This story appeared online in The CBC and The Huffington Post on July 7, 2014.
Eight months ago, Umm Haritha, a 20-year-old woman from Canada, made her way to Turkey against her parents’ wishes with a half-empty suitcase and $1,500.
Within a week she was in Syria, and a few weeks later she was married to Abu Ibrahim al-Suedi, a 26-year-old Palestinian from Sweden fighting for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni jihadist group battling the Syrian regime.
It is not clear whether Umm Haritha’s marriage to Abu Ibrahim was arranged before her travel to Syria. Regardless, it only lasted five months.
On May 5, Abu Ibrahim, whose real name is Taha Shade, was in a car en route to a meeting in Deir ez-Zor with members of rival faction Jabhat al-Nusra. What was meant to be a gathering to finalize a peace treaty between ISIS and al-Nusra turned deadly when an al-Nusra fighter on a motorbike sped up to Shade’s car and detonated his explosive belt.
At the time, Shade was wearing his own explosive belt, which also went off and blew him to pieces.
Two days later, Umm Haritha tweeted about her husband’s death, calling on “Allah” to “destroy those who backstabbed the brothers and resurrect Abu Ibrahim with noor [light] from every piece of his body.”
Umm Haritha’s journey to Syria highlights an underreported part of the western Jihadist experience in Syria.
While the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has estimated that up to 2,800 Western men have gone to Syria to fight, much less is known about the Western women who have gone over to marry jihadists since the Syrian civil war began three years ago.
The ICSR has located 28 such women who are currently active on social media. While most of them are from France, there is also Umm Haritha, who operates a blog where she offers guidance to other women contemplating moving to Syria to marry jihadists and establish families in the newly declared caliphate.
In a recent interview conducted by text message, Umm Haritha said she moved to Canada as a child and lived there for 14 years before deciding to move to Syria. She was a university student and said her upbringing was “normal” and “middle class.”
While she wouldn’t disclose where in Canada she lived, she said her decision to join the jihad in Syria was motivated by a desire to “live a life of honour” under Islamic law rather than the laws of the “kuffar,” or unbelievers.
Four months before she left for Syria, she began wearing a niqab, a veil that leaves only the eyes visible, and says she experienced harassment from fellow Canadians.
“I would get mocked in public, people shoved me and told me to go back to my country and spoke to me like I was mentally ill or didn’t understand English,” she said.
“Life was degrading and an embarrassment and nothing like the multicultural freedom of expression and religion they make it out to be, and when I heard that the Islamic State had sharia [Islamic law] in some cities in Syria, it became an automatic obligation upon me since I was able to come here.”
Since her husband’s death, Umm Haritha has been living in a house with the widows of other fallen jihadists in Manbij, a town of 200,000 people near the Turkish border controlled by ISIS, which recently declared a caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
While male western fighters in Syria and Iraq tweet photos of battles, spoils of war, dead fighters and beheadings, many of the women have been using social media to describe the day-to-day life in the nascent caliphate.
Umm Haritha said that in Manbij, which is currently controlled by ISIS (which is now referring to itself simply as the Islamic State), she receives a monthly income and an education.
In one post, Umm Haritha shares a picture of a building painted in black described as the “(Islamic) Police station in Manbij.” In another post, she shares a photo of a white van that patrols the town with speakers reminding residents not to forget to recite their daily prayers.
In yet another, she posts a photo of a “new Islamic clothing store” for women.
She said the city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold, has courthouses, orphanages, traffic police and is “the most organized city” she has ever been to.
“It looked so beautiful the sisters and I joked around and called it the New York City of Syria,” she said.
Missing from her posts, however, are reports of the crucifixions of individuals for apostasy, the cutting off of the hands of thieves and the public floggings for crimes like listening to music or smoking cigarettes.
Umm Haritha described how a man was recently beheaded and crucified in Manbij for robbing and raping a woman.
She said she is not bothered by the violence and believes these practices will decrease the rising crime rates that the region has experienced since the advent of the civil war.
“I would rather see this than see the crime repeated over and over,” she said. “If you don’t want to be known as a thief or a rapist or murderer, then don’t commit the crimes.”
Whereas many of the western men flock to the Islamic State to fight, the women go to start families, said Melanie Smith, a research associate with the ICSR.
“On the whole, they are going there to make house, and there is a certain status with being married to a jihadist,” Smith said. “They want to go to be involved, especially now that the Caliphate has been established. That might become more common.”
“Those who can immigrate to the Islamic State should immigrate, as immigration to the house of Islam is a duty,” al-Baghdadi said in a recent audio recording released on a web site used by ISIS.
Umm Haritha said she has no plans to return to Canada and said most foreigners living under the Islamic State have ripped up their passports.
ICSR researcher Joseph Carter said that in the short term, the announcement of the caliphate “creates a strong incentive for people who were thinking of going to go now.”
“It creates something on the ground that seems real and stable,” Carter said. “Whether or not a workable state actually comes into being without collapsing – that’s a different matter.”