New Brunswick

St. Thomas prof leads research on Western women in ISIS

A group of Fredericton university students is using social media to unravel the allure of ISIS for Western women.

Study seeks insights into why women join militants

A woman who left Toronto last year to join ISIS has been travelling throughout Iraq and Syria. Her name isn't known, but she's one of several Western women involved with the Islamic State. (ISIS video)

A group of Fredericton university students is using social media to unravel the allure of ISIS for Western women.

They are using sites such as Twitter and Tumblr to follow women who have left their lives in the West to join the jihadi group in Syria and Iraq. Professor Alexandra Bain is leading the research into female ISIS recruits at St. Thomas University.

Bain and her students are pouring over tweets and posts of those they believe left the west to join the Islamic State. They have seen everything from brutal images, to mutual support, to conversations about recipes.

Brittany Lively says in one case, they could see a young girl's conversion through Twitter.

"It started out with her making tweets like, 'Oh mom, you got to let me go to the movies tonight, I do what I want to.’ And then you get further into it, and she's talking about the Qur'an and she's talking about ISIS.”

The students signed a research ethics contract agreeing to never contact any of the women. Instead, they observe and record.

ISIS fighters have killed thousands of people, often through brutal torture, and often film the killings for propaganda. Islamic State fighters burned a Jordanian pilot to death and massacred 21 people for being Christians in Libya. 

What makes someone leave home?

Bain came up with the idea while scanning social media for a book she is writing on the Western recruits of ISIS.

Bain teaches about the Muslim world and diversity in religions at St. Thomas University. She says her students have an extraordinary opportunity to hear the thoughts of those in the middle of war.

"Ask big questions. Why are people doing things? What makes somebody leave home, and comfort and the possibility of a good job, and go off and live in a place like that? To remain curious — that's what I'm hoping.

Lynn Reicker and Kyle Cameron are beginning to see patterns.

“A lot of these women were not largely accepted wherever they're from. And they've come to this Islamic State because they're in a group of people with the same ideals, the same religion, a space of support for them, in a way. Because, they are now accepted,” Reicker said.

“One of the women I'm following right now is in her 20s. She's in university. Her parents do not support her support of the Islamic State. So for them, when they go to the Islamic state, there's this acceptance.”

Cameron agreed.

“I have some women that are very much so berating other women, saying that if you don't support the Islamic State, and you don't support ISIS, and you don't support our conflict with the west right now, then you are not truly a Muslim. But there are also some women that are posting about the violence to create awareness that it has to stop,” he said.

The academics will crunch the data to compare innocuous conversations about food to recruiting, complaints and violence.