The images are striking: women in the Islamic State regions of Iraq and Syria, dressed from head to toe in black burkas but armed to the teeth. They are firing semi-automatic pistols or wielding AK-47 assault rifles. They look powerful, dangerous, deadly. For the West to ignore these extreme propaganda images would be fatal, because the pictures — spreading virally through social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook — are extraordinary in many ways. They are deliberately and cynically designed to appeal to disaffected European Muslim girls who might despise Western society but who still regard themselves as the equals of men.
They are significant because they put women centre-stage — unlike traditional Islamist propaganda which has focused exclusively on men and treated females as invisible. But most of all they are extraordinary because of the depth of their deception. These pictures are more than misleading: they are complete inversions of the truth. Women in areas controlled by ISIS have no power whatever. Their only role is as sex objects; their only purpose to give sexual gratification to men. The British girls who are lured to the Middle East by ISIS propaganda are doomed to be slaves in one way or another.
A teenager from Manchester or Glasgow who runs away from home, hoping to join the jihadis and find herself a husband, is heading for slavery. That is not a figure of speech: according to a fatwa or Islamic decree, sexual slavery is legal in the so- called caliphate (a state governed by Islamic law). A pamphlet published by ISIS last December outlines the twisted rules of this fatwa, telling men when it is permissible to beat, rape or sell their slaves. This appalling fact should be common knowledge throughout the world. Instead, because of the effectiveness of ISIS propaganda as it manipulates the social networks, many people do not understand the truth.
Perhaps that’s because it is too horrible to believe, or because we in the West are too used to questioning the evidence of our own eyes, especially when it comes from news reports. Commentators have even suggested that some of the photos and videos of ISIS atrocities — prisoners in cages being driven round Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold, or thrown off the top of buildings — are ‘black propaganda’ by the CIA — counter-lies circulated to discredit the jihadi movement. If so, it is a ploy that has backfired badly, because Islamic State thrives on publicity, the more horrific the better. As a journalist, I am naturally wary of all unsubstantiated claims, especially the most lurid. For example, some reports of atrocities make me suspicious, such as the claim on Radio 4 this week that brutal punishments are meted out to women who attempt to breastfeed their babies in public: their breasts were supposedly clamped in razor-sharp animal traps. I don’t doubt that sexual violence is an everyday occurrence in the Islamic State, but I also know public breastfeeding is practically non-existent in all Muslim countries. It also doesn’t help that some so-called experts on the terror group are claiming women have an important role to play in building the Islamic State. This week, the BBC reported — as if it were fact — former jihadist Aimen Dean’s statement that ISIS wanted women to work in hospitals, schools and tax offices, as well as for raising families. This is nonsense. According to ISIS laws, women are not even allowed out of doors except under strictly proscribed circumstances. And with more than eight million people already under their control, the jihadi fighters have no urgent interest in promoting motherhood. In this swirl of misconceptions and lies, one stark fact remains: more than 500 young women from Western Europe have joined ISIS in the past two years, and more leave their comfortable lives to sign up every week.
What awaits them defies description. In March, researching my report into the women of ISIS, for the Reuters Institute in Oxford and for a book, I visited a refugee camp in Dohuk, Kurdistan, close to the Turkish border. More than 18,000 Yazidi people live there, forced to flee their homes in northern Iraq by Islamic State fighters. They have nothing to go back to — jihadis looted their possessions and killed those too old or sick to leave. Frequently, when ISIS attacks a village, all the males over 14 — including any boys old enough to have armpit hair — will be killed. Women will be stripped and their bodies examined for breast size and attractiveness, before they are packed onto buses and transported to slave markets. One of the Dohuk refugees, Maoon, 38, who worked as a translator for the Americans in Mosul, in Iraq after the war against Saddam Hussein, recounted the atrocities he had seen inflicted on Yazidi women who were taken prisoner. He claims a woman who had refused to perform an extreme sex act saw her child killed in front of her and was forced to eat its flesh. It’s an extraordinary allegation — but, shockingly, consistent with other reports. Last week, another deeply disturbing revelation came to light: before her death earlier this year, 26-year-old Kayla Mueller, an American aid worker, was a sex slave for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the top leader of ISIS.American officials allegedly learned about this abuse after interviewing two Yazidi girls, 16 and 18, who escaped from the same compound where they were all held as sex slaves. Zainab Bangura, a UN special representative on sexual violence, says ISIS has institutionalised sexual slavery as a terror tactic, to a degree of cruelty that she had not witnessed even in the civil wars of Bosnia, Sudan or Somalia. ‘I cannot understand such inhumanity,’ she says. ‘I was sick. We heard of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform a sex act.’
