“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.’”
He told her he was coming to the Syrian city of Raqqa, that they could even get married.
“I got in touch with my cousin, and she said, ‘You can come join us in the Khansa’a Brigade. She was living in Raqqa with her husband who was with the Islamic State,”
The brigade is the feared, all-female police for ISIS.With her cousin to open the doors, Khadija was welcomed into the feared Khansa’a brigade.
The Khansa’a Brigade is made up of around 25 to 30 women and is tasked with patrolling the streets of Raqqa to ensure that women adhere to proper clothing as outlined by the Islamic State.
Beaded or slightly form-fitting abayas are banned. Women are not allowed to show their eyes.Those who broke the laws are lashed.The lashings to the women who broke ISIS rules were carried out by Umm Hamza.
When Khadija first saw Umm Hamza, she was terrified.
“She’s not a normal female. She’s huge, she has an AK, a pistol, a whip, a dagger and she wears the niqab,”
Brigade commander Umm Rayan sensed Khadija’s fear
“and she got close to me and said a sentence I won’t forget. She said, ‘We are harsh with the infidels, but merciful among ourselves.’”
Khadija was trained to clean, dismantle, and fire a weapon. She was paid $200 a month and received food rations.Her family sensed Khadija was slipping away, but were helpless to stop it. Her mother tried to warn her.
“She would always say to me, ‘Wake up, take care of yourself. You are walking, but you don’t know where you are going.’”
“At the start, I was happy with my job. I felt that I had authority in the streets. But then I started to get scared, scared of my situation. I even started to be afraid of myself.”
She started thinking: “I am not like this. I have a degree in education. I shouldn’t be like this. What happened to me? What happened in my mind that brought me here?”
And her image of ISIS began to crumble.Burned into her mind is an image she saw online of a 16-year-old boy who was crucified for rape. She questioned 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,”
Even more personally, she witnessed ISIS’ brand of violence reserved for women. The brigade shared its building with a man who specialized in marriage for ISIS fighters.
“He was one of the worst people,” she said of the man tasked with finding wives for both local and foreign fighters.
“The foreign fighters are very brutal with women, even the ones they marry,” she said. “There were cases where the wife had to be taken to the emergency ward because of the violence, the sexual violence.”
With her commander pressuring her to submit to marriage, Khadija decided she needed to leave the brigade.
“So it was at this point, I said enough. After all that I had already seen and all the times I stayed silent, telling myself, ‘We’re at war, then it will all be rectified.’
“But after this, I decided no, I have to leave.”
Khadija left just days before the coalition airstrikes, but her family remains in Syria.She was smuggled across the border to Turkey.Khadija still wears the niqab, not just to conceal her identity but also because she’s struggling to adapt back to life outside the Islamic State. Regretful of her immersion in radical Islam, she is wary of another sudden change.
“It has to be gradual, so that I don’t become someone else. I am afraid of becoming someone else. Someone who swings, as a reaction in the other direction, after I was so entrenched in religion, that I reject religion completely,” “I don’t want anyone else to be duped by them. Too many girls think they are the right Islam,” she said.
She desperately wants to be the girl she was before falling under the spell of ISIS —
“a girl who is merry, who loves life and laughter… who loves to travel, to draw, to walk in the street with her headphones listening to music without caring what anyone thinks,” she said.
“I want to be like that again.”