My first conversation with Islamic State was about my reporting. I had just shared an article I’d written about the terrorist group recruiting Western fighters on my Twitter when I saw that someone using the Twitter handle Abu Omar had also posted a link to the piece on his own account. His profile photo unabashedly displayed the black and white IS flag. As I clicked around his profile, I received a Twitter message from him:
“Your article is pretty good,” he wrote in English. “But it lacks some important details.” Abu Omar is not his real name; it’s his preferred nom de guerre. I’ve agreed to use pseudonyms for all my Islamic State contacts because they do not want their identities known, and it’s important for me to have access to them.
I thanked him for his feedback, careful to craft a response that wouldn’t scare him off. A few messages later, he was ranting about atrocities committed by the West and how IS is defending Muslims. Abu Omar said he was in Syria with Islamic State. I was continents away, in my apartment in Brooklyn. We exchanged Twitter messages until 4 a.m.
I got Abu Omar’s first message in September 2014, two months after the group bulldozed the border between Syria and Iraq and declared itself an “Islamic State.” The IS frenzy had just begun in Western media and, at this point, most people knew only two things about the group: It was one of the most brutal we’d ever seen and had a team of social media masterminds. These are two of their most important recruitment tactics, both of which I had noted in my article, which was published in International Business Times.
The Vietnam War brought conflict reporting to television sets in American living rooms, shocking the American public with the horrors of combat and undermining support for military action. During the Iraq War, the U.S. government made sure to curb this press free-for-all and sought to control content by offering journalists a chance to embed with army units and attend daily press briefings. The war in Syria began yet another new chapter of war reporting, bringing the conflict in real time to anyone with a social media account. Many journalists, including me, were thrown into new territory when it came to vetting sources we spoke with on social media. There were no rules and, in many cases, there were no methods for being 100 percent sure that what you were seeing on YouTube or Facebook was true.
In the early stages, the only way to learn about Islamic State was to click through the hundreds of photo reports, videos, monthly military roundups and magazines the group published online. They did not talk to press. If you wanted a comment from the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you had to wait until he released a statement. By late 2015, there had been only five.
Since my first conversation with Abu Omar, I’ve come up with my own makeshift vetting system for online reporting. Generally, I speak to rebels, activists, militants or even civilians in the region nearly every day for a month before treating them as a credible source. We chat about the current situation in their location and, more importantly, their opinions. A pro-regime fighter will have a very different outlook than a Syrian rebel and it’s imperative to know which side they’re coming from before publishing what they have to say.
During that first month, both their answers to my questions and their communication style (the time of day and amount of time they’re able to chat) contribute to the vetting process. If they have an unreliable Internet connection, or tell me that they can only speak in certain areas (in the hospital, for example), they are much more likely to be telling the truth than someone who claims to be texting from the frontlines. If they pass the first month, I will then try to set up a video conversation or phone call to confirm their whereabouts.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I never quote Islamic State fighters in articles mainly because their true identity is too difficult to confirm. My conversations with IS fighters serve only to help me understand the group better when conducting my own reporting. To publish what they said would just turn me into one of their propaganda mechanisms. For this piece, I have chosen to publish snippets of my conversations because they illuminate the group’s online supporters’ views of women, which makes their physical location much less vital.
But because Abu Omar was my first IS contact, I hadn’t developed this system yet. I wasn’t sure how to confirm his identity and make sure he wasn’t just an Islamic State fanboy in his mother’s basement in New Jersey posing as the real thing (not that this type of source isn’t without its benefits when trying to learn about the group).
I knew I couldn’t use it in my reporting, but that didn’t stop me from trying to learn about Islamic State from Abu Omar. I told him that my article, like many other accounts in the Western media, lacked important information because I was a female journalist and his “brothers” in IS wouldn’t speak to me. Perhaps he could help me.
“You are very clever,” he wrote. “There is a reason why we do not speak to the media.”
Online reporters generally make their own set of rules for self-preservation. Don’t read the comments. Don’t engage the trolls on Twitter. Don’t answer demeaning Facebook messages. Don’t respond to hate emails. Being a woman reporter online involves following the same rules, but the insults generally stem from my gender and not my work.
I have been hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army for writing an article that was critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad and asked how many people I have to have sexual relations with to get my article published. Hackers affiliated with the Syrian regime accessed the International Business Times website, removed my article, and replaced it with a threat to remove all of our content if I ever wrote about Syria again. An hour later, I republished the article.
One particularly angry Twitter user publicly posted that I should try to work at Elle or Vogue magazine and “stick to what you know.” I have been accused of being a traitor, liar, prostitute, terrorist, Zionist, crusader and–my personal favorite–a fake Canadian. Notably, my IS contacts were careful not to isolate my work due to my gender, presumably because doing so would undermine their agenda, but that agenda was apparent in other, sometimes subtle, ways. I assume they didn’t isolate my work by gender because they didn’t care about my work, only that I was a woman.
