By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Recently a woman alleged to be a German convert who became a “teenage ISIL bride” was pulled from the rubble of Mosul. “[She was] from the small town of Pulsnitz, near Dresden, was discovered by troops with a group of 20 other suspected foreign female Isil members in a tunnel under the Old City on Thursday,” wrote the Telegraph. According to another report the other foreign women were from Russia, Turkey, Canada and Chechnya.
When I posted about this on twitter I received a stream of critique from western journalists, claiming I was calling to “lynch” a “brainwashed child.” Western journalists seem to have specially reserved sympathy for western converts, particularly white western Europeans who embraced ISIS and went to Syria and Iraq to join. They ignore the fact that the people had to jump through multiple hoops to join ISIS. Local ISIS members are often said to be from the Mosul area, from Sunni tribes. They are sometimes said to be from the lower middle class. I met one such ISIS member who came from Hamam al-Alil in a juvenile detention center. His story might have been representative of some young men who joined. The preacher of Nuri mosque interviewed by Rudaw gave similar accounts of support for ISIS, claiming locals hated the Iraqi government and that they embraced its salvation. They wanted the “caliphate” but were dismayed by some of its cruelties. They make excuses for why they supported the genocide of Yazidis and abuses.
But the foreign volunteers have no such excuses. They didn’t live under Nouri al-Maliki, they weren’t “disenfranchised” or simply embracing the “lesser of two evils.” The foreign volunteers read about ISIS online mostly, and they joined through friends or contacts. They joined specifically because ISIS offered them slaves, and a chance to kill and live a lavish lifestyle. They became dismayed when they arrived, after some raping and murder, and playing with guns, life wasn’t so great. Many women told of being sold multiple times to foreign volunteers who raped them. ISIS main selling point was the chance to dominate, to be supremacist and to rape. This wasn’t like some secret, like the Nazis with Auschwitz. This was a central aspect of ISIS recruiting. It offered a kind of vacation for jihad.
Now the people who joined ISIS who were raised in Europe and from Muslim families often embraced this extremism over time. Many were not from religious families and almost all ISIS members are remembered to have been drinkers, drug users, criminals, sexual harassers, and seemingly opposite of what ISIS is. But this is a misreading because ISIS did promise fast cars and rape, it took away booze, but it promised the good life to volunteers. It’s a hedonistic world that allows the aggression of people who might become soccer hooligans to channel their rage into other things.
For the converts the route to ISIS is a bit different. There are hundreds of stories about the convert phenomenon because western media finds it exotic and secretly wonders “could that have been me.” Salacious details abound, and media seems mystified by “why.” ISIS also targeted women especially, and found converts among Hindu and nominally Christian populations. Some were wealthy converts with a long history of extremism. The number of converts who joined ISIS is unclear. We know that there were around 5,000 or more members from Europe. It’s safe to assume that 10% or less were converts.
When commentators talk about what “drives” people to ISIS and claim ISIS wants to “divide” our society, they don’t note the foreign fighter phenomenon. ISIS converts from the west didn’t suffer racism and discrimination, especially not the white converts. Their stories involve one thing: Privilege. They were privileged, usually middle class Europeans. They don’t differ greatly than western converts who don the niqab and convert. Research shows many are educated and from the middle or upper class.
Now, let’s look at the hurdles of the foreign convert volunteer. We hear a lot about “brainwashing” and “children” and “women.” This is a convenient excuse. Western women are the most educated, equal and privileged in the world. To turn them into victims and “ISIS brides,” somehow reverses the reality of the world. There is no evidence that they are “brainwashed” or that every western woman who went to join ISIS is some kind of “ISIS bride.” In fact there is evidence to the contrary, that some of these women were involved in abuses and torture, that alongside men they carried out crimes. There is also evidence that they were complicit in abuses of Yazidis. Yazidi women sometimes came in contact with western women along the process of slavery and abuses. There is no evidence that almost any western ISIS-supporter helped any of these genocide victims. They didn’t help them make contact to relatives or escape. In that they may have been, and likely were, complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity. These western female convert volunteers and male converts, knew about the genocide when many of them went in 2014-2015, they knew about genocide and they joined.
So why does our media turn people who are perpetrators into victims? Why don’t they notice the first victims of ISIS at Camp Speicher and then in Sinjar? Why aren’t those the real victims? Why is it that people from the west, with privilege and resources, converts who boasted of selling women and rape, who journeyed to the Middle East to genocide and colonize and commit modern day KKK and Nazi crimes, are seen as somehow almost innocent?
There is another interesting aspect of the number of western convert volunteers. In many ways they represent collaborators who joined the Nazi party in the Second World War. Consider the fact of how few westerners joined anti-ISIS units such as the YPG or Peshmerga? Very few. Hundreds or so. But 5,000 went to ISIS. That means 5,000 wanted genocide and only a handful wanted human rights. The converts came from the same background, and some chose Nazi-style genocide and some chose to fight fascism. That’s the bifurcation in the West between different volunteers.
But we need to hold them to account and make them take responsibility. Don’t pretend like they are all victims. Most of them are not. Focus on the real victims of ISIS, many of whome have never been found.