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A New Frontier: Human Trafficking and ISIS’s Recruitment of Women from the West

Ashley Binetti, Georgetown Institute for Woman, Peace and Security, explains how ISIS is recruiting women. What happens to these women once they are recruited? And the ones forced to join ISIS?
Deputy Secretary-General Meets Yazidi Survivor Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed (right) meets with Ekhlas Bajoo, Yazidi survivor and activist. 07 November 2017


Human trafficking is an effective tool that serves several purposes for terrorist organizations. It facilitates the recruitment and retention of male foreign fighters and provides a reward mechanism for successful combatants.(1) It also generates revenue and contributes to psychologically crushing “the enemy,” by “decimat[ing] communities.”(2) Trafficking, as a tactic of warfare, “intimidates populations and reduces resistance just as enslavement and rape of women.”(3) While it is well-understood that ISIS’s kidnapping and enslavement of Yazidi women and other female prisoners constitutes human trafficking(4), less attention has been paid to the prospect that some of ISIS’s female recruits from the West, who average 18 years of age (5), may also be considered victims of entrapment and trafficking because of the techniques used to lure these young women and how they are exploited upon arrival in ISIS-held territory.(6)

If some recruits fit international or national definitions of trafficked persons, it affects the way that the justice system categorizes their recruiters—who would be criminally liable for human trafficking—and also influences how the law interprets the actions of the trafficked young women when they sit as criminal defendants. Furthermore, if Women from the West joining ISIS are victims of human trafficking, this impacts how the international community should design its counter-terrorism policies and research agenda.

Women from the West and ISIS Over 3,400 foreign fighters from the West have left their homes to join ISIS, the radical Sunni group that controls portions of Iraq and Syria.(7) It is estimated that approximately 550 of these foreigners are Women from the West. (8) What lures these young women to join groups like ISIS? Women have long-engaged in extremism, as expert scholar Mia Bloom detailed in her book Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists.(9) Unfortunately, as Bloom acknowledged, most research efforts have focused on women as victims, rather than exploring women as perpetrators and agents in these movements, and this has resulted in a knowledge-gap as to why women join extremist organizations.(10)

Significantly, the ways in which today’s young ISIS recruits are lured affects their decision to join. According to Bloom, use of the Internet, social media in particular, to recruit Women from the West and girls is on the rise. The tactics employed mirror those that pedophiles use in online “grooming”: “[It] is very similar in terms of platform, process, alienation of parents, [and] creating an environment of secrecy.”(11) Expert Sara Khan, director of the anti-trafficking NGO Inspire, agrees that ISIS employs a form of grooming to gain the trust of potential recruits: “…[the girls are] befriended online, told they’re loved, [and] showered with praise and flattery. These girls, like victims of child sexual exploitation, don’t see themselves as victims. They see themselves as girls going to be with men who genuinely love them.”(12)

Recruiters lure girls by painting a “distorted view” of life inside the Islamic State, falsely advertising the “joys of sisterhood” and living for a higher purpose; in reality, a “woman’s role is circumscribed for childbearing, marriage, cooking and cleaning, and they may not even be able to leave the house.”(13)

Recruitment of Women from the West as Human Trafficking Factors such as the recruitment tactics that terrorist organizations use, as well as the age of potential recruits, are critical components in the analysis of whether a particular set of facts meets the international definition of human trafficking.

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children (“UN Trafficking Protocol”)(14), defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or fraud, deception, the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability for the purpose of exploitation. (15) Under the Protocol, exploitation includes, “sexual exploitation, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude.”(16) If threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception is used to obtain consent, then the consent of the victim is irrelevant. (17) Furthermore, if a child under the age of 18 is exploited in such a way, the act constitutes trafficking in persons, regardless of whether any coercive or deceptive means have been employed. (18)

ISIS has targeted a number of young girls from the West to become jihadi brides—recent examples include British schoolgirls Shamima Begum, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and another 15-year-old schoolmate; and Austrian friends Samra Kesinovic, 16, and Sabina Selimovic.(19) As the trafficking definition states, coercion and/or fraud are not required where a child is involved. Regardless of the age of recruits, deception is also present: ISIS recruits women and girls using fraud and abuse of a position of vulnerability,(20) among other means. Recruiters frequently describe the glory and honor of being the wife of a jihadi living in utopia, without mention of the extreme violence perpetrated by ISIS, or the possibility that these girls will contribute to, and find themselves subject to, such violence.(21)

While ISIS’s online recruitment techniques undoubtedly comport with the means required by the international Trafficking Protocol, the more complicated question is whether this recruitment is for the purpose of exploitation. Under the international definition, exploitation can be sexual in nature, slavery, or practices similar to slavery or servitude. When women and girls join ISIS, they might be forced into a marriage and/or find themselves in situations where an originally agreed-to marriage takes on a nature of domestic servitude or sexual slavery.(22) “Exploitation” is present in those circumstances, and the girl or woman could be considered a victim of trafficking in persons under the international definition.

Access and download the full article here.

Binetti, Ashley, A New Frontier: Human Trafficking and Isis's Recruitment of Women from the West (June 1, 2015). INFORMATION2ACTION, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace & Security. Georgetown University, June 2015.


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