“If I was going to die at least I could die helping children. [It’s] illogical that you are entering a war zone that you don’t know anything about … I felt if I did something good it would overwrite the bad that had happened.” — Canadian 46-year-old Kimberly Pullman, speaking about her decision to leave Canada to travel to Syria in 2015, to join ISIS as a nurse.
Western women had all sorts of reasons for joining ISIS, from seeking romance, falling in love, wanting an adventure, following a man, or escaping a bad family situation, to rejecting Western society where they felt rejected themselves (i.e. discriminated against and marginalized, often for Islamic dress), to seeking purpose, relationship, significance, dignity, and a life that they believed would be lived by Islamic ideals. Most of these women were sorely disappointed by the reality. Kimberly Pullman, dual Canadian and American citizen, was no different.
I interviewed Kimberly in the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] administered detention Camp Roj, Syria in late August of 2019. In speaking to Kimberly it became quickly apparent that she had left Canada in overwhelming psychic pain, running from it and believing she could bring her nursing skills to bear in helping Syrians less materially fortunate than herself who were suffering from wartime atrocities.
“I met him on Twitter,” Kimberly recalls of her exposure to her ISIS recruiter, a man she ultimately married over the Internet and later followed into ISIS. While many experts doubt that Internet recruitment alone can be enough of a radicalizing influence to move an individual to join a terrorist group, much less travel across continents to do so, our research at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) has found that not to be true.
Of my in-depth interviews of 239 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, 20.2% of men and 23.7% of women joined ISIS after Internet contact only (including in some cases, with people they already knew). When we exclude local ISIS members who were already living in Iraq and Syria when they joined, those numbers go to 31.2% of men and 28.6% of women, responding to the group or its propaganda messaging, completely lacking any direct face-to-face contact with known or unknown recruiters. While these results are comparable among men and women, we did find that women were generally talking to family members or spouses or unknown men, while men were generally talking to friends. Kimberly was talking to a man who later became her spouse.
We have learned now that the Internet can provide a very strong forum for terrorist recruitment, with it playing the sole role in one fifth of the cases in our sample. During the time ISIS and other rebel and militant groups is Syria were recruiting the over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries who ultimately traveled to Syria and Iraq, most to join ISIS, the ability to conduct an intimate relationship over the Internet was already well developed with video chat, online phone and text messaging, and email. Indeed, many potential ISIS recruits recall their conversations with ISIS recruiters as intimate relationships with a significant influence in their lives. Canadian researcher Amarnath Amarasingham echoes our results writing about his online interviews with ISIS devotees on the messaging app KIK. Amarasingham describes how strong these relationships became, noting that,
“Especially when talking to the ISIS support network around the world, was that they loved each other, knew each other on a deep and personal level, and took immense risks for each other. They checked in on each other when they were sick, they encouraged each other when it was exam season at their universities, and some even got married over Skype to people they would probably never meet in real life. They called themselves the baqiya (Arabic for “remaining”) family.”
Similarly, in the 239 cases of those ISIS members I in-depth interviewed in person, for those who were lured solely over the Internet, the relationship became strong enough to enable them to travel long distances, even crossing continents, to join the group.
In Kimberly’s case, she joined at a time when her life was crashing around her. Her father, who had become addicted to amphetamines in medical school, got sick with leukemia when she was only 14 and died when she was 19, even asking her to help him in an assisted suicide. “Addiction is very brutal on the entire family,” Kimberly recalls.
Robbed of much of her innocence in childhood, Kimberly fell into troubled relationships and was raped more than once. By age 20, she was the unwed mother of three small children. Trying to find her way in life and terrified of falling into substance abuse like her father, she was drawn to the conservative nature of Islam and what looked to her as the “safety” and close-knit warmth of Islamic communities. Knowing she would more likely avoid substance abuse in these communities and thereby protect her children from her childhood traumas, Kimberly converted to Islam.
However, seeking safety among Muslims didn’t turn out as she hoped. Kimberly married a Kuwaiti man who took her and her children overseas and subjected them to violence. After escaping from him and divorcing, Kimberly sought help at home from a Canadian imam. “The imam started counseling me and my children,” Kimberly recalls, while her “family blamed me for taking the kids overseas and for what happened.”
