When you are building a state you need women. Without them, the state is bunch of warriors who, however heroic, ferocious and bloody, and however magnificent their whiskers, will eventually get killed, grow old, go home. Without women there can be no state because there is no permanence, no real settlement, no homes, no children. Warriors in male communities like the ribats of North Africa grow no roots and, fickle as they are, will eventually drift on to other wars and other places. Women are the esparto grass that binds the sand-dunes together, to make a military camp into a state.
And a state is what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his myrmidons in Raqqah are very keen indeed to be acknowledged as having built. They are very touchy about nomenclature: they don’t like to be called Daesh (even though it is a perfectly good acronym, ad-Dawlat al-Islamiya fi-l‘Iraq wa-ash-Shams – ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’), perhaps because it rhymes with something. It is always used, in the wonderfully prim word favoured by the British press, ‘pejoratively.’ Worse though, Daesh positively hates the way al-Jazeera refers to them insistently as ‘the Islamic State Organization’ (Tanzim). Their entire claim to legitimacy rests on being a state, not an organization.
Without a tangible, braggable state the Caliphate is not just flimsy, it is non-existent: a caliph without a state is like a belt with no trousers to hold up. Because number one amongst the attributes that make it both possible and perhaps even obligatory to declare a caliphate is the control of a large swathe of territory. A Tanzim – organization – doesn’t have that. A dawla – state – does. So al-Baghdadi needs to be recognized as having a state, otherwise his own legitimacy as caliph is undermined. And while there are many other strands to Daesh’s self-justification, this is an important one. (It is also of course why we should never refer to his outfit as IS, or ISIS or ISIL, because every time we say the S-word Daesh gets a little more real – like children shouting “I believe in fairies” to revive the dying Tinkerbell at Peter Pan.)
Romulus, the founder of Rome, ran into the women problem two or three years after founding the city in 753 BC. He had lots of warriors and seven promising hills by the Tiber, but no women. His men were getting restless and thinking a great deal too much about sex. There was a risk that they would move on, and anyway no prospect of permanence in his new city-state unless he could get hold of some women. So he invited the various Sabine tribes in the vicinity of Rome to a party, and when they were all royally drunk, kidnapped their women and chucked the menfolk out of the city. This is referred to as the Rape of the Sabine Women, and although historians argue about whether the women were raped or just seized and later sweet-talked into ‘marriage,’ the argument at this distance is fairly academic because little Romans soon started to appear, and the rest is history.
The Raqqah caliphate needs a new generation of jihadi Muslims. The majority of its jihadis are locals – Iraqi Sunnis and former Ba’thists who were systematically alienated by the Shi’a regime, Syrian Sunnis who were systematically alienated by the crypto-Shi’a Alawi elite of the Asad family. Some at least of these have families to defend, but many, perhaps most, don’t. As one Syrian fighter puts it, The economic crisis casts its grim shadow over middle class people … struggling to survive in the face of soaring prices, high taxes and low incomes. Young men could not marry and start a family until they were over 30. This emasculation – the despair at having no prospect of job, a home or the means to marry and support a family – is a commonplace amongst young people across the Middle East and North Africa. Once combined with a political resentment and a justificatory ideological narrative, it is explosive.
To keep them happy and to breed the the next generation, the Caliphate needs women. There are local Muslim women in the area controlled by the caliphate – Arabs, Kurds, Circassians and others, and many reports of forced marriage of unmarried women to Daeshi fighters. In many cases ‘marriage’ may be a rather loose description of the transaction, but outright and wholesale rape of Muslim women, though it certainly happens, is not a long-term solution because the people of Raqqah and Mosul and the other Daeshi towns need to be kept on-side. The locals are known as Ansar, or supporters, and a minimum of orderly restraint is needed to retain their support – forcible ‘marriage’ to a man’s daughter is not the best way to his heart. Let alone hers.
The problem, however, comes in two parts, sex and marriage. The first is easily enough satisfied, by reviving the supposedly traditional and Prophetically sanctioned enslavement of non-Muslim women whose menfolk are defeated in war. These women are simply loot, ghanima, to be taken and used. One author (Weiss/Hassan, Inside ISIS, 2015) writes of a Daeshi fighter:
Abdelaziz … kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya or sex-slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the peshmerga forces in Sinjar. According to ISIS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex-slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to ISIS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; and the remainder was divided amongst the rank-and-file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war. Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She ‘belonged’ to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other ISIS commanders.
Boko Haram does almost exactly the same thing, capturing Christian girls and enslaving them for sex and perhaps child-bearing. Some of these desperately unfortunate women are forced to convert to Islam, and become subject to the caliph’s interpretation of shariah law on the matter of marriage, which in this case means up to four wives and as much human loot as you can manage. But there is, in the caliphate (though perhaps not in Bornu or the Sinai), another source of women, referred to by Mohamed Tozy as those performing the Jihad de Sexe. These are the women from across the Muslim world, who throw up everything and head for Syria in order to be part of the Daeshi enterprise, pious citizens of their soi-disant state. They may represent as many as one in six of those going from western countries to the caliphate.
