Aqsa Mahmood grew up in an affluent part of Glasgow, Scotland, and attended a prestigious private school. She liked listening to the band Coldplay and reading "Harry Potter" books. Then at 19, she disappeared.
She later told her parents that she had crossed into Syria to join Islamic State and was marrying one of its fighters.
In the year since then, she has turned up frequently on social networking sites touting the militant group's attacks and encouraging more Western women to travel to Syria to help build a new nation based on its extreme interpretation of Islam. As recently as Feb. 15, she is believed to have been in touch with 15-year-old Shamima Begum, one of three British teens who flew to Turkey two days later and who police said Tuesday have crossed the border into Syria.
Terrorism experts say Mahmood is part of a sophisticated recruitment campaign that uses sites such as Twitter, Facebook and ask.fm to lure Western women and girls to the war-torn country with a mix of extremist religious ideology and chatty posts about life in the militants' self-proclaimed caliphate that are laced with emoticons and street slang.
In addition to the spiritual rewards of serving Allah, the women are promised husbands and homes, including such worldly items as fridges, microwaves and milkshake machines, said Mia Bloom, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and author of "Bombshell: Women and Terror." Bloom likened the exchanges to online grooming by sexual predators. "It's not dissimilar … in terms of disinhibiting them, creating a rapport, building trust, creating this environment of secrecy: 'You don't tell your parents, you can trust me,'" she said.
Hundreds are believed to have taken the bait. Many are second- or third-generation immigrants who do not have the religious education to question what they are being told about Islamic law and practices, experts said. They are drawn to Syria by a sense of religious obligation, concern about the suffering inflicted on Muslim civilians in the country's civil war, a desire for adventure and purpose and the romance of marrying a fighter.
Islamic State's use of social media has been revolutionary, said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online activity by militant groups. Such activity used to take place exclusively within password-protected Web forums, she wrote in a November blog post. Islamic State "brought the jihadi community into the mainstream of the Internet and exponentially increased jihadis' audience," she wrote.
The post traced the radicalization of three Colorado teens who were stopped in Germany last year as they attempted to travel to Syria and returned to their families. The girls from suburban Denver, a 16-year-old of Sudanese descent and two sisters, 15 and 17, of Somali descent, followed militants online from Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Syria, Katz wrote. Asked how she became a "good Muslim," one of the girls cited lectures posted on YouTube, which she said "helped me to become closer to Allah."
Another was in regular contact with an Islamic State online recruiter who goes by the name Umm Waqqas, purportedly a woman from the Netherlands. Umm Waqqas urged her followers to migrate "sooner rather than later," saying that "when you actually sit down & open your heart &read what's in the books of Hadith … you will run."
Around the time that the girls left for Frankfurt in October, two of them asked their Twitter followers to offer prayers regarding an "extremely urgent" matter, Katz said. The next day, Umm Waqqas tweeted, "If those sisters did indeed leave for Shaam [Syria] they are more of a man then you are! Yes, I said it! Sue me."
Experts who track extremist groups noticed an increase in efforts to attract female recruits over the summer, when Islamic State, already an aggressive recruiter of Western men to fill its fighting ranks, declared a caliphate, or Muslim empire, in parts of Iraq and Syria.
English-language social media accounts were created that provide detailed instructions on how to reach Syria and what the women need to bring with them. To avoid detection, they urge followers to buy a round-trip ticket to Turkey and research the tourist sites in case they are questioned by airport officials.
The recruiters emphasize that the women's role will be to marry fighters, bear their children and raise the next generation of militants. Some foreign women living in the Syrian city of Raqqah, capital of the self-styled caliphate, are said to have joined an armed morality squad known as the Khansa Brigade. But it is "completely impossible" for women to do battle, said a recruiter identifying herself as Umm Layth — a screen name believed to be used by Mahmood — according to a SITE report.
Although such recruitment efforts would seem to defy the conservative Muslim belief that a woman needs permission from a male guardian to travel or marry, followers are told that there is a greater obligation to live in the caliphate. It is even said to be permissible to steal money to get there.
Such online communication is probably accompanied by contact with someone offline who can help girls reach Syria, said Aamer Anwar, a lawyer representing Mahmood's family. But he said these recruiters are not likely to be found in mosques.
"99% of Muslim women do not go to the mosque," he said. "Their radicalization is not taking place in the mosque. It's happening online; it's happening in their bedrooms."
Melanie Smith of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London, has been tracking the social media accounts of 90 Western women who are believed to have joined militants in Syria and are active online. She said the recruits are overwhelmingly young — between the ages of 16 and 25 — and appear to come primarily from Western Europe. There are also two from Australia, two from Canada and at least one from the United States.
These women have time on their hands and are more prolific on social media than their male counterparts, Smith said. While the men share bloody images of executions and battle scenes, the women post pictures of themselves in the face-concealing niqab, eating pizza or sipping a milkshake. The message, Smith said, is that they are part of a thriving community to which anyone can belong.
"The sisterhood aspect is really important to these girls," she said, especially "for a disenfranchised, strictly religious teenager who doesn't feel represented."
The reality facing these girls is likely to be less enticing. In January, the group's supporters began circulating an Arabic-language document titled "Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study." The document does not appear to have been aimed at Western recruits and was not available in English until it was translated by the Quilliam Foundation, a British group that aims to counter militant messaging.
Although women may be permitted to leave the home to study theology, serve as a doctor or teacher, or fight if absolutely required, their role is said to be largely sedentary. Their education should focus primarily on religion and end at 15. Most will be married by 16 or 17, and they can wed as young as 9.
"Women, it is unambiguously stated, are homemakers and mothers," the foundation said. "The matters of adventure and excitement, themes most used by female Western recruiters trying to recruit young girls to IS, are the realm of men."
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Boyle from London.