A woman who writes for a news magazine in Paris went undercover as a young Muslim convert to infiltrate the Islamic State’s online network of jihadists looking for brides.
“Anna Erelle” (not her real name) talked to The Sunday Times of London about how she got involved with a top ISIS militant. It’s unclear whether the Times independently verified her story.
Erelle told the Times that she created fake social media accounts and posed as “Melodie” online to find out first-hand how young girls are lured to join ISIS’ ranks in the Middle East as “jihadi brides.” She said she had previously interviewed some of these girls during her work as a journalist.
“They knew very little about religion. They had hardly read a book and they learnt jihad before religion,” Erelle told the Times. “They’d tell me, ‘You think with your head, we think with our hearts.’ They had a romantic view of radicalism. I wondered how that happened.”
Soon after Erelle created her fake accounts, she attracted the attention of Abou-Bilel, whom Erelle described as a top ISIS commander. Bilel reportedly sent her this message: “Salaam alaikum, sister. I see you have watched my video. It has been seen round the world, it’s crazy! Are you a Muslim? What do you think of the mujaheddin? Are you thinking of coming to Syria?”
After that, Bilel started contacting her frequently, professing his love for her and trying to convince her to come to Syria and marry him. To woo her, he reportedly sent her pictures of himself with his 4×4 Jeep, holding a gun, according to the Times. He promised Erelle that she’d be treated like a princess in Syria.
Westerners becoming radicalized online and then travelling to the Middle East to join jihadist groups has become a growing problem since ISIS announced a 7th century-style caliphate in August.
“What it really demonstrates is the tremendous power of social media,” Jonathan Adelman, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, told the Denver Post after ISIS lured three teenage girls from Colorado. “[ISIS militants] are out there on Facebook. They are out there on Twitter. They are reaching out without any intermediaries.”
Three young girls recently left London to become jihadi brides, likely recruited by 20-year-old Aqsa Mahmood, who defected from Scotland and now writes a blog on Tumblr that talks about her new life in Syria and encourages others to join her.
“[Young girls] are persuaded that [the Middle East] is a paradise and that they don’t have any future in Britain or France and they won’t find good husbands and can never be good Muslims surrounded by infidels,” Erelle told the Times. “Bilel told Melodie she could have a beautiful life, a big apartment and lots of children.”
The attention that comes with being a Westerner who travels to the Middle East to join terrorists might also factor in to some young girls’ decisions.
“The ones who go to Syria know they will be in the newspapers and on the Internet and people will be talking about them,” Erelle said. “These girls were following a friend who had already left for Syria. They must have seen the pain that caused her family, but it didn’t stop them.”
Bilel’s recruitment of “Melodie” reportedly included a Skype session and promises of a better life in Syria. He reportedly referred to her as his fiancee. Erelle said he made plans for her to travel to Syria after flying to Amsterdam, telling her that a woman would meet her in Turkey to take her across the border.
Erelle also pointed out the hypocrisy of some ISIS militants, noting that Bilel wanted her to pick up some luxury goods for him from the Amsterdam airport.
“[The fighters] say they reject the West, that they are anti-capitalist, but they love luxury and designer labels, it’s all Nike trainers and Ray-Ban sunglasses mixed in with their military clothes,” she told the Times. “It’s another way of luring in kids, of saying, ‘I was once poor like you but look at me now.'”
Eventually, once Erelle failed to show up in Turkey and then wrote about her experience infiltrating jihadist networks, Bilel figured out that she had lied to him. She said she now fears for her life and is under police protection.
An estimated 550 Western women have so far traveled to the Middle East to join Islamist groups, according to figures cited by The New York Times.
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