No exit: for female jihadis, Syria is one-way journey

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PARIS (AP) -- When three British schoolgirls trundled across the Syrian border; when a pregnant 14-year-old ran away from her Alpine home for the second time; when a sheltered girl from the south of France booked her first trip abroad - they were going to a place of no return.

Only two of the approximately 600 Western girls and young women who have joined extremists in Syria are known to have made it out of the war zone. By comparison, as many as 30 percent of the male foreign fighters have left or are on their way out, according to figures from European governments that monitor the returns.

In interviews, court documents and public records, The Associated Press has compiled a detailed picture of European girls and young women who join extremists such as the Islamic State group - a decision that is far more final than most may realize.

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ISIS takes Palmyra, Syria
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No exit: for female jihadis, Syria is one-way journey
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, an Islamic State fighter aims his weapon during a battle against the Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
Map locates Palmyra, Syria.; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
Syrians stand and look out on the street of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra on May 18, 2015, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows the monumental entrance (R), which was reconstructed after 1963 by Syrian Directorate of Antiquities, of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 on the website of Islamic State militants, shows black columns of smoke rising through the air during a battle between Islamic State militants and the Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city, killing several people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
In this picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, an Islamic State fighter fires his weapon during a battle against Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
This picture released on Thursday, May 21, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, shows damaged Syrian military helicopters at Palmyra air base that was captured by the Islamic State militants after a battle with the Syrian government forces in Palmyra, Syria. Activist and officials say members of the Islamic State group are conducting search operations in the ancient town of Palmyra where they have detained and killed dozens of people. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMMY KETZ A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syria's fabled desert Greco-Roman oasis of Palmyra saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the uprising began. Its most recent visitors are violence and looting. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture released on Thursday, May 21, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, shows the Tadmur prison in the Syrian town of Palmyra that was captured by the Islamic State militants after a battle with the Syrian government forces, Syria. Activist and officials say members of the Islamic State group are conducting search operations in the ancient town of Palmyra where they have detained and killed dozens of people. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
In this picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, Islamic State fighters take cover during a battle against Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, shows a tank with Islamic State group fighters clashing with Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra, Syria. Islamic State militants overran the famed archaeological site at Palmyra early on Thursday, just hours after seizing the central Syrian town, activists and officials said, raising concerns the extremists might destroy some of the priceless ruins as they have done in neighboring Iraq. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
A general view taken on May 18, 2015 shows the castle of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, a day after Islamic State (IS) group jihadists fired rockets into the city and killing five people. Fierce clashes have rocked Palmyra's outskirts since IS launched an offensive on May 13 to capture the 2,000-year-old world heritage site nicknamed 'the pearl of the desert'. AFP PHOTO /STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows carvings on a wall in the courtyard of the sanctury of Baal in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - This FILE photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. Islamic State militants seized parts of the ancient town of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday after fierce clashes with government troops, renewing fears the extremist group would destroy the priceless archaeological site if it reaches the ruins. (SANA via AP, File)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMMY KETZ A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows damage caused by shelling on a wall in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. Syria's fabled desert Greco-Roman oasis of Palmyra saw its last tourist in September 2011, six months after the uprising began. Its most recent visitors are violence and looting. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows Syrian citizens walking in the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE - This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. Islamic State militants seized parts of the ancient town of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday after fierce clashes with government troops, renewing fears the extremist group would destroy the priceless archaeological site if it reaches the ruins. (SANA via AP, File)
This picture released on Thursday, May 21, 2015 by the website of Islamic State militants, shows a bunker with a heavy machine gun mounted on its top at Palmyra air base that was captured by the Islamic State militants after a battle with the Syrian government forces in Palmyra, Syria. Activist and officials say members of the Islamic State group are conducting search operations in the ancient town of Palmyra where they have detained and killed dozens of people. (The website of Islamic State militants via AP)
FILE - This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. Members of the Islamic State group have captured the ancient town raising fears that the extremists will destroy its archaeological sites that have stood for two millennia. Palmyra, home to one of the Middle East's most famous UNESCO world heritage sites, was under full control of militants on Thursday after troops withdrew to nearby bases. (SANA via AP, File)
A picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the theatre at the ancient oasis city of Palmyra, 215 kilometres northeast of Damascus. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
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The girls are married off almost immediately. With an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters - among them 5,000 Europeans - in Syria, there is no shortage of men looking for wives. That number is expected to double by the end of the year. Once among the jihadis, the women are not permitted to travel without a male chaperone or a group of other women, according to material published by Islamic State and researchers who follow the group. Otherwise, they risk a lashing or worse.

