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How the media whitewashed Isis brides These women deserve punishment, not rehabilitation

Irish Isis fighter Lisa Smith was successfully prosecuted earlier this year. Credit: Norma Costello

Irish Isis fighter Lisa Smith was successfully prosecuted earlier this year. Credit: Norma Costello


November 7, 2022   6 mins

“Send the money now brother, we can’t wait. We are living with the Kafir [infidel] pigs.” This was one of hundreds of text messages I received in 2020 from Isis women living in Syria’s miserable al-Hol prison camp. As part of an investigation into Isis’s finances, I was posing as a lapsed British Muslim who had read about their plight and wanted to help.

The women did not hold back. Every day I turned on my phone to a deluge of Isis slogans, religious memes and terror threats. Images of destroyed western cities were particularly popular. I was told that terrorists such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston bomber) were heroes. My new contacts would make jokes about blowing up London. They bantered about beheadings.

These women had been holed up in the Kurdish-run desert camp since the fall of Baghouz, the last Isis enclave, in March 2019. They wanted money — and were getting it. With the help of Isis women who had already managed to return to the EU or Turkey, they were spearheading a fundraising campaign to “free the sisters” from the Kurds. Their rhetoric was typically fiery, and the groups used encrypted apps such as Telegram to organise donations. Since then, I’ve watched as their language has softened — and begun to poison the West’s mainstream media.

Around the beginning of the pandemic, family and friends of Isis members began to gently craft a new narrative about their women. They had never supported the caliphate. They were innocents forced to travel there by men. They were, in their own way, victims. These grown women had been “trafficked” into Isis territory. Ignore the fact that many of them bought their own tickets.

This narrative was being peddled by a cluster of online groups, which had sympathetic names such as “Repatriate the Children”. The funding behind them is questionable: in Ukraine, where I am now, some organisations supporting Isis families were connected to Russia. Most claimed to be primarily concerned with the wellbeing of minors, many of whom had been born in Isis territory, were injured and, yes, should have been repatriated — albeit to countries many of them had never even visited. But soon the remit of these groups broadened. They began to speak of “women and children” in a Syrian “refugee camp”.

A number of NGOs have fallen for this narrative — as has the Western media. Where reports once condemned evil Isis brides joking about beheadings, now they depict the plight of innocent Isis brides who just want to come home after a terrible ordeal. Last month, the New York Times ran an article on the repatriation of Australian Isis families headlined: “After years of ‘Hell’ in Isis Detention Camp, 17 Australians Return Home”. The story celebrated the return of 13 children, as well as four grown women who were almost certainly committed to Isis once, even if they aren’t anymore. It also featured comment from the ecstatic patriarch of a large Sydney-based family from which several adults have fled to join the caliphate. There was no mention of those for whom Isis made life “Hell”: the Yazidis, who were brutally enslaved, and the Kurds.

This NYT report appears to be the result of three years of lobbying to ensure that anyone who makes the terror group look bad is utterly erased. The truth is, the women of Isis are rarely passive victims. I have visited the section of al-Hol that houses foreign women and children several times. It is many things, but it is certainly not a refugee camp, unless the women are refugees from a terror state many of them travelled thousands of kilometres to join. It is a prison camp full of inmates who support an extremely dangerous ideology. (That’s not to say the camp doesn’t deserve criticism: the conditions are inhumane, and children in particular should never have to experience them.)

The first Isis “bride” I encountered, shortly after Baghouz fell, was a woman in niqab who started to shout, condemning me and everyone from my country for destroying the caliphate. More women gathered around us, triggering a ritual with which I would become quite familiar: exhausted Kurdish women from the YPG, a group that not only fought Isis but were then tasked with guarding them, brandishing their AK47s and telling me to move. I was “exciting” the inmates, who, I was warned, could become aggressive. During my visits, I saw women making beheading gestures. They often spat at our feet.

