; they make girls feel special. Once the girls arrive in Syria, they stay in a house for women, waiting to be married off, she says. “When they get married, it’s a path to greater and greater isolation. You lose all freedom. You can’t go outside without a male relative. And then your husband gets killed.”

It’s not always the terrorists who reach out to young recruits; sometimes it’s the other way around. Schlaffer describes a European girl who got harassed at school for wearing a hijab. “People confronted her and said, ‘You look just like a terrorist.’ This experience actually encouraged her to link up with more likeminded people on the Internet and finally embark on the journey to the Syrian border, where she was fortunately stopped.”

Young women can also be lured by “the sense of sisterhood in the common call to build up the caliphate,” says Schlaffer. “All of a sudden, they have such a huge role to play in a new society—they think. We must not forget that young women are also political minds and might respond to the same push-and-pull factors as their male counterparts.”

Schlaffer, a social scientist in Vienna, founded SAVE in 2008, an offshoot of an advocacy group she launched in 2002, Women Without Borders. She got the idea for SAVE when she saw a news report about the mother of a terrorist involved in the World Trade Center attacks. The mother had reached out to the families of victims, “creating the most unlikely dialogue,” she says. “This is when I realized the potential of mothers striving to achieve a different sense of security.” She began developing a model for her training groups, which she calls “Mothers Schools,” and has since reached more than 800 women in high-risk areas, she says.

When it comes to training mothers, “there is no secret recipe,” she says. “It really starts with change at the personal level, and the realization that a mother has the right and the responsibility to intervene. Very often the mothers panic, go into denial, don’t listen, and even hide the problem,” she says. “There is so much shame and fear around that issue.”

She cites a story from a mother in Kashmir: “At home her son proudly announced that he would join a radical group in the run-up to the elections. His father’s reaction was brusque: He slapped him in the face and shut off all communications. In the normal cultural setting, the mother would never challenge the father or contradict him. However, this mother gathered the courage and quietly went to the son and started to discuss his motives. The son was very surprised that she even would ask him. This created a chance for him to question his own motives. He actually did not join.”

Children who seem “hardened on the outside can still be reached,” she says. “We must not give up on them.”​

Edit Schlaffer will be appearing at the Women in the World Summit in New York City on April 22. To purchase tickets for the event, click here.

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