BERLIN — Sonya* disappeared during the fall school vacation in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The 16-year-old high school student, the daughter of an Algerian and a German, left her family’s house in Konstanz and never returned.
Sonya’s parents called the police fearing the worst. Had their daughter been kidnapped? Was she possibly the victim of some other crime? Neither turned out to be the case: Sonya had left Konstanz to fulfill a dream — to become the wife of an Islamic “holy warrior.”
The young Muslim girl had packed her bag and headed for Stuttgart. At the airport, she presented a phony parental letter of authorization that gave the under-age girl permission to travel alone. Then she boarded the plane and flew to Turkey. From there, Sonya is believed to have headed for Syria.
Via Facebook, the teenager had been in contact with German Islamists in Syria who urged her to leave school and join the jihad against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Their propaganda apparently radicalized her so much that she decided to migrate to the war-torn area, leaving behind baffled parents who feared for their daughter’s life.
Sonya’s case confirms a trend that Germany’s inland security forces are currently monitoring. Muslim women and girls are increasingly traveling from Germany to Syria, inspired by the wish to join the “Holy War,” marry a jihadist and become the widow of a martyr.
According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), some 300 Islamists have already left Germany. Among them at least 20 women acting on their “own jihadist motivations” — as Germany’s domestic intelligence service describes it — have sought their way to Syria.
At first glance this may seem surprising, because the concept of jihad is pretty much regarded as a male domain. But experts say that has been changing for some time now. Women are increasingly taking on important roles in the radical Islamist scene, particularly in the areas of propaganda, fund-raising, logistics and networking.
And today’s radicals of the fairer sex often emulate female role models from early Islamic times — Aisha, for example, the Prophet Mohammed’s youngest wife, who is said to have accompanied warriors astride a camel into battle in what is present-day Iraq in 656 AD. Many Islamist women today obviously believe this image of the fighting Muslim woman, the “mujahida” (holy female warrior), is considered worthy of imitation.
“Islamist women see themselves in the role of supporters,” a BfV agent explains. “They support the men’s fight morally and with propaganda work. They urge them on and sometimes also have a radical effect. They’re almost like jihad cheerleaders.”
Just how active women are within the radical Islamist scene is clear from the Internet. Within the anonymous forums, blogs and social networks, there’s a kind of “jihadist emancipation” going on. Here, Islamist women discuss, comment and act often as men’s equals. “We’ve noticed that some of the women have a profound knowledge of theology,” the BfV agent confirms. “They frequently know more parts of the Koran and more of the utterances of the prophets than most men. They know exactly what’s allowed and what isn’t.”
On Facebook and various Islamist Internet forums, meanwhile, several German-language women’s groups have been created. Here, intense discussions revolve around emigration and jihad, and the role of Muslim women. “Nowadays most men aren’t real men. They hold back from practicing jihad and instead sit on the sofa watching TV,” a woman writes on one of these Facebook pages. “The result is that women are increasingly becoming more masculine in that they are taking over the duties of their husbands.”
Women consider those men who did find their way into battle, and were eventually killed, heroes. “He was a lion of this ummah community!” one woman wrote about a terrorist killed in Syria. “Where are the lions to follow in his path? Where are the real men?”
Perhaps German Islamist women — either at their husbands’ side, or on their own — are making the trip to war zones because there is so little approval and moral support from elsewhere. In accordance with the rules of the Koran, their hope is for a life in a Muslim country as the wife of a “holy warrior.”
“In conservative Muslim tradition, a woman shouldn’t actually be traveling unaccompanied by a husband or male relative,” the BfV agent explains. “But now there are scholars whose interpretation of the Koran makes it acceptable for a woman to travel alone when jihad is at stake.”
Targeting women with German passports
And they are. Just like Sonya from Konstanz, some 20 other Islamist women once living in Germany have gone on jihad — one of them published regular daily entries from Syria on her blog last year.
In the blog, she was philosophical about the alleged oppression of Muslims in Europe, and about the 9/11 terror attacks. “And now I’m here. In the land of jihad, the land of honor, in Syria,” the anonymous woman wrote. “I am the wife of a mujahid.”
The woman goes on to write that the feeling of being in Syria is indescribable. “I can finally be free, wear my niqabface veil as I want to without being made fun of. If I feel like it, I wear a further two or three niqabs. Nobody can do anything to me here.”
This is kitschy jihad romanticism addressed to Muslim women who have stayed in Germany. Yet the idea of an ideal Muslim life under Sharia law is appealing to many Muslim women. Some of them openly seek jihadists to marry on the social networks, and online mail-order marriage agencies have started to crop up.
“Jihad marriages” is how the BfV characterizes these unions. “We’re even seeing marriages being arranged on Facebook,” says one analyst at the inland intelligence service. It’s a phenomenon that worries the intelligence community because there is the possibility that it is a targeted strategy on the part of Islamic terror groups — jihadists with no previous access to Germany acquiring wives with German passports. “Pregnant, the woman may return to Germany. And then at some point there’s a family reunion,” says a BfV agent. “That’s when the husband, a jihadist with fighting experience, turns up in Germany.”
To avoid such scenarios, the police and intelligence service have adopted a policy of direct communication. If there are indications that somebody is planning a trip to Syria, that person is contacted so that they know they are on the police radar and that their travel is being monitored. And it is made clear to the person that supporting a terrorist organization in Syria is a criminal offence in Germany.
The tactic is in many cases extremely successful. But the Islamic scene continues to recruit intensively for Syria. Fund-raisers across Germany collect money for Syria, and the BfV agents suspect that much of what’s collected goes to support Syrian rebels.
There is another such event soon happening at a Berlin mosque — “for women only.”
*Not her real name.