Gone girls: why British teenagers are attracted to Islamic State

We need to teach children about the differences between propaganda and fact, between Islam and Islamism


The decision by Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana, and Amira Abase to board a flight from London to Turkey last Tuesday meant leaving behind their families, their friends, and the only way of life they have ever known.

Shamima made online contact with Aqsa Mahmood, a Scottish woman who left Britain to marry an Islamic State fighter, days before her journey. Another of the three girls was signed up to 70 sites that disseminate Islamic State propaganda to aid recruitment.

Prime minister David Cameron was ‘horrified’ by the way two British 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old appear to have been ‘radicalised and duped’ while ‘at home on the internet in their bedrooms’. Public focus has centered on the mechanical elements of travel to Syria, as well as the failings of the police and airlines in monitoring this challenge. We appear, however, to be ignoring the agency of the girls themselves. In doing so, we risk misunderstanding what causes them to join radical movements.

Yes, the appeal of joining the global jihad and an ‘Islamic utopia’ is conflated with a sense of adventure in social media. But social media is not enough to turn young women into radicals. Jihadism is accessible to men and women, albeit with different roles, and radicalisation is a process rather than a switch.

For young girls, this process stems from two elements. The first is a ‘push’ factor, in that girls feel they do not fit into the societies they live in, and are not understood by their families or by the religion they are supposed to practise. The idea of waging jihad in the Middle East gives these individuals an increased sense of agency.

A heavily shared photo by Qad Af-Iahal Shuhada, a female jihadist’s social media account, for example, shows a woman in a burqa holding a gun. Words in italics over her frame read:

“I know what I’m doing. Paradise has a price and I hope this will be the price for paradise”.

Here, a woman is not in a secondary ‘helping’ role, but is the one making the decisions. For a teenager, this increased sense of self is attractive.

The second is a ‘pull’ factor. Violence is often glamourised and sensationalised, particularly when women are put in the frontlines of power. “Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well”, sings British artist and rapper M.I.A., while she dances provocatively in a sandy desert. In the background, women hold guns and wear hijabs and balaclavas.

This video, long criticised for its Orientalism, has been overlooked in its undertones of female empowerment. Islamic State propaganda does this well too. Violence becomes a suspension of ‘normality’, women are seen as aggressors, and everyone is given an increased sense of power and dominance.

For women involved in the Islamic State, however, the reality does not match expectations. A manifesto released by the female policing group, the Al-Khanssaa Brigade, and translated by Quilliam, explicitly states that women are not to be active participants of war or perpetrators of violence.

Instead, they are bounded in their agency, and there is ‘no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband’. In terms of the roles they play, there are ‘divine’ limitations to stop them from being more than a supporting role of a mother and a wife. It is awareness of this mismatch between reality and fantasy that we must actively promote among young people at risk of radicalisation.

An increased focus on a civil society approach involves facilitating conversations about the risks of jihadism between parents and teachers and the children for whom they have a duty of care.

We need experts to train families and teachers to be able to spot radicalisation, know what they can do about it, and teach critical consumption skills. This will help children distinguish between Islam and Islamism, and between fact and propaganda. Ten years ago, parents worried how to talk to their children about sex, and the ‘birds and the bees’ talk became a seminal event in their social education. Now it’s time for us to get talking openly with our children about the risks of radicalisation.

Nikita Malik is a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank. To aid Quilliam in their fight against extremism, visit their ‘Countering Extremism Together‘ campaign at IndieGoGo

5 Responses to “Gone girls: why British teenagers are attracted to Islamic State”

  1. David Lindsay

    These girls are probably the second generation to have been born in Britain. They are no more (or, I suppose, less) Bangladeshi than the Queen is German. The Royal Family maintains a number of German customs in private, and the Queen is old enough to remember elderly relatives who spoke English, if at all, with the very heavy German accent of Queen Victoria. That accent is still not depicted when she is portrayed on screen.

    If girls in their mid-teens attached themselves to street gangs and thus became at least complicit in drug-related violence of what have you, then would we indulge them as having had little or no agency of their own? Nor should we do so in this case.

    If they prefer one lot of the Wahhabi to another, then that is up to them. But their brothers and their male classmates are not being called up to fight for the other lot of the Wahhabi against that one. Any more than to fight for Svoboda and Pravy Sektor against Vladimir Putin.

  2. Guest

    No surprise you try and say that fighting Putin is like fighting for your beloved Islamists.

  3. David Lindsay

    Russia’s support for the war in Afghanistan (whatever one might think of that in itself), and for the general struggle against the Islamist terrorism of which she is a major target but which in its Crimean Tatar form actively supports the coup in Ukraine, makes Russia a far more recent, and arguably an ongoing, ally.

    In 1945, it mattered to us whether the swastika or the hammer and sickle, both of which flags have been dug out by people who had clearly never stopped having them to hand, flew over the Donbass. But that is not at all our concern in 2015.

    The coup-installed President of Ukraine has been to Abu Dhabi to see about buying weapons from the Emiratis who have given up bombing the IS that, with the other Sunni monarchies, they were so instrumental in creating.

    A dozen years ago, certain newspapers, at least one of which is now fighting for its life, poured scorn on schoolboy demonstrators against the Iraq War very soon after having gleefully published pictures of tiny children waving placards in support of foxhunting.

    But that, grave though it was and right though the youths were, was as nothing next to the prospect of everlasting involvement in The War Among The Wahhabi, or, without exaggeration, to World War Three against Russia.

    We now see the emerging connections between those for whom we should be fighting in those two ostensibly distinct conflagrations. We are already providing air support to one lot of the Wahhabi (while continuing to define as our enemies the Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese fighters on the ground in defence of Christians and others), and we are now, in time-honoured fashion, sending our troops to “train” the blackshirts who have taken power in Ukraine.

    No one is more entitled than teenage boys to object most vigorously to these actual and putative developments. I am starting to wonder what is taking them so long to do so. I am even starting to wonder whether these follies would be considered at all if the voting age were to be lowered to 16.

  4. Guest

    As I said. You keep arguing that a state which is invading counties in Europe is an “ally”. Then make excuses for Stalin, even.

    You keep fighting democracy, which you hate so much, for your prefered terrorism and invasions. You spin your conaspiracy theories, make excuses for autocrats and tyrants…

  5. johnm55

    Here is a hypothesis; Many fundamentalist Christians marry very young basically to have sex in a manner approved of by by their religion. Is it possible that fundimentalist Muslims might seem to do something similar?

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