A recent interview with an activist inside the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, Syria sheds new light on the all-female al-Khans’aa Brigade, including the initial reason for its formation and its various roles.
The interview, which was first published on March 25 by the website Syria Direct, is a conversation with Abu Ibrahim al-Raqawi, one of the original founders of the organization Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which works to expose the brutal rule under the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate.’
According to Raqawi, the Islamic State formed al-Khans’aa after members of the Free Syrian Army dressed up as women and assassinated several of the group’s leaders. The women are now used to police other women because “A-Raqqa is a tribal area, and men detaining women could lead to bloody problems. So by using women to arrest women, they bring the tribes over to their side.”
The members of the Brigade are mostly foreign women who assume the role of finding wives for the fighters through their networks in Europe. Raqawi claims that approximately 75% of the members are foreigners, mostly British, and the rest “are women of ill repute from A-Raqqa.”
A recent report in Radio Free Europe references a message claiming to be from women in the Islamic State, wherein the messengers call on Russian-speaking women to make hijra, the Arabic word for migration, to the caliphate. The message states that women who come to the the Islamic State will have the opportunity to marry fighters. “Allah will give you, inshallah [God willing] mujahideen [militants] as husbands, who are God-fearing and sincere,” according to the Radio Free Europe article citing the message.
Women who join al-Khans’aa are able to drive vehicles and carry weapons, unlike the rest of the female population in Raqqa. Women younger than the age of 45 are forbidden from leaving Raqqa so the city “won’t be declared a military zone and evacuated like Kobani, a move that would allow the international coalition to bomb it freely.” For several months, U.S.-led coalition forces bombed the northern Syrian town that sits on the border of Turkey, as Syria’s Kurdish YPG forces fought the Islamic State on the ground, finally freeing the city in January. In addition to this reasoning, women under 45 are forced to remain in Raqqa so they can marry Islamic State fighters.
Despite the strict rules of sharia law enforced in Raqqa, Raqawi says women are able to leave the house without a male escort, but cannot travel outside the city without one.
Raqawi’s organization has “documented 278 cases of forced marriage inside the city, where girls, most of them under 18, were compelled to marry an IS fighter.” A report released by the United Nations in November references fighters removing girls as young as 13 from their families as well as the enslavement and rape of Yazidi women. According to Raqawi, some fathers force their daughters into marriage with a fighter for both money and power.
However, Raqawi explains that marrying a fighter becomes complicated when women have children and their husbands die in battle. While the brides use their real names, the fighters use fake ones, preventing the widow from contacting her deceased husband’s family.
Fighters do marry more than once, and some also take slave women, like the Yazidis. To members of the Islamic State, Yazidi women are “spoils of war.” “They have a strange infatuation with sex. Cases of sexual violence have been documented. IS fighters purchase Viagra,” he says.
Women living under the so-called ‘caliphate’ must wear a shield that covers the body from its chest to its knees, in addition to two layers of the niqab covering the face. Men in Raqqa harass women for various reasons, including for showing their eyes and wearing shoes of certain colors. Raqawi says this is a tactic used to force women into marriage. But despite the current strict dress codes, Raqqa was once a city where women wore regular clothes and could go to the same establishments as men. Now, women who do not adhere to the dress codes may be subjected to whipping or to a device called “the biter,” which is used to bite down on exposed skin. According to Raqawi, the al-Khans’aa Brigade has both stormed a school and arrested girls for showing their eyes and subjected a woman revealing part of her body while nursing her child to the biter punishment.
If al-Khans’aa members find a woman with a man who is not her husband, father or brother, both parties are arrested and subjected to whipping if they cannot produce adequate proof of their relation.
Another recruitment tool the militants use is closing down schools and forcing children to become fighters, while men have become fighters and women marry them for money and to help their families, respectively. The Islamic State has bragged about its child recruits online, while earlier this month, one of the group’s execution videos showed a child speaking French, according to multiple press reports.
Furthermore, the foreign fighters who have come to Syria are treated particularly well in comparison to regular Raqqa citizens, which may account for the descriptions seen across Twitter and various online propaganda positively portraying life under the ‘caliphate.’ [See LWJ report, Islamic State’s female jihadists use social media to lure women recruits.]
Raqawi describes the al-Khans’aa Brigade as the main recruitment source for young women like the three British girls who reportedly traveled to Syria in February to join the Islamic State. Foreigners, Raqawi says, originally came to Syria not to fight, but can be forced to do so when the group needs more militants. Once coming to Syria, the foreign fighters’ passports are taken to prevent them from leaving.
In January, the al-Khans’aa Brigade published a manifesto aimed to both describe life in Raqqa, Syria and Mosul, Iraq, while also trying to recruit women to migrate to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘caliphate.’ [See LWJ report, Islamic State al-Khans’aa Brigade publishes manifesto for women.] In a February report in the Wall Street Journal, Raqawi described the all-female brigade as a direct threat to his group’s efforts to expose the Islamic State’s brutality, as their attire prevents anyone from distinguishing between who may or may not be an al-Khans’aa member.
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