The joint report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King's College London has also said counter-terror programmes aimed at preventing the increasing number of girls and women joining are too few, ill-informed and under-resourced and must be urgently scaled up.
Till Martyrdom do us part:Gender and the ISIS Phenomenon says there are many complex push-and-pull factors that are seeing young women join ISIS in ever greater numbers and at younger ages from a wide spectrum of backgrounds.
The report says its findings disprove the one-dimensional view of these women who are "often referred to as jihadi brides." It says they are far from passive agents and are involved in many different aspects of ISIS life and its campaigns from propaganda to recruitment.
However, it does say that whatever the many different hopes and reasons why they join ISIS – their 'first and foremost' responsibility will actually be 'to be a good wife to the jihadist husband to who they are betrothed and to become a mother to the next generation of jihadism.'
There are thought to be up to 4,000 foreign terrorist fighters who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq – including some 550 women.
The research is based largely upon analysis of an extensive database on female IS recruits run by the ISD and ICSR. It is considered the largest database on Western females joining ISIS.
The report also draws upon data and analysis from interviews with UK mentors working within government prevention programmes with women who have been arrested by security authorities and charged with extremist and terror-related offences.
Co-author Dr Erin Saltman of ISD says, "The recent unprecedented surge in female recruits to ISIS has brought this phenomenon into sharp focus. But there remain misperceptions and misunderstandings concerning the role women play within these violent networks. This research hopes to differentiate itself by giving depth and understanding to the shifting nature of the threat of violent extremism, with its increasingly tech-savvy and popular appeal, with the awareness that counter terrorism and counter-extremism strategies will have to evolve with these shifts."
The researchers say that although many young women join up with pre-conceived and often naive ideas, the report uncovers some of their discussions about the harsh reality once they arrive.
Co-author Melanie Smith says, "It gives a unique lens into the daily lives of foreign women living in the so-called Islamic State. Often through social media, we are able to read and hear about the complaints of daily life for females, often domestically isolated in severe conditions, and the realities of living within a war zone in a terrorist-held territory. These realities make powerful counter-narratives - which need to be used far more widely against sophisticated and prolific extremist propaganda."
Stem the tide
Senior Research Fellow Shiraz Maher of ICSR, King's College London, says, "Female recruits now make up a substantial part of those who have emigrated to join the ISIS cause. But little has been done to properly investigate the reasons why they are joining and how to prevent them. This important piece of research will go some way to helping stem that tide."
The report calls for stronger campaigns targeted at females and more youth awareness about extremist propaganda to help develop 'natural resilience towards this type of content' online and off. It also concludes that the role of female mentors in prevention and de-radicalisation programmes is vital and far more support and numbers of mentors are needed.