URFA, Turkey—In an interview with CNN, a 25-year-old female who calls herself Khadija described her time as a member of a female ISIS brigade—and what prompted her to defect.
Khadija grew up in Syria, where she got her college degree and began teaching elementary school. She describes her family as “not overly conservative.”
When the Syrian uprising began more than three and a half years ago, Khadija joined the masses in peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Recalling the days she describes as “great,” she remembers that the protesters would “write on walls, have different outfits to change into.”
However, when the Syrian uprising became chaotic and violent, she describes the feeling of “want[ing] to tear yourself away, to find something to run to.”
Khadija began talking to a Tunisian online; eventually, she says that he lured her into the Islamic State, which, he assured her, was not a terrorist organization.
“He would say, ‘We are going to properly implement Islam. Right now we are in a state of war, a phase where we need to control the country, so we have to be harsh,” she recalls.
He told her that he was coming to the Syrian city of Raqqa, where they could get married. Khadija says that she then got in touch with her cousin, who was living in Raqqa and whose husband was with the Islamic State; the cousin invited her to join the Khansa’a Brigade—the feared, all-female police for ISIS.
Khadija convinced her family to move to Raqqa, and like that, she was welcomed into the Khansa’a Brigade.
The brigade consists of 25 to 30 women who are tasked with patrolling the streets to ensure that women are dressed as outlined by the Islamic State.
Any woman who breaks these clothing laws—by, for example, showing her eyes or wearing beaded or slightly form-fitting abayas—are lashed by Umm Hamza.
“She’s not a normal female,” Khadija says of Hamza. “She’s huge, she has an AK, a pistol, a whip, a dagger and she wears the niqab.”
Khadija was trained to clean, dismantle, and fire a weapon. She was paid $200 a month a received food rations. Although her family warned Khadija to “wake up” to the reality she was involved in, it was only eventually that she says she “started to get scared, scared of my situation. I even started to be afraid of myself.”
Khadija says that she saw an image online of a 16-year-old boy who was crucified for rape, which prompted her to question her inclusion in a group capable of such violence.
“The worst thing I saw was a man getting his head hacked off in front of me,” she said. She also bore witness to the extreme violence ISIS directed towards women.
“The foreign fighters are very brutal with women, even the ones they marry,” she says. “There were cases where the wife had to be taken to the emergency ward because of the violence, the sexual violence.”
As she found herself being pressured into marriage, Khadija decided instead that she needed to leave the brigade. She left days before the coalition airstrikes, and was smuggled across the border to Turkey; her family remains in Syria.
Khadija still wears the niqab—partially to conceal her identity, but partially also because she’s struggling to adapt back to her life outside ISIS. She says that she is wary of another change and that she is “afraid of becoming someone else.”
“I don’t want anyone else to be duped by them,” Khadija says of ISIS. Regretful of her time with ISIS, she says that she now wants to be the same girl she was before falling under ISIS’ spell.