“They are all practicing Christians and think this religious is Satanic,” Kimberly recalls. By contrast, the imam seemed so supportive. “He invited me for picnics with his wife and children. He was so nice and friendly and he could take over talking with my husband, so I wouldn’t have to.” Then one day on her way to meet him, “I got lost and he came and got me,” Kimberly recounts. “I followed him and he led me into a forest. Nine hours later that day I left the community.” The imam also raped Kimberly, becoming the final straw in an endless cycle of trauma.
“He’s been convicted now,” Kimberly recalls. “It turned out he’d been a serial rapist,” and was taken to court. “When I didn’t show up for therapy, [my therapist] asked me what happened. They brought in a rape specialist [who] advised me not to testify because of who he was and who I was, better to focus on healing. I think he did get convicted. This happened maybe a year before I left.” Kimberly recounts.
The advice not to testify turned out to be less protective than hoped, as the trial received mass media coverage and Kimberly was exposed anyway, without being empowered to speak against him in court in any manner that mattered. Like many rape survivors facing the trial of their rapist, Kimberly found herself descending into a spiral of post-traumatic stress, “I started failing at a university when his trial began. I had a hard time focusing, stopped sleeping, nightmares from my ex-husband.” Speaking of the flashbacks she recalls, “It was like a DVD that wouldn’t shut off. I couldn’t make it stop.” It was during this time that Kimberly fell into the hands of an ISIS recruiter.
Kimberly recalls the turning point with the man to whom she ultimately went to join in ISIS. “He asked me, ‘You are not really the kind of woman who divorces. Why did you?’” Thinking back to all the horrific violence, self-blame and shame in her life, Kimberly recalls, “It’s not the subject you want to discuss with anyone. It’s what you want to forget. It will never get easier. I always feel guilty. I will always hate myself.” Speaking of the many times she was raped, Kimberly states, “Sometimes I think I have a ‘FU’ on my back.”
In sharing with him her reasons for fleeing her violent marriage, Kimberly was amazed by her ISIS lover’s answer. “When it’s back in actual Muslim hands,” he said, speaking about Kuwait, where her ex-husband lives, “We will go and restore you, and your children’s honor.” Kimberly recalls, “That is something I haven’t had. Giving back a purity that was taken away was something I wanted so badly. That is something that he didn’t hold against me, and then that pulled me in.”
Added to his promise to restore her honor, Kimberly also faced his impatience for his wife to join him in Syria, “Later he threatened to divorce me because I wouldn’t come.”
Kimberly was already known to Canadian security services (CSIS) due to her Internet chatting with extremists, and the government had tried to restrain her from traveling to Syria. “My passport was being held,” Kimberly recalls. “CSIS had seen me in PalChat talking to someone else.” Now, with hindsight, she wishes she had talked with CSIS, sought their advice.
“If I could redo it, I would run to CSIS and told them what he was doing. But the problem was I had been taught these are non-Muslims. You can’t trust them—the us and them. I did ask in my own community. I talked to two different sheiks. One refused to answer, ‘My husband is going to ISIS and demanding I go with him, what should I do?’ I even went to him and said I’m the one that wrote that question and I want an answer. He replied, ‘I’m not going to answer it.’”
Thus, Kimberly was left to her own devices at a time when she was losing her abilities to think clearly due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We are taught in Islam that your husband is the emir of your life, the protector,” Kimberly continues, explaining why she followed a man she had only met over the Internet into ISIS. To encourage her to come, he said, “Come where you are loved. Your children don’t even see you. You have skills. You shouldn’t be alone.” Kimberly recalls how she hid her emotional suffering from him. “He didn’t know, but I was actively suicidal. I was on medication from a psychiatrist. It was just sleep medication and it made me groggy. I asked for actual help, [but the psychiatrist] said, ‘It’s $700 per hour.’ That was more than [I could afford.]”
Aside from the time when she was married to the Kuwaiti man, Kimberly had been living in social housing, raising her children since she left home, while also trying to pursue her education. She was pursuing a nursing degree when the stress caught up to her, “I got really sick. The diagnosis was Lupus initially. I had multiple infections. It made me stop life actually.”