Mainly, Abu Omar complained that as a journalist, I was part of this Western media conspiracy that was propagating lies about IS brutality. I was ready for him to start verbally assaulting me, but it never happened–not even when I provoked him by asking pointed questions about the so-called Islamic State.
At around 2 a.m., I grew tired of hearing the same angry complaints about my profession and the United States, the country in which I lived and, until I moved to Beirut, worked. I asked Abu Omar why, if he believed all the vitriol he was condensing into 140-character Twitter messages, he was risking having a conversation with me.
“Allah has put us on the same path so that I may help you see light and understand the truth,” he wrote.
Among the challenges and potential benefits of engaging Islamic State in such conversations as a single, female, non-Muslim journalist was that they were intent on manipulating me, using my gender to recruit me to their cause. For the most part, they perceived me as weak and tried to shelter me from the horrors happening on the ground. But on the other hand, not viewing me as a threat made them feel comfortable enough to speak honestly about other topics, such as daily life in the so-called caliphate and their views on women. In my conversations with Abu Omar and others, it was clear that they believed my mind could still be changed from afar. I had to be taught the proper way for a good woman to live and then I would believe what they told me: Islamic State was actually protecting and defending the rights of respectable Muslim women.
Abu Omar’s feedback on my article had been spot on. I had missed one key point that is central to IS’s recruitment strategy: Courting women into the caliphate. Dozens of women were going to Syria to join the group, nearly all of them having been courted, charmed, and often converted through encounters with their own Abu Omars.
My gender makes it impossible for IS fighters online to think of me as anything other than a woman, least of all, a journalist. Working in a profession that is dominated by men, I would never tolerate this sort of behavior from another male source or male colleagues, but because I knew that Abu Omar was trying to recruit me, I had two options: I could end my conversation with him and miss the opportunity to learn about Islamic State’s female recruitment process, and possibly, how they justify their brutal behavior; or I could grin and bear the blatantly sexist treatment, pretending I didn’t know what he was trying to do, in hopes that I could tap information that would not be available to me if I were a male reporter.
I chose the latter, and in so doing, found myself reporting on Islamic State as if through some surreptitious online dating site.
* * *
Several factors contributed to my decision to go with option two, but the tipping point began when Mosul, Iraq, fell in June 2014. I was a breaking news reporter at International Business Times, working the night shift and splitting my coverage between brief snippets of the Gaza War, the rise of IS and the launch of Game of Thrones-themed beer, hoping that one day I’d get the opportunity to be the Middle East reporter.
I was just two months into the job and, because I was mostly working nights, I didn’t have much direct contact with the senior editors. Then, one afternoon, I began to see photos of a familiar face appear in nearly every tweet in my IS Twitter list. The thumbnail-sized photos weren’t clear, but I could just make out that the person was wearing orange. I wasn’t sure what had happened, but I knew that everyone on this list was tweeting the same thing; it meant they were happy about something and that was bad news for us. I jumped up from my gray cubicle and yelled to no one in particular: “I think something bad just happened.”
Seconds after my outburst, the editor-in-chief, breaking news editor, Middle East reporter and international editor stood behind me as I sat at my computer, all of us watching as the IS militant soon-to-be-known-as Jihadi John issued threats to President Obama with a knife in one hand and a fistful of captive journalist James Foley’s orange jumpsuit in the other. Foley, as all the world now knows, was then beheaded.
I went home angry that night. I called my father, my friends, my grandparents, and anyone else who would answer, so that I could tell them what happened. The Islamic State group had just changed the nature of reporting on the conflict. They had just killed a man for doing his job, for doing all of our jobs. We weren’t just observers anymore. Though reporters had been targeted before, including Daniel Pearl, IS was now institutionalizing our systematic murder. Our vests emblazoned with the word PRESS were now a risk, not a safety measure.
It seems a little strange to me now, but none of my editors questioned the validity of my sources for that first IS video. A few weeks later, when Abu Omar sent me the first Islamic State propaganda video of British journalist and IS captive John Cantlie, one editor actually commended me for receiving it before most other news outlets.
I had just become the newsroom’s unofficial IS reporter, which meant having to watch nearly all of the group’s gruesome videos after that first one. It may sound perverse, but I couldn’t stop watching. I became obsessed with what seemed like a personal betrayal. I felt like they had taken away my dream: I couldn’t be the reporter I had wanted to be because, despite the calm conservations I had engaged in with Abu Omar and others, they had made it acceptable to execute me for doing my work. And my way of dealing with that was to try to understand why.
