“I am sorry for asking so many questions. I am still quite nervous. I am scared I will get stopped by the police…”
“I have contacts and when you are finally there you can get a number In Sha Allah…”
“Thank you so much Ukhti, you really have put my heart at ease…”
When Jewish diplomacy student Tali [not her real name] decided to try to crack the online world of Islamic State, she had no idea just how successful she’d be. Within a matter of weeks, she garnered not only a load of new online “friends” among the Western women living in Syria’s self-declared Islamic State, but ended up receiving a proposal of marriage from a Scandinavian jihad terrorist based in the capital, Raqqah.
“My friends have no idea what I’ve been working on,” Tali says, opening the door to her bedroom, situated in a typical shared student house. A photo on the living room wall shows Tali and her housemates in crazy Purim fancy dress. “They didn’t ask what was going on, so I didn’t tell them.”
Some 20,000 people, including 750 Britons, are estimated to have travelled to Syria to fight for the extremist, violent Islamist utopia, or Caliphate. The intelligence community needs better information on how Westerners were being recruited to Islamic State. The phenomenon of “Jihadi brides” is particularly alarming – dozens of Western women, some of them teenagers, most of them not especially religious, have been lured to join the jihad. Could Tali, a young Jewish woman, infiltrate their ranks?
Her bedroom is sparsely furnished, and the carpet could use a clean. Tali fires up her PC and logs in, hiding her IP address. This is very important, she explains, so that nobody online can pinpoint her true location. To join the jihadis’ world, Tali had to create a whole new internet persona. She became a 20-year-old student nurse from an English-speaking country. “I needed to have a really solid back story,” she says, “one that would be relatively easy for me to remember and be consistent with, even under pressure.”
She created social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, the blogging site Tumblr, and Kik, the messaging site. As videos of gruesome beheadings and kidnappings hit the headlines, Tali became a “follower” of young women in Raqqah who were actively recruiting for ISIS, highlighting a virtuous, wholesome Islamic life as the wife of a jihadi killer, sharing everything from recipe tips to prayers. She “Liked” what they liked: pictures of kittens and unicorns, sunsets and burkas and guns.
“I started messaging the women directly,” Tali recalls. “Asking questions, that kind of thing, showing that I wanted to know more.”
Tali let it be known that she was keen to make hijrah – going to live in Islamic State. “Assalama alaykum” (welcome) came a response from the now-notorious 21-year-old Scottish radiography student Aqsa Mahmood, who writes under the name ‘Umm Layth’. Mahmood’s posts routinely praised the virtue of the mujahideen and the glory of martyrdom. She is thought to be part of the feared women’s brigade in Raqqah, whose members patrol the streets mutilating and beheading those they consider to have infringed modesty laws.
“Look like a modern muslima”, one of the women, calling herself Khadija, advised Tali. “Put cigarettes in your handbag, etc.”
Tali was sent a booklet to download. It included maps, travel advice (buy a return ticket to Istanbul; a one-way ticket alerts the authorities), lists of what to bring (travel light, one small bag only) what to wear and to eat (avoid eating meat as it can make you ill), how much money to bring.
Khadija told her: “Everything will be fine in sha allah. Of cours [sic] as a nurse you can work in the hospital. And if you want a good husband in sha allah my husband can find you a good one in sha allah sister. How old are you and what husband do you prefer? Its best to marry someone known as it’s safer.”
ISIS has a hierarchy system for women; foreign women and converts are considered highly prized.
Single women who arrive in Raqqah are housed in a dormitory before being married off to the best fighters.
Tali, while still asking questions of her new online “friends” about life in Syria, then had a surprise.
The woman was from a Scandinavian country, her son a well-known jihadi fighter. He was married already. Tali would be his second wife.
“I was shaking,” Tali admits, describing the moment when she spoke to her “fiancé” via Skype. She’d turned off the camera, citing Islamic modesty as her reason not to do a video call. A graphic artist had created a “photograph” of her, to send to the jihadi.
What did they talk about?
The conversation centred around the practical: how she would be smuggled over the Turkish border and driven to Raqqah.
Tali assured him she loved children, and would be delighted to look after his children. Tali’s online alter-egos are now inactive and the PC and mobile devices dismantled. She’s not sorry she carried out the research but remains wary that she must keep her real identity secret at all costs.
French journalist Anna Erelle, who published an exposé of a French-speaking jihadi called Bilel last May, has had to deal with death threats. Erelle has been told there is a Fatwa against her.
Tali, meanwhile, has gone back to her normal life. Her “jihadi fiancé” is something she refers to lightheartedly, but deep down she knows the brides of ISIS are staging their own deadly war, with powerful propaganda that seems irresistible to gullible teenagers.