Many women who were part of the Islamic State (IS) remain loyal to the group, even after it fell this year. But a few say they regret joining it.
The Associated Press spoke with four women from foreign countries who came to Syria to be part of the so-called caliphate. They said they joined IS for different reasons. But all four now believe they made a mistake and want to go back to their home countries.
Today, they live in a camp in northern Syria with tens of thousands of other IS family members. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces – or SDF – controls the camp.
Their situation shows the difficult question of what do with the men and women who traveled from other countries to join the IS. In general, their home governments do not want to take them back. The SDF complains that it is forced to deal with them.
And to many, the women’s regret is not believable or not important. They all willingly joined a group that was well-known to be extremely violent.
But here is what they told Western reporters.
Aliya is a 24-year-old Indonesian. She says she grew up in a conservative Muslim family, but she did not follow the religion. Then, one day she decided to change her behavior sharply. She joined IS to “make up” for her past. She believed that if she moved to the caliphate, her sins would be cleared.
In 2015, Aliya married an Algerian man who was also thinking about joining IS. They settled in Raqqa, Syria, the city that IS used as its capital. The couple soon had a son.
But Aliya said the situation was not what she expected. IS took the couple’s passports. They did not permit the couple to communicate privately. She said her husband was sent to jail because he refused to become a fighter.
In 2017 IS militants gave Aliya and her son permission to leave. Her parents are trying to convince Indonesian officials to permit her to come home.
“I was young,” Aliya said. “Some people still love IS. Me, because I’ve lived there, I see how they are, so I’m done with them.”
Gailon Lawson is from Trinidad and Tobago. She is 45 years old. She became Muslim only a few years ago. Shortly after she accepted the new religion, she married a man in Trinidad who followed IS teaching. Lawson became the man’s second wife. She said she followed him to Syria in 2014, along with her then 12 year old son.
Lawson said she knew immediately she had made a mistake. Not long after they arrived in Syria, the couple divorced.
Lawson said her main concern quickly became keeping her son from being enlisted as a fighter. To get him out of Baghouz this year, she dressed him as a woman in robes and a veil. The two escaped the city, but then Kurdish security forces detained the young man. Lawson says she has not heard from him in weeks.
Samira is a 31-year-old Belgian woman. She said that when she was younger and lived in Europe, she drank alcohol and went dancing at clubs. Then, she said, “I wanted to change my life. I found Islam.”
She said she accepted IS messages that Europe would never accept Muslims. She believed she could be truly Muslim only if she was part of the so-called caliphate.
“It was very stupid, I know,” she said.
When she reached Syria, IS militants permitted her to choose a husband. Samira chose a French citizen.
In 2016 the couple had a son. That year they also hired a smuggler to help them escape. But the smuggler took their money and reported them to IS instead.
Finally, in 2018 the family surrendered themselves to forces that opposed IS.
Samira says she is now trying to get home and become part of Belgian culture again. She says she hates IS.
“They sold us a dream, but it was an open prison. They kill innocent people. All that they do, these things, it’s not from Islam.”
Kimberly Polman is a 46-year-old Canadian woman. She came to Syria to join her new husband, a man she knew only from online. But she says he became abusive, and they soon divorced.
She married again and worked in a hospital. Polman treated children who had been wounded in the fighting.
“I saw an incredible number of children die,” she said. Polman came to blame the militants for the suffering she saw.
Early this year, she and her husband surrendered to the SDF. She wants to return to Canada. She says she is not safe in the camp because she has spoken out against IS.
“I feel so badly that I think I don’t deserve a future,” she said. “I shouldn’t have trusted.”
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
And I’m Anna Mateo.
Kelly Jean Kelly adapted this story for Learning English based on a report from the Associated Press. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
caliphate - n. an area controlled by an important Muslim political and religious leader
incredible - adj. difficult or impossible to believe