Women and the Islamic State

When the Syrian civil war started over three years ago, many terror groups aligned themselves with the Syrian rebels in the fight to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Since then, some of those terror groups have all but abandoned that cause in order to advance their own. None of these groups have ascended so rapidly as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. ISIL, once affiliated with Al Qaeda, has used horrific violence to gain followers and territory. They have even been so bold as to declare a caliphate and rename themselves the Islamic State (IS).The level of violence, tactical advances and media savvy of IS dominates the headlines. What is not as widely reported is the role women play in IS. There have been occasional blurbs about rapes or beatings, or even about Western women traveling to Syria. The real story is far more diverse and complicated. Horrific stories of the treatment of women and girls are not making the headlines like the stories of beheadings.

Throughout Syria, scores of women and girls have been captured only to have the women sold off at makeshift slave markets. The girls are mostly kept to be given to IS fighters as brides. In some cities and towns captured by IS, there have been “marriage bureaus” set up in Aleppo and Al Bab to recruit women and girls to offer themselves for marriage. Even widows are encouraged to remarry. There are, however, questions as to the consent of some of these marriages.

This is repeated throughout the captured territory of the Islamic State. In northern Iraq, dozens of Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped to become slaves. In a recent interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, a young Yazidi girl describes her time as an IS slave. “Mayat” (not her real name) tells of “rooms of horror,” basically rape rooms where many different men would come and have their way with her and the others who were kept there under guard. She goes on to say they are sometimes taken three times a day, and some of the girls she is held with are as young as 13. (Read an English version here.)

Even more horrifying are the reports that emerged after Iraqi Special Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga troops entered villages formerly held by IS. Some women were found naked and tied to trees, having been repeatedly raped. It seems as though some women are given to returning fighters as a reward. As terrible as the violent rapes are, what happens to the women after they have been discarded is heartbreaking. The women who have been raped (and their illegitimate children) are treated as outcasts by their families and villages. Some have even been the victims of honor killings. The extreme violence against women is being used as a form of terrorism by the Islamic State. It frightens those living in the areas captured by IS, but it hasn’t stopped others from wanting to join.

Not all stories of women in the Islamic State are those of victims of violence. On the other end of the spectrum, at least two all-female brigades have been formed in Syria to enforce IS-implemented sharia law. The Al-Khansaa and Umm Al-Rayan brigades are tasked with policing women. These brigades, based in Raqqa, were formed to enforce the Islamic State’s strict interpretation of sharia law, to make sure women are fully covered or are not out without a male chaperone. Another duty performed by these women are to help out at checkpoints, searching women and insuring there are not men dressed as women in order to evade. To quote one IS official, “We have established the brigade[s] to raise awareness of our religion among women, and to punish women who do not abide by the law.” They have the power to arrest and even take part in beating the offenders. The women are paid for their duties, although none are yet to be involved in any terror operations. In perhaps a strange twist, it is reported that over 50 British women have joined these brigades.

Young women, like the British girls, are connecting with one another through social media. Like many other young women around the world, they talk of men, they post photos of themselves and travel tips for one another. What makes these posts and Tweets different are the references to marrying these men they hope will someday become martyrs. Their photos are of themselves completely covered, save their eyes. Some even brandish weapons. Their travel tips include directions on the best routes to Syria and tips on how not to get caught. One popular how-to blogger is Umm Layth, who is thought to be the name taken on by Aqsa Mahmood, a young woman from Glasgow now in Syria. But it’s not just European women being drawn in. Recently, American girls from Minnesota and Colorado have been caught trying to make the trip to join up with IS. It is thought that these girls were recruited by people loosely affiliated with IS – sympathizers – rather than joining on their own. In addition to the young women from the UK and America, other countries such as Austria, Bosnia Hercegovina and Turkey have seen their young women drawn to the caliphate. Recently France arrested a group of people trying to recruit young women to join IS.

Why are so many women drawn to Syria and the Islamic State? The desire to live in the Caliphate is a strong draw. Women are promised a perfect Islamic life upon arrival. Hey are encouraged to contribute by marrying fighters and providing children, having the “honor” of raising new fighters (read: martyrs). One online post by Umm Anwar reiterated that position, saying “Women who give birth to the mujahideen and they are the ones who raise them and teach them.” In a recent appearance on Al Jazeera America Mia Bloom, Professor of Security Studies at UMass Lowell, put it this way: IS is “not providing the Utopian Islamic society that they pretend to, but there might also be a sense of adventure. They’re [the women] promised romance, also promised a lot of support, subsidies for every child that they have, no taxation as well as a wonderful husband.” The reality is often far from the promise, but women are still lining up to meet their martyrs in the Islamic State.

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Looking at the World Since September 11.

Like most Americans, I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I know where I was when I heard about the second, even my thoughts at that moment. I know my exact spot on the bridge I was crossing when I heard about the Pentagon. All day, and in the coming days and weeks I could not forget the images I saw. I can still see them clearly. I wasn’t directly affected, but I knew plenty who were, then and over the years since. (If you really want to hear my story, message me)

To a lot of Americans, September 11, 2001 was the first real taste of terrorism and global conflict. As an isolated country, we have been largely immune from anything but major wars. We didn’t have to deal with the ethnic or religious conflicts that plague the rest of the world. Basque separatists aren’t trying to carve out a piece of southern Idaho for their own. The Catholics and Protestants aren’t bombing each other on the streets of Boston. Despite September 11, we are pretty lucky we live in isolation. We can enjoy our lives without fear of the BART being bombed on the way to work.

Unfortunately, that isolationism can also lead to ignorance.