* * *
During the next year and a half, a handful of IS fighters inadvertently taught me about their ideology by trying to justify the hundreds of photos and videos of Islamic State crucifixions, beheadings, drownings, mass executions, rapes, and sex slaves I had seen. During those conversations, my gender came into play in two ways: They spoke to me because they were trying to recruit me, as a woman, to Syria; and they were careful not to send me offensive or harsh propaganda. Most journalists receive gruesome photos and bloody videos from fighters and activists alike, but I have never received anything worse than a selfie from IS fighters. Any brutal propaganda I watched came from what I was able to find online through my own research.
The conversations always start with the same small talk and questions that form the basis of any first meeting. But almost immediately after, the IS fighter makes his goal clear by asking two telltale questions.
Are you a Muslim? No.
Are you married? No.
They then try to convince me to join them in Syria, even though every self-proclaimed IS fighter with whom I’ve spoken knows I’m a journalist. I use my official social media accounts and the same picture I have on the International Business Times website.
I tried to defend my profession and demanded to know why Islamic State had made it a habit to execute journalists. Most of the IS members answered with some excuse that had already been disseminated in the group’s online propaganda. The journalists were spies, they were CIA, they were members of the Israeli Mossad, and they were tools of the White House. They never said they killed them just for being journalists, and they assured me that as long as I was honest in my reporting about the IS agenda, I would not be harmed.
Their answers did not surprise me, as most of the IS fighters with whom I spoke were much more eager to begin with recruitment than to discuss being a journalist.
Abu Abdullah, a former architect in Algeria, was fighting with IS in Iraq during the summer of 2015 when he reached out to me on Twitter. Muslim? No. Married? No.
“Now I looking for woman,” he wrote.
“I can’t find a girl.”
“Do you understand me?”
He didn’t have much time to recruit me. It was already June, Ramadan was about to begin, and he hoped to be married by Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the close of the holy month.
I asked Abdullah why he was looking for a woman when I had been told that IS provided brides for its fighters. I was wrong, he said. Finding a bride involved telling the imam that you had found your future wife and asking her father for his permission. Once her father has agreed, “the girl must see the boy and then she decides.”
Abu Abdullah had in fact joined IS to protect good Muslim women, he claimed. In other religions, he said, women are treated “like a product.”
“I can’t see Muslim girls be violated by anyone anymore. Our women and girls are our honor, understand this.”
There were families in Iraq from Canada and the U.S., he told me, and he sent me photos of his friends’ children, draped in IS paraphernalia and holding assault rifles as tall as they were. He also sent me photos of him in his former job as an architect and selfies of him on Iraq’s battlefields. We talked about his favorite architectural structures and he told me how great his life was now that he was in the caliphate.
He added me on WhatsApp a few days later and immediately asked me to remove my profile picture because my hair was uncovered. The first time we Skyped, so that he could show me how “great” life was in Mosul, Iraq, he initially hung up on me because my hair “shocked him.” He called back, but I did not cover my hair.
For weeks after that, he sent me e-books about Islam and sermons from prominent religious leaders, even though I told him I am Catholic. He explained the benefits and importance of wearing a hijab and sent me reading material to back up his statements. If I didn’t respond he would continue to send the messages until I did.
I told Abu Abdullah that from what I knew about the treatment of women in the caliphate, it was not as good as he made it sound. In the official list of IS fatwas (Islamic rulings), women are prevented from being alone with men or shaking their hands, showing their eyes or any part of their face, or wearing perfume, among many other rules. (Oddly enough, bleaching one’s eyebrows is permissible, according to the fatwas.)
But what actually happened on the ground was much more gruesome than what the fatwas suggested. Human Rights Watch documented a “system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces” against Yazidi women that they had taken hostage during their attack on Mount Sinjar, Iraq. In fact, I had written an article about a video that showed IS fighters discussing their upcoming visit to a slave market of Yazidi women. The men in the video spoke with grotesque excitement as they bantered about payment and tried to buy each other’s share of slave women.
“The price differs if she has blue eyes,” said a fighter who had chin-length dark hair and a gold ring on his pinky finger and who was addressed as Abu Fahd in the video. “If she is 15 years old … I have to check her teeth.” The other fighters all laughed.
“If she doesn’t have teeth, why would I want her?” Abu Fahd asked in an incredulous tone.
It repulsed me, but I never asked Abdullah about this video because I knew his response would be the same as Abu Omar’s response the year before: These claims were just propaganda.
Perhaps I was being naïve, but I believed that Abdullah sincerely thought he was defending women’s rights, though I knew it was limited to Muslim women. So when I heard the Turkish government accuse a female IS suicide bomber of carrying out the devastating attack in the Turkish town of Suruc on the border with Syria in the summer of 2015, I asked Abdullah how he could have let this happen to a woman. Abdullah sounded as surprised as I was to hear the news.
