THE LEVANT – She was a typical Scottish teen who loved make-up, Coldplay, and had a crush on Zac Efron, according to friends. Until November 2013 when Aqsa Mahmood dropped out of university and disappeared from her well-to-do home in Glasgow.
Her distraught parents reported the then 19-year-old missing, but the former private school student was in Syria, understood to be tweeting under the name Umm Layth as a member of the Islamic State.
“Follow the examples of your brothers from Woolwich, Texas and Boston” she wrote on an account that has since been deleted.
“If you cannot make it to the battlefield bring the battlefield to yourself” she wrote.
Aqsa is one of a number of young women brainwashed into joining IS — the brutal group that has committed countless atrocities across the Middle East, including the horrific execution of US journalist Steven Sotloff this week.
News of her disappearance comes after a 16-year-old French girl was arrested at Nice airport en route to Turkey to join jihadists.
Last month, South London woman Khadijah Dare, 22, made headlines after tweeting she wanted to be the “da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terrorist!” after the death of journalist James Foley.
They’re not the only young women seduced by the cause.
In July, US teen Shannon Maureen Conley, 19, was arrested in Denver after reportedly meeting a jihadist online and trying to fly to Syria, while in May British twins Zahra and Salma Halane went missing, believed to have flown to Turkey, where they appeared on social media learning to use guns and hand grenades, theDaily Mail reports.
Earlier in the year, Austrian teenagers Sabina Selimovic, 15, and Samra Kesinovic, 16, reportedly fled their home in the middle class suburbs of Vienna for Syria — leaving letters saying they are prepared to die for Islam. Pictures that later appeared of them on social media are unverified, but they are still listed as missing by Interpol.
French authorities say they have captured a 20-year-old man who is thought to have recruited her and paid for her ticket. Meanwhile the government has received 300 calls to a hotline for parents worried their children could be seduced by the terrorist organisation.
It’s impossible to know exact numbers of women who have become radicalised, however security experts think as many as 50 British women have left to marry jihadist fighters.
Once there, they tend to follow a common theme of encouraging other women to join the cause, say analysts from SITE intelligence group, which tracks terror organisations.
“By creating content specifically targeting female jihadi supporters, the Islamic State is able to establish a pipeline to assist Western women in travelling to Syria to marry jihadi fighters and contribute to the formation of their new society,” SITE analysts told The Daily Beast.
However National Security College terrorism expert Dr Rodger Shanahan isn’t so sure. He said while stories of young women being radicalised make headlines, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happening in droves.
“If you’re looking at the total numbers it’s very small. It’s for the same reasons other people get attracted; lack of critical thinking, seduced by social media,” he said.
It’s estimated there could be as many as 11,000 foreigners from 74 different countries fighting with IS in the Middle East, according to a recent report from The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
France is the biggest source of Western recruits, followed by the UK, Germany and Belgium. Australia was named as the most prominent non-European source of IS fighters, ahead of Canada and the US, with an estimate of 200 people in the region, ICSR reports.
MORE: See the full report on foreign fighters in Syria
Melbourne man Musa Cerantonio, 29, who converted to Islam at 17, was also named as a “spiritual leader” of the organisation in a separate report based on an analysis of social media profiles.
Dr Shanahan said despite the fact some fall in love with the idea of running away, in reality, people are attracted to terrorist organisations because they are poorly educated and shut-out of traditional ways of achieving success in society.
“There’s a notion of blame they haven’t made it quite into society. They fall into a group, family or preaching group which gives them the answer … and they’re susceptible to it because they haven’t fitted in.
“Access to social media allows them to cherry pick information, there’s no critical analysis, they never question their world view. All of those are reasons, there’s never any one reason. That’s the kind of average view,” he said.
It comes as governments around the world struggle to stem the flow of recruits and crack down on support for the brutal organisation at home. In Australia this week, Melbourne man was pulled off a flight carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash and the Islamic State group’s black-and-white flag in his luggage.
Dr Shanahan said the major concern for countries is not so much people coming back, as many of them have “no intention” of doing this, but rather the connections they make while overseas.
“The biggest security concern is the long-term linkages that people mixed up in this thing might come out with. The concern is that they’re going to be facilitators rather than foot-soldiers.”