My observations weren’t unusual. Colleagues ran headlines describing the camps as “toxic” and the inmates as “radicalised”. Women screamed on camera about the glorious legacy of Isis ideology and scoffed that they would never go to prison. The Guardian described al-Hol as an “incubator for Islamic State resurgence”, and reported several brutal murders carried out inside the camp.

But a year after the fall of the caliphate, Covid-19 raged across continents, and foreign correspondents with experience in Syria were refocused. The international news cycle was now in a furious pandemic-obsessed spin. Pro-Isis lobby groups saw their opportunity — and started to change tack.

Women inside the camps were instructed to tone down their language. Twitter accounts that had previously called for the beheading of journalists like me now took a more humanitarian approach. And it wasn’t long before NGOs adopted this rhetoric. Human Rights Watch started to issue press releases with titles such as “’Bring me back to Canada’: plight of Canadians held in Syria for alleged Isis links”. That particular publication includes quotes from Kimberly Poleman (“Let me be who I am, a Canadian”), who met an Isis fighter online and travelled to the caliphate in 2015. A year earlier, Isis’s Yazidi genocide of August 2014 had been well-documented. Poleman could hardly claim to be ignorant about the crimes of the organisation she was going to support.

But, disturbingly, Yazidis, Kurds and the caliphate have slipped out of NGO press releases, which instead focus on the rights of foreigners held in “filthy conditions”. Meanwhile, aid organisations have reduced their services in the Yazidi camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yazidi girls held as sex slaves by Isis receive messages on social media apps from Isis supporters telling them they are coming back to get them. Some girls refuse to leave the sprawling, under-resourced camps for this reason. Meanwhile, young Yazidi boys, having been groomed by Isis to fight and dig tunnels in Mosul, spend their days shooting things in online games. Many local aid workers are terrified of these children returned from Isis. “Can you take them to your country?” one camp worker asked me, when I visited.

Journalists, like NGOs, have also lost interest in these Yazidi victims, while anything featuring Isis brides continues to receive exposure — which, perhaps cynically, is why I believe some NGOs continue to champion foreign repatriations. Headlines generate interest, interest generates donations. No one seems to realise that Isis itself is perfectly capable of supporting its women — it may have been defeated territorially but it still has a lot of money in the Middle East, and a well-organised global network of supporters.

More than anything, these last three years have felt like a bizarre experiment in how to whitewash the actions of terrorists. The time, effort and resources that went into reframing women who supported slavery — and openly told journalists they wanted to kill them and destroy their societies — is remarkable. Late last year, those of us who covered Isis for years joked that the next narrative to take over would be “save the innocent men!” And then, like clockwork, CTV News ran a piece about the British-Canadian Isis fighter Jack Letts that described him as a “bright teenager”. A few months later, the Guardian ran a piece headlined, “The UK government’s hypocrisy is keeping Jack Letts and his mother in purgatory” — in which the Brit is described as an Isis “volunteer”, rather than a fighter. The piece again omits any reference to the victims of Isis; lines are blurred, language is changed, and suddenly a man who joined a terrorist organisation is “a symbol of this government’s shameful unwillingness to confront the hardest of its responsibilities”.

Yet despite all this, you might find it strange to learn that I have campaigned for the repatriation of Isis members. Ireland, my native country, still has one naturalised citizen in Syria. I have advocated for his repatriation and subsequent trial — because Ireland is one of the few countries to have successfully prosecuted Isis members.

Former soldier Lisa Smith travelled to Syria twice and was ultimately sent to al-Hol. In July, she was tried in Ireland as a fully-grown adult whose actions have consequences. Joining a terrorist organisation that enslaved an ethnic group and sold young girls for sex is an action that deserves punishment. NGOs and journalists might see a softer narrative as a means to ensuring children are removed from prison camps, but there is no excuse for whitewashing the crimes committed by the women of Isis. The cleansing of their story will undoubtedly provide a template for terrorists — and only serves to embolden the well-resourced group, who are quite frankly laughing at us all.