“I have no information I will check,” he wrote.
Two days later, I got a simple answer: “It wasn’t us. The Caliph refuses to use women or to let them carry out suicide attacks.”
He wasn’t lying. Women are an essential part of Islamic State’s infrastructure, but do not typically have a combat role. Instead, female recruits are responsible for running schools in IS territory, keeping the rest of the women in line, and acting as online recruiters for other foreign women. Of all the suicide attacks IS has carried out around the region, I know of none in which they used a female bomber. (The Turkish government later announced that the bomber was not a woman.) Though IS has banned women from fighting on the frontlines, the group has published a document stating exceptions for women who want to participate. A woman is allowed to wear and detonate an explosive device without permission if she is in Saudi Arabia; if she is being “raided” in her home and no one else is around; or if the emir has permitted it or if it is for the public good.
Abu Abdullah messaged me nearly every day until September, including on Eid, when Ramadan ended. I don’t think he ever got married.
I vetted Abdullah using my own process, like all the others, and his answers were by far the most believable. His interest in me had nothing to do with my reporting; in fact, the only time we discussed my profession was when he needed help making a different Facebook account (I worked at a website so I must know how to help him, he said). I can’t explain why, but he never worried that I would publish any of the videos or information he sent me.
Although most IS contacts assumed my gender rendered me harmless, some were not as trusting as Abu Abdullah and Abu Omar. Abu Ahmad, a young Tunisian fighter in Raqqa, was the most skeptical of me. He had reason to believe he was being monitored: His Twitter account had been twice suspended during the time we spoke to each other, probably because his cover image was a group photo of IS fighters smiling for the camera. When he initially contacted me on Twitter, he mistakenly thought that I was a French man.
“Brother, do you want to come to sham,” he asked, using the ancient word for Greater Syria borrowed from the Umayyad Dynasty. “I get requests to come from French people every day.”
After he realized who I was, and what I do for a living, I told him I knew of an upcoming attack that IS had planned in Berlin. One of my non-IS sources in Tunisia had tipped me off to the attack a week before while I was in Paris covering the gruesome attacks at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The Tunisian source was still in my one-month vetting process, so I did not publish anything about his claim, but by asking Ahmad about it, I was trying to confirm both his and the Tunisian’s information.
Ahmad immediately became paranoid. He was adamant about finding out who had told me about the attack. He was nervous that someone in Raqqa would accuse him of giving journalists information. A few days after our initial exchange, I received another message from him:
“You have troubled me since you wrote that you knew of an attack. What do you know about it exactly? How did your source find out, and if he was really in the know, why would he speak about it with you?”
For the Tunisian source’s protection, I never divulged his identity to Ahmad. I told Ahmad that he was under no obligation to speak to me if he was uncomfortable. Less than a week later, German police arrested three men for recruiting and providing financial support to Islamic State, thwarting a potential attack. Even after the arrest, Ahmad continued asking for a few weeks until finally, he disappeared.
* * *
All of the IS members I’ve spoken with eventually give up on recruiting me, become paranoid because I’m a journalist, and disappear, deleting their social media accounts and changing their WhatsApp or Viber phone numbers. Some of them have probably been killed, but most fighters have ended our conversations because they were afraid of getting caught.
Two weeks of back-and-forth messaging after our first conversation in September 2014, Abu Omar disappeared from my Twitter. A few hours later he made a Facebook page and I was his only friend. He wrote to me immediately and deleted the account once I had received the message.
“It’s me Abu Omar. I can’t speak to you anymore. We are living in a digital cage,” he wrote. “Insha’allah [God willing] we shall meet when the Khalifa expands.”
Abu Omar is not the only one that IS has placed in a digital cage. They have done the same to journalists. The only way reporters writing about Islamic State can do their jobs safely is to remain in the cage the group has created, protected by distance and anonymity, courtesy of the Internet.
This story would have a much different ending had I ever met any of these men in real life. Speaking to them online put enough distance between us that I could try to ignore their blatant objectification of women. Had we ever met in person, I’m not sure I would have been able to hide the disgust I felt, and that would have probably landed me in the same position as the Yazidi women.
In my conversations with Islamic State members I often had to ignore my instinct to demand that women be treated equally. I’m not proud of suppressing that instinct, but it’s something I felt was necessary to better understand the role of women within the group. I had to become one of the women the group would target for recruitment in order to learn about it. In a way, it’s like a new form of embedded journalism, one that can only exist online–and for a woman.
Alessandria Masi is the Middle East correspondent focused on all things terrorism for International Business Times. She is a native of Montreal and is based in Beirut.