Kimberly recalls that, like many Muslims who believe in the “ummah,” or the global family of Muslims, she was also at that time being overwhelmed by the suffering of her Muslim “brothers and sisters” around the world. Indeed, the Internet has made interconnectedness in real-time possible, and the ability to view images and videos from around the world can make ignoring suffering almost impossible. Kimberly recalls, “My Facebook was being flooded with Syrian and Palestinian children. It was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t deal with it.” The suffering and guilt led Kimberly right into the hands of ISIS. “I felt guilty that I was living a good life, so I followed a link on Facebook to Twitter,” she recounts. “I had never had a Twitter account. It was there I met him. After a year of marriage, after he came to Syria, I remember what he said. I remember they were defining moments for me,” Kimberly states of how he promised to restore her honor.
Faced with the suffering of others that she had skills to help, and with one of the main supporters in her life urging her to come, while promising to restore her honor and also threatening to leave her if she did not, Kimberly finally succumbed and flew to Antalya, Turkey. “I was brought into Raqqa,” she recounts. According to her claims, Kimberly didn’t plan to stay. “He was injured in training camp,” she explains. “I thought I’ll take care of him, find him another wife, and then come back.” Meanwhile, he continued to target and manipulate her in the most emotionally needy areas of her life. “He said, ‘I know what’s wrong with you. I’ll teach you and fix you.’” Kimberly badly wanted to be fixed. She also wanted to forget her own troubles and throw herself into helping others, so she ignored all the warning signals.
Unsurprisingly to those on the outside, her husband didn’t turn out to be the good guy he made himself out to be. “He is narcissistic through and through,” she explains. “I was very weak and vulnerable. He was from Somalia. He had never been out of Africa. He had been in al Shabaab. He had been in the Nairobi mall attack,” Kimberly learned. He was violent as well but she was such a victim that “he didn’t need to hit me. He told someone he didn’t need to because I’ve been [abused before].” When the marriage didn’t work out, “He takfired me,” Kimberly explains, meaning he called her an apostate and put her in the madhafa, or women’s guesthouse where unmarried women are held until ISIS finds a husband or other use for them.
“I was told in the madhafa,” Kimberly recalls, “They came with a paper with big stamps. ‘You can go to work or to go prison.’” As a nurse, she chose work. “If I was going to be locked in this place and couldn’t leave, it was better,” she explains. “I was very glad to get out of there. It was a crazy place with all those children screaming. There was a stabbing that night between Syrians and muhajareen [foreign women].”
“I worked with Western doctors,” Kimberly recalls of her time working in the Watani Hospital in Raqqa. “That came with its own trauma. I worked underground. It was all about patients, resuscitating children, in the ICU.” Despite being sheltered from the noise of bombardments, Kimberly recalls, “I knew when bombings were happening by the amount of blood on the ground.”
Kimberly didn’t like what she was seeing and, adhering to her original plan, didn’t want to stay in ISIS, but once in, she found she could not just leave. “I tried to escape about six months after I was in madhafa,” she recalls, but having no money meant she could not hire a smuggler to help her. “The second time I tried to get out, in 2016. I got married. Then they threw me in prison for inquiring about how to leave. [I was] raped again in prison,” Kimberly recounts. Listening to her, I begin to wonder how she keeps her sanity at all. This detention camp is not a whole lot easier than life in ISIS was.
“They accused me of being a spy,” Kimberly explains.
“The first night they pulled me out and you could hear the screams down the hallway, and they made me watch [torture]. They said if I didn’t start giving information this was going to happen to me to. They brought me upstairs. There was a chain. I could see men all in different stress positions, in chamises, blood all over the floor, trying not to step in it and I remember thinking, ‘If I actually live through this, it’s going to be a bit of a miracle.’”
Kimberly remembers her cell and counting the “4222 tiles on the wall. There were 9 women [in my cell]. Three were marked for death. One had been tortured. In prison they cut my thumb and I had to read out a statement they would apply the hokum [Islamic law] on me. When I asked what that meant, they showed me, slitting my throat. I signed in blood. They like blood.”
“I got interrogated in front of 8 of them,” Kimberly continues. “I asked them, ‘How is this Islamic? 8 guys alone in a room with me?’ I came out with a massive concussion,” Kimberly shares. “I had a hard time focusing when I got home. I couldn’t walk a straight line. My husband took me to hospital after the third day.” Kimberly didn’t share with him that she’d been raped. “My husband doesn’t know what happened in there. I didn’t tell him all the details. Muslim men have ideas about that. A month later I woke up screaming and he was angry and asked, ‘When is this going to end?’”
