Last March 11, was a normal Thursday morning for the Ali Mehenni family, or so Kamel Ali Mehenni thought when he dropped off his 17-year-old daughter Sahra at the train station on her way to school. It was only that evening, when Sahra failed to meet her father at the station, that it became clear something was amiss. Even then the family thought the quiet, plump-cheeked teenager with a soft smile might have missed her train or gone out with friends.
Sahra, from Lézignan-Corbières in a wine-producing region of southern France, never went to school that day. Instead, she took a train to a nearby airport and flew alone to Turkey— to join ISIS jihadists on the warfront in Syria.
How a quiet young French woman from a mixed Muslim-Catholic family with five children was convinced to exchange her home in the south of France to one in the north of Syria, remains a mystery to her family and friends, even eight months later. “It is a catastrophe,” says her brother Jonathan, 22, sitting in his apartment in Margny-lès-Compiègne, an hour north of Paris, as he reads the private messages Sahra has written from Syria to her “beloved” sibling. “There is not a day that goes by when my parents don’t cry ‘Sahra, Sahra,'” he says. “They watch the news from Syria and it is so surreal.”
Yet Sahra’s story is hardly unique. ISIS has persuaded hundreds of young Western women to travel to Syria. That marks its battle as distinctly different from al-Qaeda’s campaigns of the last decade, and demonstrates that ISIS seeks to colonize the areas it has conquered with its soldiers, civil servants and women to breed a new generation of fighters.
In al-Qaeda’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, young armed men holed up on the battlefield far from their families. But in Syria ISIS aims to install a purist Islamic state—an entire new country—as its name denotes. And so ISIS fighters are looking to build lives that are far broader than fighting the war, ones in which they can come home after a day’s battle to a loving wife and children, and home-cooked meals. As such, recruiting women into ISIS is not simply about expanding the organization. It is the essential building block of a future society. ISIS members have said their women do not fight, but are there to help build the new society. “The strategy is geared to building a community and bringing families in so they have the infrastructure to set up a society,” says Melanie Smith, research associate at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College London, who has tracked dozens of British women who have joined ISIS. “They are the support system.”
A new ISIS-affiliated online group named “Al-Zawra’a Foundation” launched last month, advising Western women not only to watch training videos on handling weapons, but also to have their mothers teach them recipes and tailoring skills so they can cook for ISIS fighters and sew their combat uniforms. “May Allah be pleased with the female companion,” says the Al-Zawra’a’s recruiting pitch, describing women’s lives in ISIS as teaching others first aid, sewing and cooking, “until Allah chooses you for martyrdom.”
The female recruits come from all over the world—including the U.S. Last month German police arrested three teenage girls from Denver, Colorado at Frankfurt Airport, 5,000 miles from home, making their way to Syria to join ISIS. German officials extradited the high-schoolers back home. A fourth Denver woman, Shannon Conley, 19, was arrested last April as she was about board a flight from that city on her way to joining ISIS. Conley was convicted in September of aiding a terrorist organization and faces a possible five-year jail term at her sentencing in January.
Anti-terrorism officials in Europe estimate about 300 Western women have joined jihadist groups in Syria, about one-third from France. That might be because the largest number of foreign fighters in ISIS are believed to come from French-speaking Tunisia, many of them hardline militants who were freed from prisons after the Jasmine Revolution drove out the country’s secular dictator in January 2011. Those men moved on to Syria and from there have sought French-speaking wives.
In addition, French officials estimate about 1,000 French men have joined the Syrian jihad since 2011 of which about 375 are currently there. On Monday they identified one of them in the video that included the severed head of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig: Maxime Hauchard, 22, a small-town convert to Islam. Last week another convert, Flavien Moreau, was sentenced to seven years for having briefly traveled to Syria to join ISIS, before returning to France.
Within weeks of fleeing her home, Sahra called her brother Jonathan to tell him she had married a Tunisian fighter, deepening the family’s sense that she had slipped into a dark world far beyond their reach.
Sahra, by contrast, seems to have no thought of coming home. Still, in her messages to Jonathan, Sahra seems anxious for her parents’ approval, exposing herself as a vulnerable teenager, albeit in the midst of a war. “I miss you a lot, tell daddy and mommy I love them strongly, strongly,” she wrote soon after arriving in Syria. “They mustn’t worry about me, especially mom, I know the last time I heard her voice she was trembling. The choice I made was considered, I didn’t leave blindly. I love you a lot, mes amours.”
But as the months have gone by, Sahra’s messages have begun to feel hollow to Jonathan. “It’s always the same: I’m eating okay, I’m well,” he says angrily. To the family Sahra’s life is abhorrant. Sahra’s mother is a French-born Catholic who married an Algerian-born Muslim. “For her we are non-believers,” Jonathan says. “For us, she is. It is two religions, in opposition to each other. For us, this is not Islam,” he says, referring to the macabre footage on television of ISIS beheadings.
Jonathan knows few details of Sahra’s ISIS life. But as U.S. fighter jets pound ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, Sahra’s messages have become increasingly frantic, with her apologizing that she has only sporadic communications—a signal, perhaps, that the organization is on the run.
On November 2 Jonathan’s phone beeped with a new Facebook message he had waited weeks to read. “The connection is very weak,” Sahra wrote. “I hope you are well and that work is very good,” she went on, then scrambled to finish without punctuation. “I’m sorry I’m hurrying I’ll be quick all okay except for the planes.”