In Nov. 2013, Aqsa Mahmood asked her sisters to share one big bed with her. She gave her father an extra long hug, and bid a lengthy goodbye to her grandmother. In a matter of days, the 19-year-old had passed through Turkey and into Syria. She has lived alongside ISIS fighters there ever since.
“We used to tell her…this is not Islam, some of these groups [like ISIS] are not Islam,” her father, Muzaffar told CNN. “They are doing wrong things which we don’t approve of. Obviously, no Muslim approves this.”
According to her family, Aqsa listened to Coldplay and read Harrry Potter books. She enjoyed a pleasant life in an affluent neighborhood and attended some of the best schools in Glasgow, but something drew the teenager to ISIS – despite the horrifying acts the militant group committed and publicized. Her decision to join such a brutal and fanatical militant group – and perhaps to convince three other young Brits to do so – confounds. But the women who join militant groups appear to be influenced by the same things men are – and for ISIS, that’s a higher power that imbues them with a sense of superiority and righteousness.
“[W]e sacrificed all of that for the best in akriah [the afterlife] were not stupid young brainwashed females we[‘]ve come here to [S]yria for ALLAH alone,” she is believed to have tweeted, according to Buzzfeed, after arriving in the country.
A post she wrote on Tumblr counters the narrative that she – and other women like her – were “brainwashed” into joining a group that’s not only barbarous to those outside of it, but also so harsh towards women in general.
“The media at first used to [portray] the ones running away to join the Jihad [holy war] as being unsuccessful, [and say that they] didn’t have a future and [came] from broke down families etc. But that is far from the truth,” Aqsa claims. “Most sisters I have come across have been in university studying courses with many promising paths, with big, happy families and friends and everything in the Dunyah to persuade one to stay behind and enjoy the luxury. If we had stayed behind, we could have been blessed with it all from a relaxing and comfortable life and lots of money.”
And although she seems to entice would-be ISIS members with the riches she claims to have gotten through the group’s looting campaign, she claims her reasons for joining extend beyond material things.
“[I]n these lands we are rewarded for our sacrifices involved in our Hijrah [flight from home],” Aqsa wrote in September – after having spent nearly a year in Syria. “And know that honestly there is something so pleasurable to know that what you have has been taken off from the Kuffar [infidels] and handed to you personally by Allah swt as a gift.”
She capped off a description of an expenses-free life with all sorts of appliances including a “milkshake machine” “gifted” to her with the question, “Sounds great right?” Still, the weight of her highly politicized worldview bear a stark contrast to the adolescent voice that breaks through it at times.
But Aqsa, who was married to an ISIS militant soon after arriving in Syria, added, “The only thing which makes one take this actions is Al Wala Wal Bara [which means] Love and Hate purely for the sake of Allah swt” – an action which she believes can only be carried out under the rule of ISIS, although many Muslim scholars condemn its draconian and militaristic approach to Islam.
In an earlier post, Aqsa acknowledged that the parents of those who have joined ISIS in Syria might blame themselves.
The appeal ISIS has on women in the West specifically, is multilayered, according to Erin Saltman, who has studied political radicalization around the world. They’re drawn to an “adventure narrative” of life in a “Muslim utopia” – even if many would discredit that characterization. They may also feel compelled to join the movement by a belief that it has a humanitarian mission, or that it’s the duty of Muslims to fight back against Western powers. And, there might be an element of romance in the mix too. The women might be promised a “strong Muslim man, who is a true Muslim, who is fighting for this very heroic cause,” she told Vox.
But it’s not just a fanciful romance that women are after.
“For many women, and especially for women from the marginalized Sunni community, violence becomes a vehicle for political agency,” Nimmi Gowrinathan of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Women fight for personal as well as political power, often sacrificing one for the other. If the world ignores that fact, it will miss a chance to deal with the identity politics that sustain war.”
And girls like Aqsa Mahmood and the three who are believed to have followed her in to Syria will continue to leave loving families and promising futures for the hardships of a war front bloodied by brutal militants.
Even ones who hardly seem likely targets. In an interview with CNN, Aqsa’s parents said she was a dutiful daughter and an anxious teenager.
“She didn’t like shouting,” her mother said. “I don’t know when she became this brave. She was scared to talk, scared to fly, and this is a very big step — her flying to Syria. I can’t believe this.”