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Intrepid Sisters Reveal How ISIS Depends on Role of Women

Two forensic social workers who visit Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison gained a rare insight through inmates into the activity of female ISIS supporters, whose roles go far beyond that of wives.

Written by Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Roumieh Prison holds prisoners suspected of being members of ISIS, al-Qaida and the organization formerly known as the Nusra Front. Bilal Jawich/Anadolu Agency

BEIRUT – Few women have ever gained access to Block B of Beirut’s notorious Roumieh prison. This is where Lebanon holds radicalized criminals, where suicide bombings have allegedly been planned. It has been called an “operations room” for the so-called Islamic State by the country’s own interior minister. When Lebanese sisters Maya and Nancy Yamout first began interviewing convicted jihadists in the prison, they aroused confusion and suspicion among guards and prisoners alike.

The Yamouts’ interest began with a university project, but it took the support of the former minister of justice to get them inside Roumieh. It was unheard-of for two young women, even professionals, to attempt such a project. The sisters are forensic social workers, which means they tackle issues relating to law and legal systems, such as recommendations about mental status, child custody or neglect. “It was strange for ISF [Internal Security Forces] to see us in prison … [we] were asked, ‘Why do you want to do this? Go pick another topic,’” Maya says. Even the ISF guards who helped them showed no interest in their interviews.

Seven years on, after a Masters thesis about The Role of Forensic Social Work in Terrorism and its impact on society, the pair have become prison regulars. Apart from lawyers and family members, the sisters are the only civilians the Block B prisoners meet. They regularly interview more than 70 inmates – about 10 percent of the block’s total population – from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Russia and Sudan. Roughly half are said to have been deradicalized, and are finishing their prison time. Prisons are key recruiting centers for radicalization, putting Maya and Nancy into a potential cauldron of violent extremism.

For the two women in their late 20s, gaining the confidence of Block B prisoners, many of whom fear retribution from other inmates for speaking, was no easy task. But Maya and Nancy say they use the same techniques as jihadist recruiters: trust, respect and empathy. In some cases, their gender was an advantage. Nancy says: “We reminded them of their own sisters or mothers.”

Instead of cigarettes, the pair bring in trays of maamoul biscuits with fruit or nuts. “The sense of smell is very evocative and powerful,” says Nancy. “Cigarettes will remind the prisoner of jail, jihad and the guards interrogating them; sweets will bring them back to their family life before jihad.”

Through their interviews with the men in Roumieh, the sisters gained a unique insight into the multiple roles women have in maintaining and propagating the extremist ideology, and how they can play a vital part in deradicalization. “Women are key in continuing the ideology, they have an active role in ISIS, although it does not come out in the propaganda,” Nancy says.

The public perception of women in ISIS is generally limited to the all-female al-Khansaa brigade, known for its snipers and skills with IEDs, along with the many accounts of “ISIS brides.” But far from acting solely as “wives,” the women who support ISIS often help with logistics and smuggling jihadists from one place to another.

Such was the case with Jumana Hmayed – the only woman the two social workers interviewed directly. She was jailed for transporting bomb-rigged cars into Lebanon and was freed as part of a 2015 prisoner swap for kidnapped Lebanese soldiers. In her case, the real motivation was financial, according to the sisters.

According to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, women who join these extremist organizations think they are being progressive. They see themselves as “part of a social movement. They are dedicated to the cause and really believe in it.”

He cites the example of Marika Salouit, who was recruiting women through the Nymbar al Jihad website in Afghanistan. But women’s role is not confined to recruiting others of their gender: They also play a part in shaming men to join.

There is no official estimate of the number of women who have joined ISIS or al-Qaida, but Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, author of “The Female Face of Jihadism,” puts the number at roughly 550 western female jihadists, and thousands from the Middle East and North Africa. “In Tunisia alone, 700 are believed to have joined ISIS while in the West the French and British constitute the highest contingent,” she says.

As mothers, sisters and wives, women help to spread jihadist ideology. And ISIS fighters have noticed. They specifically appeal to women to join, making war appear glorious and trivializing violence. Umm Ubaydah, allegedly a Western woman in Manbij, “gives advice” to other women planning on travelling to Syria to join ISIS, where “their contribution comes in the home and through reaching out to other women online,” New York magazine reported.

Dr. Yazbeck expects “women’s role as recruiters and facilitators is going to continue, and is currently evolving on the battlefield.” She cites recent incidents involving female snipers seen in Sirte, Libya, as well as in Mosul, along with the foiled attack on the Notre Dame in Paris last September.

As ISIS suffers losses in the battle for Mosul, it is reaching into new territory for support. “ISIS are now trying to lure women nurses and doctors to join them; they need these people now with these skills on the battlefield in Mosul,” Aymen Dean, a former al-Qaida recruiter turned informant to British intelligence, told Syria Deeply.

He also explained how the real recruiting is now done via video sharing, not on Facebook or Twitter, and via one-on-one phone apps such as Telegram or Whatsapp. Technology has increased the reach of recruiting exponentially, which only heightens the urgency of the job of in-person deradicalization by people like the Yamout sisters.

“[ISIS] recruiters are extremely smart,” says Nancy. The ‘fishers’ in Lebanon, as she refers to them, are astute and know how to target multiple groups, which is why it is so difficult to stop them. Jihadist groups often become substitutes for gainful employment. But it’s not just about money. With weapons, the group offers the illusion of power, and with ideology offers an identity and sense of belonging. It’s a broad appeal that cuts across social classes.

The motives of the interviewed individuals can be grouped into four categories: “psychopaths,” ethnic and geopolitical reasons, religion, retribution. Despite this broad range, the sisters can measure success in deradicalizing an inmate by observing changes throughout their interviews, Maya says.

Though “in prison they can’t show they changed in an overt way because they are afraid that the prisoners might be abused by other fanatic inmates,” most released prisoners contact the social workers, giving them an opportunity to observe any real changes. So far, results from rehabilitating two prisoners and conducting group therapy for another four have been positive. But not every case is a success; Maya says some of the prisoners who contacted them did not want to change, and two such men returned to Syria and Turkey.

The sisters’ successful cases, however, could play a key role in deradicalizing others by offering a voice to those who have deradicalized, Yazbek said. Returnees are seen as legitimate and they know how to talk to their own communities, she explained. Someone considering joining a jihadist group is more likely to trust a “returnee” than an institutional officer. Offering them a sense of purpose and a different option is key.

The sisters’ work with people both before and after radicalization has highlighted the need to focus on those who have been successfully deradicalized. Armed with insights from years of interviewing prisoners in Roumieh, they founded Rescue Me, an NGO dedicated to crime prevention and combating radicalization, operating where the community needs them most, with teens and children in particular, and implementing programs targeting schools and dropouts.

“We need to focus on the success stories and shed light on them. Not only on negativity, we must spread this knowledge,” says Nancy.

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