European women who blog about their lives under Islamic State tend to be chipper about the experience, but reading between the lines of an e-book of travel advice shows a life that will be radically circumscribed, with limited electricity, lack of even the most basic medicine, and practically no autonomy. Women do not fight, researchers say, despite Hunger Games-like promises.

"The lives of those teenage girls are very much controlled," said Sara Khan, a British Muslim whose group Inspire campaigns against the dangers of extremist recruiters.

The two exceptions to the rule of no return are perhaps most revealing in the very paucity of details about their journey - driving home how murky life is behind the Islamic State curtain.

Sterlina Petalo is a Dutch teenager who converted to Islam, and came to be known by the name Aicha. She traveled to Syria in 2014 to marry a Dutch jihadi fighter there and managed to return months later - apparently making her way to the border with Turkey, where her mother reportedly picked her up and brought her back to the Netherlands. Back home, she was immediately arrested on suspicion of joining a terror organization.

Her family, lawyers and prosecutors refuse to discuss the case. She was released from custody last November and has not been formally charged.

The second woman known to have made it out of the grip of Islamic State reconsidered after just a few weeks. The 25-year-old Briton, whom police have not named, had taken her toddler son all the way to Raqqa, the group's stronghold, when she decided she had made a mistake and called home. She made her way back into Turkey and her father met her there. How she was able to travel the 250 kilometers (150 miles) from Raqqa to the Turkish border city of Gaziantep is not clear. Back in Britain, she was detained and is now free on bail pending formal charges.

Without knowing how the two escaped, it is difficult to say whether other girls and women could follow their path out of Syria, said Joana Cook, a researcher at King's College London who studies the links between women and jihad.

"There are clearly many human smugglers working within Syria right now, helping Syrian civilians escape the violence, and I wonder if there is a similar, perhaps even growing market, for those trying to escape after joining ISIL," Cook told The Associated Press in an email, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State group.

The question is whether the girls understood from the beginning how limited their choices would be once they crossed the frontier.

The case of a 15-year-old Avignon girl exemplifies such doubts. The girl hid her second Facebook account and Islamic veil from her moderate Muslim family, thereby managing to join a jihadi network, according to the family's lawyer. Once within a unit of the al-Qaida offshoot Nusra Front, she was not permitted to leave, according to her brother, who went into Syria to fetch her and was turned away by the extremists. A French boy who joined the group around the same time was allowed to go home.

The networks that bring the women into Syria are increasingly organized around the extremists' dream of building a nation of multinational jihadis, meaning European girls are particularly prized.

The doggedness of jihadi methods for recruiting girls can be seen in the case of Amelia, a 14-year-old girl from France's Alpine Isere region.

Amelia was first contacted on Facebook by a French fighter on Jan. 14, 2014 and within a month agreed to go to Syria and marry the man, who identified himself as "Tony Toxiko." After she was turned back by airport border police in Lyon on her first attempt, "Tony Toxiko" persuaded another French adolescent girl to join him in Syria.

Amelia, meanwhile, ran away from home to Belgium, where an imam performed a religious ceremony that wed her to a different man, an Algerian jihadi. She returned to France homesick and pregnant, just long enough to speak to investigators building a case against a middleman who helped her run away. This winter, Amelia managed to deceive her family and left again - making it to Syria with the Algerian fighter, who is more than twice her age.

"It's particularly difficult for these families. For them, radicalization is happening on the Internet and outside the family sphere," said Sebastien Pietrasanta, a French lawmaker working on a program to de-radicalize young people. "For a girl of 14, I believe we can clearly save her from herself and save her from these barbarians."

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