Norma Costello is an award-winning Irish journalist who has been covering Isis since 2014. 

normcos

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I wish the author had explained why the media was so easily duped by the change in Isis propaganda to portray these women as harmless victims.
Is it simply that the victim narrative is so dominant within the msm that journalists will happily ignore every contradictory fact for a new “victim” story? Or is it nothing more than a desire for the next shiny clickbait story?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The MSM media weren’t duped. You should know by now they are driven to exploit stories from every side in order to pursue their own political or profit making agendas.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
1 year ago

Do not send any ISIS members to Ireland to be “successfully prosecuted”.

The Irish legal establishment manages to be extravagantly funded yet ineffective as Lisa Smith’s 15-month sentence proves. She will be free to spread her bile among Ireland’s growing network of mosques within months.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

Something I’ve never understood – why aren’t they being tried in Iraq/Syria, where they presumably committed their alleged offences? There seems to be a weird kind of extraterritoriality in play.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Good question, Tom. I think it’s the fear that they may receive the death penalty for their crimes and actually get executed. I believe the thought of capital punishment is giving our Western humanitarians a collective heart attack — no matter how richly deserved the punishment is.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
ER
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

Would that not be a good thing?

Joyce Brette
Joyce Brette
1 year ago

Definitely.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

But that would be more in line with Islam surely? That would be more appropriate. Anything else would be a form of cultural Imperialism.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

The UK with the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others have been trying to overthrow the Assad Government in Damascus for a decade. Allowing the Syrian government to try these terrorists would give the Syrian Government a legitimacy that the UK government wishes to deny it.

Chris Hume
Chris Hume
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

The judge took into consideration her “previous good character” and that she had had a “hard time” in Syria where she suffered domestic abuse. I had to read the paragraph a few times to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. People always talk about bringing them here so they can face justice, but they don’t face anything like it.
She’ll be on the streets recruiting within the next year.

chris Barton
CB
chris Barton
1 year ago

The ISIS Brides etc hate the west which is an idea they share with large parts of our media class who are all mostly Lefties (they love bashing Christianity) hence the drive from day one to minimise their crimes. There is a strange alliance between the Left and Radical Islam particularly in Britain.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
1 year ago
Reply to  chris Barton

The left loves victims, and the Islamists have perfected the art of playing victims. It is as simple as that! The left has still not fully grasped the unintended consequences of their uncritical stance.

Last edited 1 year ago by Vijay Kant
Judy Johnson
JJ
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  chris Barton

You are generalising. In the UK many Christians are on the left!

Phil Gurski
Phil Gurski
1 year ago

I worked in Canadian CT for 15 yrs and have written to date 6 books on terrorism, including one on Western ‘foreign fighters’. And yet when I go on national media to say these women should face and receive punishment where their crimes were committed, i.e. over there, I am chastised and called ‘heartless’. When I say the children of ISIS ‘brides’ should be placed with extended families I am called a ‘kidnapper’. It is enough to make one despair for the West’s ability to understand, and deal with, the jihadi threat. Thanks for writing this Ms. Costello!

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 year ago
Reply to  Phil Gurski

Thanks for your writings. Please do not give up to promote the truth.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

Lefty Liberals have a death wish, maybe not really for themselves per-se, but for their fellow Western Brethren. You see the same in all the places they live – criminals loosened to prey on the innocent. Society managed to cause the productive to lose, and the unproductive to prosper. Economies managed to put all wealth and power in the hands of the Elite – It is all right out of ‘Revelations’ I suppose, the winning of evil over good. Although Tuesday when Americans vote you have the clear choice – more of this – vote Democrat; to reverse this sickness – vote MAGA Republican. Never was an election clearer.

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

I don’t know if it is a death wish as much as pure stupidity/ignorance. O/W I agree, I have voted and hope tomorrow Americans have seen the light.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
1 year ago

Female privilege.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

And female apathy for other women, especially those like the Yazidis who don’t share that privilege.