After being released from prison, Kimberly ended up with the masses of ISIS families fleeing bombings in Raqqa and Mayideen, moving down the Euphrates river from town to town, finally ending in Baghouz. “By the time we were in Garnish, my family knew I was trying to get out from all the Whatsapp conversations,” Kimberly explains. But her husband was afraid to try to escape. “He knew if we were caught they would execute me. Maybe they thought I knew too much, but what did I know?”
“You couldn’t get out since Kishma, since Sousa,” Kimberly recalls of the women’s efforts to pool money to hire smugglers. But it was very difficult for non-Arab women to be smuggled out, as they were clearly foreigners, likely coming from ISIS. “Every night we kept trying to get on the trucks,” Kimberly recalls of Baghouz, where she finally decided to risk being killed while walking out. “One of the children had really bad allergies. Her mother had been killed. The Iraqis were really angry and had a power struggle with the Westerners.” Despite her husband’s warnings that she would be executed if caught, Kimberly recalls, “I didn’t care. We had children who would die.”
“[The coalition] dropped flyers,” Kimberly explains about the instructions for safe passageways out, “but didn’t tell us where the corridors were. I didn’t care if I lived or died anymore, but I did care if a child did,” Kimberly recalls of her decision to simply walk away, carrying a child in her arms. “My husband said, ‘Drop down!’ Daesh was firing directly on their own people while they were trying to leave! It shouldn’t have surprised me. We had innocent children and pregnant women with us. It came to the point where we were willing to try anything.”
Now in Camp Roj, the safest of the detention camps for ISIS women and children, Kimberly is still afraid of ISIS. She, along with other women who have denounced ISIS, some even having stopped wearing the veil, have been put on a death list by the ISIS enforcers still loyal to the group, cruel women who still try to rule the camp. “I am frightened of them,” Kimberly explains.
Kimberly joined the Islamic State trying to flee her mental health demons. Of course, it didn’t work. Being a nurse and helping others had its rewards, but living under a tyrannical regime, being tortured and made a victim of physical and sexual violence once again has only made her emotional health worse. In addition to her Lupus, Kimberly has low thyroid functioning and she has recurrent bouts of hepatitis that she picked up in Syria. “I won’t have a liver when I get home. It keeps coming back every 4 to 6 months.” In Canada, Kimberly was on psychotropic medication to help her sleep and was under the care of mental health workers. Now, she has no care whatsoever. She doesn’t even have glasses with which to read.
“I didn’t believe in the Calipha,” Kimberly says of the ISIS Caliphate. “I didn’t think the conditions had been met,” she explains about the rules in Islam for declaring a Caliphate, “and that was a dangerous opinion to have.” Kimberly has no desire to ever return to ISIS. “We never ever want to return to the Middle East ever,” she says of the women she has befriended in the camp—all having denounced ISIS. “I had never seen a weapon before I came here. I’d like to return back to that,” she states.
In regard to ISIS’s slick manipulations, Kimberly admits, “I believe that they figured out a way of using words and a world situation in various parts of the world to manipulate for an end goal that I’m guessing is for the select few.” She reasons, “It has to be about power and money. Who is funding it and its objective, I don’t understand?” In response, she tries not to give into hatred toward those who tricked her into coming. “I was once taught it’s wrong to hate. Anger takes a lot of energy.” Yet, she admits it’s a struggle, “It’s very difficult to not hate people who cause so much damage to so many people and continue to do so.” Referring to the camp ISIS enforcers who pass information still coming out of ISIS, Kimberly states, “They have threatened to come and rescue us, to our horror!”
“I would like to go home,” Kimberly says wistfully. She has not been visited by Canadian authorities, who have avoided interviewing their ISIS detainees held by the SDF due to concerns from a major lawsuit the Canadian government lost over their handling of a Guantanamo detainee. The FBI, however, has interviewed her. “FBI told me that I don’t have charges,” Kimberly states. Yet, like Hoda Muthana’s family, Kimberly’s family has been warned not to send her assistance. “My family is not allowed to send money for anything. [They were] warned by RCMP [Canadian police] and FBI.”