We live in a world filled with conflict. Every day, the world gets smaller and smaller as global commerce and communication make it so a seemingly small conflict in Congo can affect the price of your cell phone. We, as Americans, hardly pay attention to the conflicts that directly affect us so it goes without saying that we completely ignore those that don’t. Terrorism is going on all around us. Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds in Nigeria for use as slaves or ransom. In Somalia, Al Shabaab continues to mount attacks against those they perceive as cooperating with the West, among others. The Islamic State is easily taking over parts of Syria and Iraq through a campaign of extreme violence. Russian-backed terrorists (and Russians themselves) have taken over parts of Ukraine, even shooting down a civilian airliner in their campaign. Palestinians and Israelis are trapped in an ongoing conflict. Since September 11, there have been hundreds of terror attacks around the globe, in Asia, Europe and Africa. We are naive to think we are safe here. Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Being isolated here in America is a blessing…and a curse. Don’t think the tension between Russia and the West doesn’t affect you? Some believe the recent Home Depot security breach originated in Russia as retaliation against Western sanctions. Terrorism around the world can and will touch our lives. I have no personal attachment to the September 11 attacks; I’ve been more touched by those other conflicts. I’m not out of the ordinary. Terrorism and conflict around the world may not affect you personally but may touch the life of the person next to you. This is the world we live in now, and we all must accept it.

All I ask, on this September 11 – and any day, really – is to stop and think about how blessed you are to live in America, but to also think about those who are not. Imagine having to live with that every day. It could happen here. Everybody deserves to live in peace.

Looking Back at Beslan

It’s been 10 years since the world first heard  about Beslan, a town in Russia’s northern Caucasus. On 1 September 2004, militants stormed School No. 1 and took 1120 people hostage in a siege that would last 3 days.

I’m not here to provide lengthy, detailed insight into the failures leading to the deaths of more than 300 people. Over the years many reports have been written, such as this and this. I want to highlight the failures, and call attention to those involved and those who survived. There are so many unanswered questions, even after ten years. I am offering a simple observation on this anniversary.

The Russians

The Russian response to the siege was set up for disaster from the beginning. Despite the ongoing tensions in the North Caucasus due the the recent wars, security in the area was lax. Militants were able to get past checkpoints either by bribe or by having an inside man (this post briefly mentions GRU infiltration of the insurgency), and they trained in the woods outside Beslan undetected. Once the siege began, Russia treated it as a military counterterrorism operation rather than a civilian hostage crisis. This could have been in part because of previous failures such as the Dubrovka Theater siege. They refused a negotiator, which can drag out a situation. Local assistance was ignored, and no information was shared with the FSB, who likely never inquired. Instead, Russia became impatient and chose a military incursion not unlike the FBI at Waco. Their goal was to thoroughly eliminate all terrorists and completely disregarded any civilian casualties; they didn’t even clear civilians away from the school. There are even reports of Russian soldiers firing on civilians running from the school believing them to be terrorists.

Given the results, the Russian response was a total disaster. Their response basically insured mass casualties. Ten years later, Beslan’s families are still demanding answers from Russia. They’re in for a long wait. In the meantime, all we have is the testimony from survivors.

The Mother

Nadezhda Guriyeva was a teacher at School No. 1, and was there with her three children on when the militants stormed the school. She was one of the last to be herded into the gymnasium only to realize her children were already there. She recalls the militants breaking sinks and pipes so the hostages couldn’t have water. They weren’t allowed to leave the gymnasium for any reason. When the hostages began to get unruly, Guriyeva said the militants took one of the men and shot him in front of everyone.

Guriyeva remembers the explosion that set off the incursion. Around 1:00 pm a huge explosion shook the gymnasium. Hostages began running, some being shot as they ran. A second explosion happened a short time later, collapsing the roof and setting a fire. Sadly, two of Guriyeva’s children died as a result. When the Russian special forces moved in, Guriyeva escaped out a window, reuniting with her youngest daughter.

Nadezhda Guriyeva still teaches at School No. 1, now in a new building. She says the only way she survives is because her youngest daughter did. She is still haunted by what happened and wants answers. Those answers will likely never come.

The Terrorist

Nurpashi Kulayev was captured trying to escape from the school. The lone surviving terrorist, he was put on trial in 2005 in what was basically a show trial. He barely spoke Russian but was denied a translator. The judge openly mocked him in court. Angry families shouted at him throughout the trial, the judge barely containing them. One group – the Beslan Mothers – wanted Kulayev to tell his story thinking it was the only way to know what truly happened inside the school. But what does Kulayev’s story tell us?

Kulayev came to be in School No. 1 not as a willing participant but as leverage of sorts. The militants were looking for his brother, a veteran under the leadership of Shamil Basayev. It was suspected by the rebels that Kulayev’s brother had been under the employ of pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov. This was echoed by Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, failed Moscow suicide bomber and Chechen, who was brought in to be a witness against Kulayev.

Once inside the school, Kulayev was placed in the cafeteria not in the gymnasium where the hostages were being held. He was only given a rifle after the siege began. He claims to have never fired the rifle, and that one of the first explosions was set of when a sniper shot a militants foot which was resting on an explosive device detonator. During the chaos of the Russians storming the school, Kulayev climbed out a window hoping to escape. It was then that he was caught.

The Beslan siege was a tragedy for all involved. The question remains, has anyone learned from it? Will the Russians approach the next situation the same? Probably. Have other countries reviewed their response procedures? Will the Beslan families ever find out what really happened? Too many questions remain unanswered. We can only hope that the lessons were learned. In the meantime, remember the victims of that day. Beslan should never be forgotten.