A disproportionate share of the media, civil servants, “human rights” activists who are batting for these ISIS “victims” are well educated, upper class women who would otherwise love to pretend THEY are the ones being treated like the Yazidi women.

Last edited 1 year ago by Samir Iker
Matt M
MM
Matt M
1 year ago

I wonder what it would cost us to ship 10k Albanians to this Kurdish desert camp.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

I’d chat up the isis bride in the aluak bar of The Severed Arms any day….Serve a pint there with a nice head in it….

David Walters
David Walters
1 year ago

I wouldn’t preen too much about Lisa Smith being ‘successfully’ tried in Ireland. She was given 15 months, a wholly token and inadequate sentence.

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago

The left-infiltrated media advocates for these vicious ISIS brides, ignores their Yazidi/Kurd/Christian victims, all the while dumping on Israel.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Not surprised to see the NYT’s prints all over the problem. They’d back anyone with a hatred of western civilisation.

Michael Layman
ML
Michael Layman
1 year ago

First, the NYT is a leftist ignorant organization. You will notice that media outlets softening their stance against ISIS are the same. Once a terrorist, always a terrosist. These “brides” deserve the same punishment as their male counterparts. If it was up to me, I would execute all of them. How soon we forget the barbarbic nature of ISIS. I say treat them as they treated others, with a sharp sword.
Syria is a hell-hole to be sure, but that does not excuse ISIS. The real victims are the Kurds and the remainder of Syrians who suffer oppression under Assad and the Russians. Remember James Foley.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

The woman holding a single shot 20 ga shotgun seems a but under-armed to be much of a full terrorist. Was ISIS this simple an organization? And did they ride in trousers (or what ever shalwar kameez is called there), astride a horse, without the side robes to cover the legs as would be more proper? It is an odd picture, more of how a Westerner would envision a female Isis to be – which I guess is what she is.

Phil Mack
PM
Phil Mack
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Uh… she’s just posing for a photo. Obviously

ben arnulfssen
ben arnulfssen
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

If you think a 20 gauge shotgun isn’t a lethal weapon, you might have a rude awakening at some point…

Michael Layman
Michael Layman
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Just a posed picture, it is the online narrative that is dangerous.

Jonathan Sidaway
Jonathan Sidaway
1 year ago

Thank you!

ben arnulfssen
ben arnulfssen
1 year ago

The MSM are taken in by these women because they WISH to be. It really is that simple.

mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

Guardian, NYT and UK civil service are very much fellow travellers with DAESH. They had to keep their true colours hidden when the death cult was at its peak- now its been pushed back they are getting cocky and the evidence is bleeding through. You may ask why such a bunch of pro LGBT and pro trans weirdos make common cause with DAESH? The simplistic notion that my enemies’ enemy is my friend. Like many millions of Daily Mail readers i think the rule of law is needed to prevent the worst instincts of the Guardian, DAESH etc and am afraid if civil society’s laws fail then the more bloodshed is the likely outcome.Sadly that’s the only solution to the bad guys with guns and their noxious leftist cheerleeders who don’t have the guts to bomb or behead people BUT are happy to others on from a safe distance.

Last edited 1 year ago by mike otter
mike otter
mike otter
1 year ago

Guardian, NYT and UK civil service are very much fellow travellers with DAESH. They had to keep their true colours hidden when the death cult was at its peak- now its been pushed back they are getting cocky and the evidence is bleeding through. You may ask why such a bunch of pro LGBT and pro trans weirdos make common cause with DAESH? The simplistic notion that my enemies’ enemy is my friend. Like many millions of Daily Mail readers i think the rule of law is needed to prevent the worst instincts of the Guardian, DAESH etc and am afraid if civil society’s laws fail then the more bloodshed is the likely outcome.Sadly that’s the only solution to the bad guys with guns and their noxious leftist cheerleeders who don’t have the guts to bomb or behead people BUT are happy to others on from a safe distance.

Last edited 1 year ago by mike otter
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

Doesn’t this author believe in the sisterhood?
Actually advocating prosecuting other women… strange.