For Yazidi slaves, the only escape is usually death. Many women have committed suicide, and a new law was recently introduced forbidding them to wear scarves, to prevent them from hanging themselves. The Yazidi are accused by Islamic fundamentalists of being pagans and devil worshippers, because according to their ancient religion they pray to seven angels. This supposedly gives the jihadis a right to take the women prisoner and trade them at slave markets. But it is not just the Yazidi who are made slaves. ISIS promises two or three women to every fighter, and to keep the markets supplied they must attract recruits from everywhere — Europe, America and Muslim countries such as Pakistan. Slaves are sold like cattle. A price list has been drawn up, rated according to youth and attractiveness. Most valuable are children, some as young as nine. Pre-pubescent girls sell for £110. Adolescents between £80 and £85. Women in their 20s are about £60 — less if flat-chested – while a woman over 40 might sell for £25. To put into context how low these sums are, in areas under ISIS control, daily revenue from oil smuggling, taxes, extortion and the antiquities black market is estimated at between £650,000 and £1.3 million.
Online videos show young ISIS recruits excitedly eyeing the caged women at the markets. In one clip, a group is mocking the youngest jihadi, who is about to get his first sex slave. ‘Today is the market,’ laughs one man. ‘Today is distribution day, God willing.’ He and his friends taunt the youngster: ‘Can you handle one?’ He will not be given first choice. Local political leaders have the pick of the slaves, followed by emirs, brigade officers then soldiers. The reintroduction of slavery began with the Saudi Wahhabi cleric Sheikh Mohamad al-Arefe, a Twitter propagandist. He urged women in Syria to embark on a ‘sexual jihad’, presenting themselves to Mujahideen fighters in the war on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The theological logic was that, although the Koran forbids sex before marriage, it should be permitted if it increased a man’s capability on the battlefield. The fatwa spread, and was adapted so men could ‘marry’ a woman for a few hours at a time, to enjoy sex approved within the edicts of the Koran. Women who were drawn into this perversion of religious law were expected to have sex with 20 men or more, before returning to their village — usually pregnant and suffering from sexual infections. Called the jihad al-nikah, this fatwa has been condemned as prostitution by many Islamic scholars. But it has proved a powerful incentive to young men from strict Muslim villages, where dating is forbidden. A promise of unlimited, condoned rape is driving thousands of men to ISIS. The organisation is obsessed with sex. It is built on rape and pornography. Any woman captured by ISIS is considered al-sabi, a slave. Hundreds of European girls who have surrendered to ISIS will face the same fate.
Sex with slaves is condoned: ISIS imams or religious leaders manipulate verses in the Koran which order men to ‘guard their chastity, except from their wives and those that their right hands possess’ — that is, their slaves. Girls who have not reached puberty can, according to this degraded interpretation of Islamic law, be raped or, if they are too small, sexually abused in other ways. A jihadi can sell a slave, for this interpretation states: ‘They are merely property which can be disposed of as long as that does not cause any harm or damage.’ The exception is if the slave is pregnant with her master’s child — then she must be kept, at least until the baby is delivered. A slave may be beaten, for discipline. The beating should not be severe enough to ‘break’ or cripple her, and torture is not permitted. Punches to the face are also deemed illegal. There is no set punishment for a slave who runs away. The reprimand is up to her owner, and should serve as a deterrent, severe enough to prevent other slaves from thinking of escape. This is the living hell that awaits Western women who imagine they will be issued with assault rifles and sent to fight a holy war alongside the men when they sign up to ISIS. That warlike notion might appeal to Western women but not to traditional Middle Eastern women, so the ISIS propagandists tailor their output to lure them in other ways. What these girls want, often, are domestic ideals: a husband, a house and beautiful children who will love them. So this is what they are promised. Manchester twins Zahra and Salma Halane, 16, who fled to Syria last year to join ISIS, have been used as recruiting sergeants. Their Twitter accounts show pictures of women wearing black niqabs and posing with rifles or shooting at targets with pistols. ‘Fun day training for self-defence in the Islamic State with humble sisters,’ reads one caption. It is not known whether one of the Halane twins wrote this, or if their accounts are being operated by men, but it is certain nothing can be published by women in ISIS without male approval. All social media are closely monitored and any misuse incurs heavy retribution. An all-women militia, the Al-Khansaa Brigade, imposes punishments on any female who transgresses from its ultra-oppressive guidelines, published at the start of this year. Tellingly, this manifesto, called Women Of The Islamic State, was released in Arabic only: it would make poor propaganda in this country. Women are ordered to dress only in black, including shoes. Every inch of their bodies must be covered, and gloves must be worn in all temperatures. Fashion shops are banned, described as the work of the devil. Girls can be married as young as nine years old, and must not remain single beyond the age of 17, when they are still considered ‘young and active’. The role of a women in this society is reduced to one thing, to supply sexual gratification to men. Whether they are mothers or brides, they are not human beings — they are simply objects, held in abject contempt and virtually worthless. Sexual violence is a way of life under ISIS. But many young women in Britain and elsewhere, yearning for rebellious thrills and romance, will fall for the ISIS propaganda, specifically targeting Western women, that is flooding social media. And they will discover the disgusting truth too late.