Kimberly appears very honest in her desire to help now that she has escaped ISIS, but she is also frustrated to be stuck in the camp and not brought back to face justice at home, “Whatever you want to do to me can’t be worse that what’s already been done.” Yet, she suffers realizing that no one feels much pity for her, “I think what I am most afraid of that people don’t believe that it wasn’t your choice to be there. I’m backed into a corner in my own mind,” she continues. “When I realize that the countries aren’t coming and aren’t doing anything I got confused. I’m not sure where home is anymore. I feel very abandoned by the Canadian government.”
Kimberly wants now to become a helper in the fight against ISIS. “On my good days [when not deeply depressed], I want to help. I tried to file everything in my mind to help, to shed light on what was going on,” she says. As an insider, she believes she has a voice that could turn others away from violent extremism. “A lot of people won’t be willing to talk to the [authorities]. Some younger will say we are traitors [to ISIS] and I can answer that. We can discuss that Islamically,” she explains. “They should be using some of the people here who can speak,” Kimberly says, echoing the logic behind ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in which we use ISIS member video interviews to cut short video clips of ISIS insiders denouncing the group as un-Islamic, corrupt and overly brutal. ICSVE researchers use these videos to campaign on Facebook to prevent and disrupt ISIS’s online and face-to-face recruitment. Kimberly’s video interview with ICSVE has resulted in two such videos that can be viewed here and here.
“If I had seen a group of women who had come back who were talking actively about their life, talking really openly, both the positives and negatives,” Kimberly explains excitedly about her desire to help. “You can’t give them all negatives. They will never believe you,” she adds, again echoing the reason why ICSVE videos always start with what attracted the person into ISIS. “For us, as young people, if there was a group of women talking about their own personal [stories], some of the funny, stupid and what propaganda worked on us,” it might have convinced them to avoid and disbelieve the false claims of ISIS.
At the same time, Kimberly admits it wasn’t ISIS propaganda that propelled her into the group and that, given her desperate situation, she might not have listened to a testimony like her own. “I would listen to a little and say she’s a traitor. I never watched anything. I was thinking I will come work in a hospital. I had my husband here.” Indeed, Kimberly’s situation was much more complex than many.
Referring to the seductive power of ISIS’s online presence, Kimberly advises youth, “Don’t try to handle this on your own! Get off Twitter, Facebook and go and talk to the people you’ve been told not to. We are too afraid to speak [to authorities]. We were taught we are not allowed to.” She advises, “Treat it like you’re on fire. Stop, drop and roll. Stop thinking. Go directly to the authorities and go to the authorities you are not allowed to talk to. You are not thinking correctly. You need to know what they know and they are not your enemy.” She adds a dire warning, “People here know how to lie, and way better than you.”
Kimberly and the others with her in the camp, many of whom I have also interviewed, appear totally sincere in their complete disillusionment with ISIS. They want to help, but they are also afraid. “I have a lot of time on my hands here too, sitting immobile, but things are so dangerous,” Kimberly explains. “I survived ISIS, so can I survive this too,” she says, then adds, but, “They will kill me.”
While Kimberly understands that if she goes home, she will need to face a justice system, she also wants to be put to work to fight ISIS. “Why our governments don’t use some of the people sitting here?” she asks. “If you combine, all the years of our experience, we know what Qur’anic verses were twisted. There are four different profiles among our group of nine,” she explains of the group of women in her small group who have denounced ISIS. “We are on board,” she says of being used to counter message against ISIS, although she would prefer to do it from safety, rather than in a camp where her and the other names are on an ISIS death list, to be killed first should ISIS managed to overrun the camp to free the true believers. “We could have a website where we blog, articles where we have written, education packets, messages to young people. But how do you do that from here? I can’t even contact a lawyer from here.” Indeed, even if Kimberly was going to try to read a legal brief, she would need her glasses to do so.
“It’s shocking to me to be in detention this long and not see anyone, how dangerous that can be,” Kimberly says of her frustration with the Canadian government leaving her abandoned in the detention camp. While she will not return to ISIS, she recognizes that others might, explaining astutely, “If you leave people stateless, you create the problem you are trying to solve. If you back people in a corner, it’s human nature. We left one terrorist organization. We were headed to our embassies.”
Now trying to endure her time in the camp, Kimberly says, “It is challenging to face day by day.” Following her interview, I informed the FBI that Kimberly’s physical health situation is dire, as is her emotional well-being. While she chose to travel to ISIS, being a victim of multiple rapes, domestic violence and actively suicidal might make some consider bringing her home to offer her another chance.