YOUNG WOMEN FLOCKING TO THE SYRIAN JIHAD
By Ronald Sandee
On April 10, two Austrian girls of Bosnian descent, Sabina Selimovic (age 15) and Samra Kesinovic (16), went missing from their Vienna homes. The two had purchased tickets and flew to Adana in southeast Turkey. Located just 100 km from the Syrian border, Adana is a key transit point for individuals seeking to join the Syrian Jihad. Three days later, they crossed the border with Syria. The youngest, Sabina, was apparently married the day she and Samra arrived in Syria. According to answers Sabina gave on her now inactive ask.fm account, it is likely she wed a German-speaking Chechen fighter called Seyfullah.
Reports indicate the girls’ parents did not know they were going to Syria. After they notified the Austrian police of their concerns about their daughters’ travels, Interpol launched an international search for the girls. The fathers of the two girls swiftly went to Turkey to search for their daughters, but in one of their ask.fm answers they stated that the likelihood they would find them was slim.
There are still many questions about how, when and why the girls traveled to Syria. Before the two girls left, they deactivated their regular Facebook accounts and created one under the name Safija al-Gariba. After the two arrived in Syria, they became very active again on social media, especially on ask.fm. When asked what happened to their Facebook accounts, Samra said hers was taken down.
The two joined more than 100 Austrians who have traveled to the newest jihad theater, including four other women who are believed to have traveled to Syria to join the jihad. More than 40 have returned since.
There are concerns that one of the two was recruited while on a recent family visit in Bosnia. It is known the two girls visited the Salafist Altum-Alem Mosque in Leopoldstadt in Vienna, where the radical preacher Mirsad Omerović (aka Ebu Tejma) has been active for several months. (Recent questions about him asked by members of the Austrian parliament were not answered by the Austrian government due to its secrecy rules.)
Before his arrival in Vienna, Omerović, who is from Bosnia, was living in a Salafist community in Gorna Maoča. He preaches in German, and is a close associate of radical Bosnian preachers Hussein Bosić (aka Bilal) and Nusret Imamović.
Bosić is operating from Bihać, and is seen as Imamović’s deputy. The leader of a radical Muslim faction in Bosnia, Imamović runs a Salafist community in Gorna Maoča and was arrested in 2012 for his alledged role in a shooting attack on the US embassy in Sarajevo. (During the shooting spree that lasted for more than half an hour, a Serbian Muslim fired more than 100 bullets at the embassy with his Kalashnikov rifle.)
It is also possible the two girls were recruited online by a Bosnian woman named Elvira Karalić, who is encouraging young women to travel to Syria in order to join the jihad and marry a fighter. Karalić left her husband of thirteen years and her two children in Bosnia to go to Syria and marry a fighter who is a member of ISIS.
According to the Bosnian media, Karalić met the fighter online and fell in love. With the help from radical Internet preachers, and probably from those in Imamović’s circles who twisted Islamic rules concerned with divorce, she was allowed to divorce her husband because he was not willing to join her in the jihad. She and her new husband live in Al-Raqqa. Using the name Ummu Usama, Karalić is very active within Bosnian Islamist Facebook groups, and tells everyone who wants to hear about it how beautiful the jihad is.
Such occurrences became pronounced in 2013 as interest in the permissibility of Jihad al-Nikah, or “sexual jihad,” grew within certain conservative Muslim communities. Last year, numerous press reports highlighted this issue after a prominent Saudi cleric, Mohamad al-Arifi, issued a fatwa sanctioning sexual jihad in Iraq and Syria. Accordingly, female participants need to be at least 14-years-old. (People close to al-Arifi denied that he had issued a fatwa allowing Jihad al-Nikah, and al-Arifi himself claimed on his Twitter account that it was a fabrication.)
Even though al-Arifi denies that he issued this fatwa, many young women from Europe, including converts, and northern Africa traveled to Syria to join the jihad. Most of them left home with the same intentions in mind as the Austrian girls: To marry a jihad fighter in Syria. Some of them clearly view comforting the jihad fighters with their presence as a duty.
There are many risks for women who join the jihad in Syria, and not all of them stem from the al-Assad regime’s aggression. For instance, in the first half of January 2014, information posted on a Twitter account used by ISIS fighters active in Aleppo noted three Dutch women who had become their companions were raped by fighters of Liwa al-Islam in Kfar Hamza near Idlib.
It is important to note that proclamations from influential Islamist figures encouraging women to participate in jihad theaters are not new.
For example, in 1993, from an Algerian jail Abu Abd al-Fattah wrote about the role of women in jihad. According to him, it was permissible for a woman to follow her man into the jihad, and even to fight in a defensive fight.
More recently, al-Muhajiroun founder Omar Bakri Mohammed said that, according to his understanding of the works of the 12th Century Islamic scholar Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, al-Maqdisi had “deemed jihad to be a duty for both men and women when their Muslim home country is occupied by an enemy.” It must be to his delight then that ISIS has started recruiting females for duty in Ar-Raqqa. Indeed, women are reportedly being searched by female ISIS units at checkpoints in and around the city.
But it is not always easy for conservative Muslim jihadi groups to use women fighters as, according to their beliefs, a woman needs a male guardian at all times. Some groups solve the male guardianship issue by encouraging women who wish to fight to arrange a marriage with a fellow fighter beforehand, or to marry a fighter upon arrival in a jihad theater. In both such cases, the woman has a guardian when she enters Syria.
Other such “work arounds” are evident in jihadis’ uses of online social media. For example, some fighters even offer to broker marriages for women with fighters through direct messaging on Twitter.