Call this the most stark case of buyer’s remorse ever. “Khadija” went from being a Free Syrian Army rebel to an ISIS enforcer, joining the Khansa’a Brigade of women who brutally imposed shari’a law on women in the Islamic State. Drawn to Raqqa by a romance with a fighter, the beheading of a young man and the beating of women for minor violations of the dress code demanded by ISIS had her thinking twice about her life choice. “I am not like this. I have a degree in education,” she told herself — and escaped across the border into Turkey:
She found herself drawn to the eloquence of a Tunisian whom she met online. Taken with his manners, she grew to trust him over time and he gradually lured her into the Islamic State, she said. He assured her that the group was not what people thought, that it 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.'”
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,” Khadija said. The brigade is the feared, all-female police for ISIS.
Khadija is at least honest about her initial motivations. After spending years feeling powerless against a state, suddenly she was the one giving the orders. That sense of fulfillment didn’t last long, though:
“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,” she said.
She didn’t get out, though, until she saw what happened to women under ISIS control — even those who married ISIS fighters. Despite their claims that they reserved their brutality for the war against the infidels, the men routinely committed violence against their wives, especially sexual violence. When her commander began pressuring Khadija to marry, that’s when she got out — and left her family behind after convincing them to follow her to Raqqa.
It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for Khadija. She ran to ISIS for power, putting her family in danger — and then ran off when it got dangerous for herself. Perhaps it got lost in the edit, but there’s nothing in the video that suggests she feels remorse for the victims of her own actions as a member of the brigade. Khadija seems focused only on the consequences of her choices on herself.
Still, this is not a bad interview to have on the record, especially when it comes to combating the propaganda ISIS uses for recruitment. Khadija can act as a cautionary tale for foolish young adults of both genders who find something romantic — literally and figuratively — from the brutal exercise of raw power, regardless of the context in which it is exercised.