Why do they go? The question needs an answer, as we contemplate the three teenagers from Bethnal Green who used their half term holiday to slip away from their families to Turkey and on across the border into the Black Hole once known as Syria. They were good students, clearly apples of their parents’ eye, and they had given no obvious signs of excessive religiosity or jihadi sympathies. On the face of it they and others like them are going voluntarily to join an economy of female flesh that is hard to imagine any young girl contemplating without horror. They will almost certainly marry fighters, perhaps bear children and in due course, still in their teens, be widowed when their bearded husbands die in battle, or blow themselves up in a bus queue or vegetable market.
These premature, often adolescent, widows will then bring up their their daughters for the same throwaway, leave-behind-bride routine that they have undergone themselves. As for their sons, they will go to jihad school for a programme of systematic indoctrination – and brutalisation. Another recent book (Stern/Berger, ISIS – Inside the Terror State, 2015) describes the sort of thing: a young boy is being interviewed on a Daesh propaganda film. “What will you be in the future, if God wills it?” the interviewer asked. “I will be the one who slaughters you, oh kuffar,” the boy responded, grinning at the camera. “I will be a mujahid, if God wills it.” One 10-year-old boy from the video was seen in a subsequent release executing two prisoners. Such videos and images are far from rare. Isis members routinely post images on social media of children holding severed heads and playing on streets where dismembered bodies are splayed carelessly on the sidewalk. One image posted to Twitter showed a child playacting the beheading of American hostage James Foley using a doll.
The caliphate’s education policy seems clear (though the sources must always be approached with some circumspection). Isis strictly controls the education of children in the territory it holds. According to a teacher from Raqqa, Isis considers philosophy, science, history, art and sport to be incompatible with Islam. “Those under 15 go to sharia camp to learn about their creed and religion,” an Isis press officer in Raqqa told Vice News. “Those over 16, they can attend the military camp … Those over 16 and who were previously enrolled in the camps can participate in military operations.” But in Isis propaganda videos, even younger children are shown being trained in the use of firearms. And, as the authors add drily, Isis follows a trend of training ever-younger operatives. By doing so they hope to ensure a new generation of fighters. Leadership decapitation is significantly less likely to be effective against organisations that have children ready to step into their fathers’ shoes.
The effect that this has on children is barely imaginable (except that in the child armies of West Africa we have seen the desolating plasticity of the child forced young into violence, and the profound damage done to that child). But the question that comes back and back is: do young women setting off from western countries suspect the fate that awaits their unborn children and themselves? Do they welcome it? Do they think about it? Some of course move with their menfolk. But the real enigma is those, like the three young Londoners, who set off, starry-eyed, to join this blood-soaked ideological enterprise. They clearly want to share in the romantic adventure, the creation of a godly state. Some think they will fight, but are disappointed to find that this is not the purpose of the females imported into the caliphate – though some talk, in the poignant language of a disneyfied childhood, of “pulling a Mulan,” or going into battle disguised as boys. They don’t: their life is one of marriage, sex, breeding, cooking, cleaning and early widowhood, the lot of the soldier’s wife down the ages.
A recent report called Becoming Mulan (Institute for Strategic Dialogue) analyzes the trails of social media activity left by these young women, particularly those whose job is to lure others to follow them. It seems that on top of the jobs of the soldier’s wife down the ages, they are expected to use social media to attract others. This seems very clear in the way the three London girls followed another friend from their own school who had left for Syria a few weeks earlier. Radicalization by social media takes place in the bedroom, in front of a laptop, and female friendship is central: Beyond romantic attachment, and in common with their male counterparts, the women within our dataset speak of the sense of cameraderie and sisterhood they experience in ISIS-controlled territory, in contrast to the fake and surface-level relationships they have in the west. This search for meaning, sisterhood and and identity is a key driving factor for women to travel.
Or, as Hanif Qadir, a former jihadi in Afghanistan puts it, You’ve got young men and women on social media platforms in the middle of the night when they should be doing their homework or should be in bed. But they’re being engaged or groomed online, even though they may not know it … these girls have been ripped out of their households to join a network of individuals who clearly don’t have their best interests at heart. How did this happen? Social media.
As I was contemplating this puzzle, I happened on a quite different news story, headlined Nuns turn to social media to tackle lack of recruits. It tells of how Spanish convents, unable to recruit novices to the religious life, have taken to using a website called Buscoalgomas, or ‘I’m looking for something more.’ One convent alone reports 200,000 visits to its website, 8,000 Facebook likes, 461 Twitter followers and 12 nuns recruited through the social media (augmenting the convent’s population by 65%). The average age of nuns is plummeting, with the convent’s own average now down to 35, and the typical electronically recruited novice aged 20-30. This rings a bell. So does the comment by one sister, They’re trying to find their place in the world and what attracts them about the convent is the joy and affection they find there. Or another, These days no one goes to a convent, so we have to be on Twitter and Facebook. And a third, We have to be in touch with reality, and listen to people who are suffering, both existentially and materially.
What this suggests to me is something more subtle and complex than simply the external cultivation – radicalization – of young men and women, clear though this is. These stories speak of a generation of young people looking for meaning. It is an emptiness and a search that clearly affects both Catholic Spaniards and Muslim Britons – and no doubt many more, too, trying to find their place in the world and looking for joy and affection through the medium of their generation – the internet. The problem is that Raqqah is not a convent, the price is very high, and the street one-way.