Three sisters, nine children, one dangerous journey to the heart of Isis. What … – The Guardian

A year after the establishment of the so-called caliphate by Islamic State, western governments are struggling for strategies to challenge sympathy among their citizens towards the militants. Foreigners continue to migrate to the territory in spite of substantial military, security and PR efforts and after Isis’s widely publicised military defeats in recent months.

And last week the process took a sinister new turn: three British sisters from Bradford left their husbands and travelled to Syria, taking with them their nine children, to live under Isis. Seven hundred Britons are now estimated to have made the difficult, dangerous and, to many, incomprehensible journey. Such incidents are hard to anticipate and to deal with and they arguably help Isis to bolster its claims of legitimacy and relevance.

A British official with a senior position in the effort to challenge the appeal of Isis to British Muslims told me that lessons were being drawn from the previous successes of al-Qaida. But this attitude, which is widespread, is one of the biggest mistakes officials and specialists make about the appeal of Isis. To apply knowledge about al-Qaida to understanding Isis is to build on previous failures – not least because al-Qaida still exists, though it is overshadowed by a more successful organisation. But more significantly, Isis bears greater resemblance to populist Islamist movements than to al-Qaida, notwithstanding their ideological proximity. Whereas al-Qaida is elitist and detached from ordinary Muslims, Isis tends to be more vernacular in the way it addresses its audience and their grievances and aspirations. It also appeals to a far wider demographic than those willing to join or publicly support its cause. David Cameron said as much on Friday when he warned of the dangers posed by members of communities and families that “quietly condone” the ideology of Isis.

Since the group’s rise last year, I have talked to dozens of members in Syria and Iraq. What emerges strongly is the expressed belief of many that Isis can be persuasive, liberating and empowering. Some members I interviewed echoed recent statements by British Muslims who joined the group. One of those is Abdelaziz Kuwan, a Bahraini teenager who rose through the Isis ranks to become a security official in charge of three towns in eastern Syria. I spoke to him over many months before he was shot dead in October 2014. In one conversation, he said: “I walk in the streets [of Bahrain] and I feel imprisoned. I feel tied up … This world means nothing to me. I want to be free.” His statement is eerily reminiscent of what Mohammed Emwazi, the Kuwaiti-born British national better known as “Jihadi John”, once wrote in an email: “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London.”

The families of both Kuwan and Emwazi reported being made to feel strangers in their own countries. Kuwan’s family migrated from Syria to Bahrain in the 1980s and Emwazi’s family reportedly belonged to a category of stateless migrants in Kuwait known as bidoun (without).

No family members of Isis militants said that a person’s decision to join the group was logical or consistent with how they had previously led their lives. Many had been quiet, insulated from a wider society towards which they bore resentment. At least three who had travelled to the territory mentioned the Arabic word haiba (charisma or prestige) to describe Isis as they described their motives for joining. But it was the overwhelming sense of “imprisonment” that people said they experienced before joining Isis that recurred in my interviews.

Even if potential recruits have only a vague notion of how Isis operates, the group still offers them a chance to join the armed struggle. In the process of recruitment, ideology becomes an instrumental supporting factor in drawing in and retaining recruits even if the reality in Syria and Iraq does not meet their expectations.

Members feel empowered not only by the fighting capabilities of the group but by its ideology, which provides them with tools and zeal to argue back against even the most learned of Muslim clerics, whom Isis labels as distorters of Islam’s authentic message. “When you listen to the clerics of [Isis],” said Mothanna Abdulsattar, an Isis member who joined after he was captured by the group for working with the Free Syrian Army before Isis took over his area, “you are shocked that most of our Islamic societies have deviated from the true religion. They follow a religion that was invented two decades ago, or less.”

This latter statement is particularly relevant in western societies. Extremist ideologues often argue that an Islam that preaches peace and harmony was invented and promoted by the state. They ridicule it as “British Islam” or “American Islam”. Such arguments gain currency in communities that distrust their religious and political leaders, and make individuals living in such communities suspicious and less accepting of moderate views. In both the Middle East and the west, religious leaders have been reluctant to speak loudly and consistently against Isis, often for fear of being labelled as stooges to their governments.

A pro-Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq
A pro-Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq Photograph: AP

Women who join Isis, such as the Bradford sisters, are driven by similar sentiments. Women feel empowered by Isis, including in relation to their family members. In Syria and Iraq, Isis controls conservative, tribal societies, which means most of its public rulings tend to affect men more than women. Men are banned from smoking cigarettes or shisha and playing cards. If a woman is found violating the Isis dress code, her husband or father would be punished, not her. In tribal societies, women are also traditionally not allowed to share inheritance, but Isis has reversed that if the case is reported. Women have used such practices and rulings to report their husbands to Isis members and even win a divorce.

Although these practices are not widely reported by the media, it is likely that those who go to join Isis would have been briefed about them. In the same way that Isis offers a chance for teenagers and non-conformists to rebel against their communities and families, it also offers the same for women. Last week, a source living in a Gulf country said his sister, who lives in an Isis territory, said she threatened to leave everything behind, including her husband, and fight with Isis. “I told her that they would get her divorced from her husband and would marry her off to one of them,” he said. “She laughed and said they would not do such a thing.”

There are a myriad of factors that lead people to join or sympathise with Isis, both ideological and pragmatic. Some factors can weaken with time or if an alternative is provided to match the group’s appeal. However, factors that lead families to migrate to a conflict zone in groups must compel governments to look for deeper issues in their societies. These dynamics are more lasting and have little to do with whether the group endures, because the underlying issues remain. The group generally offers an alternative for the politically repressed and the socially estranged. Foreigners are generally driven by a need to belong, to be empowered and to seek retribution against something or someone, whether a system, a government or a family. Deep and abiding identity crises among Muslims are often exacerbated and shaped in isolated communities that governments, including in the UK, fail to address.

Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme and a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in Washington. He is co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror. Twitter: @hxhassan.