Al-Hol Camp is located in Northern Syria, and shelters close to 70,000 people; mostly women and children who previously lived under Islamic State (IS) rule in Syria and Iraq. It has been guarded by the Syrian Democratic Forces since 2018.
We decided to examine the activism of two women who lived at the al-Hol Camp: Oum Khadija and Oum Nayla (names and identifying details have been changed). Both women were born and raised in Western Europe and both decided to join IS in the Levant in the mid-2010s. Upon arrival, the women married French-speaking IS fighters and had several children with the men in question.
This article attempts to address and provide a commentary on the content that the two French female jihadists published online during the summer of 2020 whilst incarcerated in al-Hol. Their ‘online diaries’, for lack of a better term, effectively consist of various messages and conversations as contained in various encrypted apps and channels that the women leveraged to interact with and seek support from other jihadists abroad. These included WhatsApp, Signal, Tam-Tam, Snapchat, Wickrme and Telegram. Both women switched from one platform to the other to circumvent censorship or reduce any risk of being monitored by non-jihadists, or what they dubbed, the ‘enemy’ eyes.
In the months to come, Oum Khadija and Oum Nayla became the voices of female jihadists detained in al-Hol. Their weekly posts offered testimonies of daily life in the camp through jihadist eyes, and highlighted the long-lasting connection between these women in detention in Syria and their family and supporters in Europe. What is notable here is how they managed to pursue their ideological campaign amidst what can only be described as dreadful conditions, particularly as the camp was flagged by several NGOs as being overcrowded and other reports described deteriorating living and sanitary conditions. This, arguably, reveals an excessive level of personal dedication to the cause, and perhaps, more importantly, places the actions of the women in line with what extremism could be defined as, namely, a definite commitment to an ideology – no matter the location, condition, or circumstance.
One striking aspect of their communication strategy is how thought-through it was, whilst certain elements of it indicated, at least, partial coordination. The women, for instance, mention a ‘brother’ (who, according to their description, resided in the Syrian-Turkish border area) who was helping the women plan their actions, deal with technical issues and assist with the production of ‘fundraising’ videos. They described another woman as “generous” and as being “involved in supporting” them. The ‘generous’ woman, seemingly, also gave the women advice regarding their communication strategy. The two inmates were particularly cautious, and were careful never to reveal the names (or describe identifying features) of their supporters. They were equally careful about information pertaining to the place where they were trying to flee.
One of the glaring elements of their storytelling is the depiction of their ‘daily suffering’ – a classic strategy utilised by jihadists. These were reported in the format of a diary, and highlighted specific details of their detention, focusing particularly on human abuses. They mentioned water deprivation (26 June), rape-like body searches (24 and 26 June), endless waits in the heat with their children (28 June), their need to rely on the black-market for sustenance (3 July), deaths of children (10 July), 11 p.m. curfews (24 July), or enduring the prohibition of being able to wear fully covering headscarves (24 July).
One major feature of their communication is the utilisation of the jihadist narrative. This involved interpreting most international events through such lens and the implications of such events being “twisted” as and when necessary. To give a few examples: On 15 July 2020, they announced the death of a Moroccan ‘sister’, Oum Iliesse, in al-Hol from a liver illness. Her death made her a ‘shaheed’ or martyr – such declaration was made by making reference to a hadith well-known in jihadist cyber-activist circles. Five days later, on 20 July, they attempted to echo the Black Lives Matter movement, depicting their Kurdish watchmen as ‘racist’ against the ‘coloured-skin sisters’. They condemned the US-led coalition warfare and described their Sunni jailers as ‘atheists’.
It is important to note, however, that these women would not describe themselves as being “extremists”. In fact, they forcefully rejected such accusations, reducing them to mere ‘rumours’: “Are We Takfiri (meaning “excommunicator”)? Glory to Allah… We ignore these rumours, we have enough to focus on.” (15 July). Their discourse is thus – simultaneously – political and religious, accessible and specific. This evidences the multifaceted aspects of a jihadist campaign on social media.
As mentioned, the contents of the messages we examined indicate an important level of ideological involvement and dedication to the jihadi ideal: both women displayed more determination than ever on social media and relied on new forms of solidarity within jihadist groups online. This state of mind appears to be in sharp contrast with the public remorse expressed by many female jihadists in interviews with Western media. It is also inconsistent with the narrative used in negotiations by their lawyers in France to get them repatriated into Europe and prosecuted there.
Finally, the online statements appear to have been critical for the solicitation of financial assistance by the women. Such assistance allowed them to bribe their wardens to ease the burden of their daily lives inside the camps, or to save up to pay smugglers who could potentially help them run away from the camp. The graphic depictions of their daily life, fraught with abuses and hardships, have been crucial to advance their crowdfunding campaigns. In a short message published on 15 July the two inmates explained: “We only want to recover our freedom”, adding that the reason they are imprisoned was because they tried “to get as free as it gets” (such was their “goal” in joining IS in the first place). In order to recover this ‘freedom’, the two imprisoned women urged their online supporters to pray for them but also to support them financially through what they coin as sadaqa (or charity; sadaqa is a religious obligation).
It is clear then that activists inside the biggest prison camp in Syria are using the virtual space to maintain a jihadist presence online. Oum Khadija and Oum Nayla’s e-diaries use all the ‘codes’ set by IS for its online propaganda. Their online publications seek to move, create controversies, gather support and maintain the link with other militants outside the camps. Finally, their online activism has replaced their physical activism which shows that whilst IS’s physical territories have been destroyed in Syria, its ideological lands remain.