By Flora Bagenal
Yasmin Mulbocus was radicalized in the 1990s when she was 17, disillusioned, and full of rage. She was recruited while attending a discussion class attached to her college in the U.K. Newly married and pregnant with her first child, she’d only recently started showing an interest in religion. Up until then, she had spent most of her teenage years in and out of British foster homes, listening to hip-hop, and getting into trouble.
The class’s group discussions centered on the idea of creating a visionary Islamic state, where wrongdoing in the world would be corrected and people would live free of racism and Islamophobia. Mulbocus was drawn to the way the group leaders talked about creating a new world order. One thing in particular caught her attention: Someone said the death penalty would be mandatory for rapists.
“I said, ‘Oh, OK, now you’re making sense.’”
Mulbocus says that when she was 10, an uncle acting as her foster parent started to abuse her. She took him to court when she was 15 against the wishes of other family members, but the case was thrown out due to lack of evidence.
“Secular law hadn’t given me any justice because my case got dropped. So the idea of working toward this visionary state meant something to me personally,” she says. “It meant I would get justice for what my perpetrator had done.”
Gradually, Mulbocus says, she became more entrenched in the utopian vision the group projected. She began to join them on “missionary” activities, going out into the streets of London to challenge capitalism and question the secular way of life.
“We were the voice, eyes, and ears of all Muslims,” she says. “This was the only group [at the time] that was challenging leaders like Gaddafi, leaders like Saddam Hussein, talking about their dictatorships, their oppression, the mass killings. This is what gave our uprising momentum. We were going to provide an alternative solution—the Islamic State.”
Mulbocus says part of her role within the organization was to set up study circles for other women in the group. She was also the first point of contact for women who showed interest in joining and wanted to know more.
“I’d set up meetings with them, [usually in] people’s houses, and just try and convince them to come and join our cause,” she says.
Listening to Mulbocus talk now, aged 40 and still fired up by the romanticism of the project, it’s possible to see how, for some, the desire to create an Islamic state is about finding justice rather than unleashing violent retribution. She doesn’t feel she was radicalized. Instead, she compares her admiration for the group’s leaders to something more akin to the way young people have idolized revolutionaries in the past, like Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, or even Bob Marley.
“In the beginning, when I joined this group, there was no violence. We were just going to work toward creating this Islamic state where food, shelter, and clothing would all be free,” she says.
“We understood that when someone is about to attack us, we’re allowed to defend ourselves, defend our land. But when the leader started to talk about going on a rampage of killings, that it was our time to stand up and go and attack, I was like, ‘Whoa, no way.’”
Mulbocus eventually turned her back on extremism after almost five years in the group (which she doesn’t name for security reasons), partly because of the issue of violence, and also because members of her family started to challenge her views.
“I was becoming very aggressive and hostile … I [had] isolated myself from the community. I just hated who I was,” she recalls. “I went from being a girl who was always hunky-dory, always happy, [even though I had] been through so much trauma in my life.”
The turning point came when she was called into her daughter’s school by a teacher who said her daughter had been expressing radical views about non-Muslims in class. “This was a breaking point,” she says. “I took a long look at who I had become.”
But leaving the group was harder than she had anticipated.
“You have to understand, I had cut off from the mainstream Muslim community. I had cut [myself] off from my friends,” she says. “The thoughts [about the group and its aims] were there in my head for probably about five years. I didn’t have any intervention program where you sit down and go through it all. I went to look for my own answers, and I’m still soul searching now.”
These days, she works for the “other side,” as a community leader in West London where she lives, mentoring young girls who are vulnerable to radicalization. She’s also currently studying for a master’s in terrorism studies and writing a screenplay about a young woman from London who goes to join the Islamic State.
It’s rare for anyone with links to terrorist organizations to speak publicly about their experiences. Mulbocus is one of just a handful of women in Britain who can draw on their own past to talk to young girls about the lure of extremism and the dangers groups such as the Islamic State can pose.
She says there is a way to combat radicalization, but it has to come from the ground up.
“There is a community solution to this problem, but we need major improvements in the way the government engages with people,” she says. “Those people [who] are advising the government on terrorism, are they really engaging with people on the ground? Are they sitting in the cafés with young people who are questioning their purpose in life?”
Using the example of the three British schoolgirls who traveled to Syria in 2015 after allegedly being radicalized online, Mulbocus says much more needs to be done to encourage young people to air their grievances in a safe but public forum so they don’t turn to the internet for answers.
“Young people nowadays cannot trust anyone for fear of being labeled, for fear of being categorized as a terrorist,” she says. “These girls are not idiots; they’re not docile. They’re very educated, they are intelligent, and they are political. What they lack is critical thinking skills to really challenge some of the ideology they come across.”
Most damaging of all, she says, is the way women who join extremist groups are caricatured in the media.
“Look at these labels the media uses like ‘jihadi bride.’ You’re empowering these young girls, for goodness’ sake. That’s what they want,” says Mulbocus. “There is no jihad in becoming part of a group where they want to annihilate the rest of the world,” she says, adding that the media and extremist groups consistently misinterpret the concept of jihad, or “holy struggle.”
“Jihad is where you’ve been attacked verbally, but you’re restraining yourself to set a better example,” she says. “Muslims need to reclaim these titles. We need to take the terminology back and say, ‘Look, this is not what it means.’”
This article originally appeared on Women & Girls, and you can find the original here. For more news about the role of women in the Islamic Jihadi movement, you can sign up to the Women & Girls email list.
Read more on this topic in the winter 2016/2017 issue of World Policy Journal in “Partnering up: How to work with religious leaders to counter violent extremism” by Manal Omar.
Flora Bagenal is a British journalist and filmmaker. She has reported from four continents, living in Beijing, Washington, Nairobi, London, and Bangkok over the past 10 years. Her work has been used by The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Reuters, AFP, and Channel 4 News.
[Photo courtesy of Garry Knight]