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Why Do Women Join Islamic State?

Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla admitted guilt last month to trying to help the Islamic State. They were arrested last year at a Mississippi Airport, where the FBI says they were ready to begin the long trip to Syria.

Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla admitted guilt last month to trying to help the Islamic State. They were arrested last year at a Mississippi Airport, where the FBI says they were ready to begin the long trip to Syria.

Jaelyn Young seemed both excited and frightened about what her life would be like when she joined the Islamic State in Syria.

Twenty-year-old Young is a former high-school cheerleader and a chemistry student at Mississippi State University. She shared her feelings on social media with people she thought were Islamic State recruiters.

They were actually United States FBI agents.

Young admitted guilt March 30 to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State. She had planned to travel with a male friend, 22-year-old Muhammad Dakhlalla, to Syria to join the Islamic State. He admitted guilt to a similar charge on March 11.

A report by the organization New America says 1-in-7 of the 4,500 Westerners who joined the Islamic State or other Sunni militant groups are women.

Young recently converted to Islam and is the daughter of a police officer. The U.S. Justice Department released some of her conversations with the FBI agents.

One exchange explains that Dakhlalla got his passport and that her passport was due to arrive over the weekend.

She explains that most people she knows do not approve of the Islamic State. But Young says she and Dakhlalla “know this is the true Khalifa.” Khalifa refers to the Islamic caliphate promised by the Islamic State.

Still, Young is worried about traveling from Turkey to Syria. She messages the person she believes is an Islamic State contact, but is really an FBI Agent.

She and Dakhlalla don’t know Turkey “very well.”

“I haven’t even traveled outside U.S. before,” she says.

She asks if she will “be with people that speak English” when she arrives in Syria. Young also discusses her skills in math and chemistry and says she and Dakhlalla hope to treat the wounded.

Dakhlalla, whom she met at Mississippi State University, appears to be a big influence. Young says on social media that they were married in June 2015.

“He says a lot of Muslims are caught on their doubts of Islamic State bc (because) of what US media says and he wants to assure them the US media is all lies when regarding Dawlah,” she writes. Dawlah is another word for Islamic State.

Young and Dakhlalla were arrested last August at a Mississippi airport. The FBI said that is where they planned to start their long trip to Syria.

Arie Kruglanski is a professor at the University of Maryland who has studied why people join terrorist groups.

“They do so because joining the fight and defending the ‘caliphate’ would bestow upon them a sense of meaning and significance,” he told VOA.

“Other women are attracted to the traditional role of women that ISIS promises and their role in supporting ‘real’ heroes and bearing their children, the future fighters for Islam.”

Some women and girls who joined the Islamic State drew news coverage.

Twins Zahra and Salma Halene left their home in the United Kingdom two years ago. They were 16 when they traveled to Syria.

New reports from the United Kingdom said they married Islamic State fighters, both of whom were killed in fighting.

Recent reports offer seemingly conflicting information. Some stories said they were trying to escape and return to the UK. Another said they had tried to get family members to join Islamic State.

The New America report offers some examples of women trying to join Islamic State.

  • Three teenage girls from Colorado were stopped in Germany on their way to join the Islamic State. Their fathers reported them missing.
  • Shannon Conley, 19, also of Colorado, was arrested after federal officials say she arranged to travel to Syria to join a foreign fighter she had met online.
  • Hoda Muthana, 20, of Alabama made it to Syria and was assigned to recruit more Islamic State members online.

Brigitte Nacos is an expert on terrorism and mass media at Columbia University in New York. She says there is no single profile for girls and young women who try to join the Islamic State. Some are leaders and others are followers.

She adds that there are warnings for women, even within the propaganda posted on the online Islamic State magazine, Dabiq.

She posted this report from the magazine about responsibilities of the wife of an Islamic State fighter:

“Every sister should know that when her husband wants to marry another woman, it’s not obligatory for him to consult her, not to seek her permission, not to try and appease her.” The author writes that it is also fine for an Islamic State fighter to take a child bride.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

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Words in This Story

recruitern. someone who fines people to join a group or company

conspire v. to secretly plan with someone to do something that is harmful or illegal

caliphaten. an area containing an Islamic head of state

assurev. to tell someone that it will be okay

regarding – prep. relating to something

bestowv. to give something to a person

significanceadj. the quality of having notable worth or influence

attractv. to cause someone to choose to do or be involved in something

obligatoryadj. required by a law or rule

consultv. to ask for the professional opinion

appeasev. to make someone pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired