Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Life is not cheap in the women’s detainee camps for Islamic State-affiliated families in northeastern Syria. It costs around $500 a month for a family of four to survive (to buy food and other basic necessities), and being smuggled out is even more expensive—around $15,000. But detained women consistently manage to get the funds to survive and sometimes even to escape. So how are women getting that money?
I tried to answer that very question. For almost a year, I monitored more than 30 Islamic State online fundraiser campaigns and interviewed more than 20 Islamic State-affiliated women currently in camps.
The answers were ultimately mixed. Some women are receiving financial support from extended families who often risk being imprisoned themselves (for supporting relatives affiliated with the terrorist group). Others are less fortunate and do not have relatives willing or able to support them or pay for their escape. These women have to find other more creative ways to get money. And for that, many turn to crowdfunding and other online fundraising.
The first Islamic State-affiliated fundraisers were organized right after the last Islamic State stronghold fell in 2019. This was done either through fake humanitarian organizations in the West or through major Islamist social media groups and channels in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Because those organizations and channels are relatively visible, they publicly distance themselves from the Islamic State by claiming their goal is purely humanitarian—to help women and children in need, so as to not attract unnecessary attention. Only in rare cases would there be a slight hint about the fundraiser’s relation to the military conflict. For example, in a video promoting a fundraiser, in addition to women and children in the camp, there would be a male presenter wearing military camo-colored clothes.
I found that those fundraisers were (and still are) usually run by pro-Islamic State men, and their real goal is to help pro-Islamic State women. I interviewed several women in camps who once interacted closely with the people running the fundraisers, and my interviewees noted that some of those fundraising organizers are likely to be former Islamic State members themselves who managed to escape before the Islamic State fell.
Because the main goal of these men is to continue building a Caliphate, they only support women who still support the Islamic State. Not everyone in the camps falls into this category, as many Islamic State-affiliated women in the camps became disappointed with the group and no longer support it. So, money is sent to trusted women inside the camps, who later distribute it among other pro-Islamic State women. In several cases, women who no longer support the Islamic State wrote to fundraising organizers to complain, “If you claim to help all women in need, why do you only help those who still support the group?” In one case, the owner of a Russian-language fundraiser replied that he would also help the nonsupportive women because “[a]lthough you are against us, you are still raising our Islamic State kids.” But even with that concession, those in the camps told me that the pro-Islamic State women still do not share money with women who are no longer supporters.
Women confirmed to me that after money reaches the camps, the recipients share photographs of children in the camps holding money or bags of goods in one hand and a sign with the name of the fundraiser in the other. These photos are then shared widely online and become an advertisement for donations.
The money tends to keep coming only if the women maintain their support for the Islamic State—so, many women actively show their support. For example, after the Muslim holiday of Eid in 2020, a lot of videos and photos were shared online showing pro-Islamic State behavior in the camp—for example, everyone singing Islamic State songs and boys dressed in Islamic State uniforms. What did all of those images have in common? In the background was a tent that depicted the name of a fundraising channel on Telegram.
On some Telegram channels, women in the camps write more detailed descriptions of how the money was spent. For example, the following report about how donated money was distributed was published on one such channel: “With your money, we bought school supplies and did an exam for girls with prizes. The main topics were religious, but we also did not forget about the secondary subjects necessary for good Muslim girls—cooking, first aid, assembling and disassembling a backpack in emergencies, and so on.” Notice here that money is spent for things that would benefit Islamic State religious indoctrination and war efforts.
In general, those fundraisers—and their owners in particular—have a big influence on life inside the camps. In one case, the owners of a fundraiser had a final say in a dispute inside a camp. They basically said that if the dispute (related to the custody of orphans) was not solved the way they wanted, they would stop sending money to those involved.
There are several such major fundraisers, and there is competition between them. The women the money goes to have to look for ways to stand out and attract the attention of potential benefactors. Sometimes, this leads to conflict. For example, when Islamic State foreign women imprisoned in a Baghdad prison became active online, several fundraisers wanted to claim to be the exclusive supporter of these women. The idea for the organizers of these fundraisers was that all Islamic State supporters know that conditions in Iraqi prisons are much worse than those in camps in Syria, so the organizers assumed that their pro-Islamic State readers would be more willing to donate to a prison in Iraq. One fundraising campaign, for example, widely and openly distributed a message (with photos) asking for money to help foreign women imprisoned in Baghdad. However, when those pictured women saw the pleas, they were furious. Not only had they not asked for money to be collected on their behalf, but they were not even notified about it, and they asked everyone who had reposted the messages to delete them. Most likely it was a scam to get money to camps in Syria.
But different fundraisers do things in different ways. In another case, a Telegram channel was successful in becoming the sole benefactor for a particular group of Islamic State women. And another major fundraiser for camps also has a sister Telegram channel collecting money for foreign Islamic State women in prisons in Afghanistan to support them in prison, to bribe the judge to reduce prison sentences and even to facilitate foreigners to travel to Afghanistan to fight with the Islamic State (which is stated openly in their first post). On their channel, they proudly claimed, “There are many fundraisers for Syria, but we are the only one for Afghanistan.”
Seeing the success of large online fundraising campaigns, many women in the camps decided they did not need a middleman and that they could fundraise for themselves. As a result, many individual fundraising campaigns have appeared that are run by women in the camps.
Different women opt to market their campaigns using different messages, and the fundraising platform they use dictates which messages they send to potential contributors. Those messages range from very peaceful requests on funding platforms such as GoFundMe.com or the Russian site Donationslerts.com, to radical and violent messages that get sent to closed Telegram groups for Islamic State supporters.
On the GoFundMe.com platform, the women’s requests have tended to focus on humanitarian problems like the suffering of children in northeastern Syria. In many cases, the names of camps were not even used and there were no explicit mentions that the money was even going to those detained in camps; the requests looked like any other humanitarian campaign except for an over-emphasis on religion: “Every penny from this fundraiser will go Fi’sabillilah [for the sake of Allah] in primarily providing sisters and their children with safe shelter from the oppressive situation, clean food, and other daily basic needs they have,” says one such page.
I have also seen calls for donations on Facebook. These have been relatively open about their purpose and don’t appear to have been shut down, in most cases. As a result, women on this platform have discussed the purpose of the fundraising more openly—helping pro-Islamic State women in camps with food and basic necessities.
Even more open fundraising campaigns have taken place on Telegram channels. There, women often admit openly that they are collecting money to pay a smuggler to escape from the camp.
Over time, the number of women asking for money has increased while the number of those willing to donate has decreased. This has led to visible competition between those fundraising channels and, as a result, the development of new marketing strategies. First, these channels look to increase the number of followers whom they can later come back to and ask for money. They do this by providing interesting content, usually by carving out a niche in a particular category. Examples include diaries from Islamic State times, stories from the last Islamic State stronghold in Baghuz, news from camps or religious advice. And since it’s hard to have interesting content, there are other women who offer their services in generating it. For example, a woman posted the following announcement on her Instagram channel: “I am making videos on demand- sound on top on footage. Quran, Nasheeds [Islamic State music], Text. One video- $3.”
Then those channels cross-advertise with other Islamist channels to increase their audience. After a channel becomes popular, its organizers might launch a call for donations with the main goal of smuggling women and children out of the camps.
Because the main audience for the donations appeals on Telegram are Islamic State supporters, the content and messaging are modified accordingly and usually include the following:
- A general religious justification for making a donation—something like, “It is mandatory for Muslims to give everything they have to free their brothers and sisters from captivity.”
- A quote from Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s last address, where he allegedly said that “everyone should now do everything possible to free their brothers and sisters from prison.”
- A quote from Islamic State foreign-fighter messages that they were able to record in Baghuz for help for their women who surrendered.
- Highlights of the personal benefits of donating. For example, by saying, “If you help your sister in captivity, it would benefit you in the afterlife.” Sometimes, those messages go as far as claiming that “the benefit in the after life for a person who helped free a sister from captivity is equal to becoming a martyr on the battlefield.”
- Reposted religious lectures carrying a message such as “Don’t Humiliate Yourself for Wealth,” highlighting that people would be better off sending some of their money for those in need.
- An attempt to provoke pity. Kids in the camps are often depicted holding a written sign asking for money. Sometimes parents of women in the camps also help their daughters to collect money by, for example, recording an audio address asking people to donate to help their daughter escape so that the parents could reunite with their grandchildren. Organizers also often use photos that highlight the miserable life in the camps. But something viscerally shocking doesn’t happen often in the camps, so organizers improvise. It is not rare to see calls on internal, closed-camp forums for photos and videos of “something miserable from the camp” that could be used later for fundraising. And with the global coronavirus pandemic, more and more women are also mentioning in fundraising solicitations the possibility of getting COVID-19 if they can’t leave the camp. Interestingly, according to internal Islamic State camp forums, many of these women don’t seem to believe that the coronavirus even exists. So, the COVID-19 appeal is merely used to pander to the concerns of prospective benefactors.
Most of the main fundraisers collect money to help women get smuggled out of the camps. Women who can’t escape—such as those in Roj camp, from which escape is almost impossible—often have to pretend they are fundraising for an escape.
One Russian-speaking woman in Roj ran one of these scams and collected money for more than two years by framing it as going toward escape plans. When readers of her Telegram channel asked her why she was still in the camp, she said, “I collected enough money to escape, but a smuggler took the money and disappeared. So I have to collect the required amount of money all over again.” Eventually, Islamic State supporters distributed a message through social media warning others that escape from Roj was not possible, and that anyone in Roj asking for money for escaping was just running a scam.
Other platforms also are used for fundraising purposes, but they are not as popular or as effective. In one case, a woman started a YouTube channel and posted videos from her camp. But due to the low quality of the content, the channel had only a negligible number of subscribers, and she had to move to other mainstream fundraising platforms. Another woman organized a group on WhatsApp called Personal Blog of a Muslim. And one woman made a website (using WordPress) dedicated to news and stories from the camps.
Popular channels with a large number of subscribers also rent space on their channels to smaller, individual fundraisers. For example, if a channel belongs to a woman who is collecting $15,000 for an escape, she could rent it for three days to a woman who is trying to raise $300 for a new tent. The channel rental would include an announcement that all the money collected for those three days would go to help that particular person, along with a short biography and the reason for her urgent need.
Scams are not rare. For example, several Islamic State foreign supporters complained on their own social media accounts that they sent money to help a particular woman whose story was published on a fundraising channel, but when they asked for proof that the money reached the women in need (that is, photographs), the owner of the fundraising channel blocked them. The owner was likely using someone else’s story (or had even created an entirely fake story) simply to collect money for herself.
Recently, collecting money online has become difficult for several reasons. First, with increasing arrests in the West for supporting terrorism, it has become more dangerous for prospective donors to send funds. Second, it is expensive to send funds, and many Islamic State supporters are no longer in a financial position to support those women. Third, scams targeting Islamic State supporters have proliferated. Finally, many Islamic State supporters are also becoming disappointed with the group. In one telling example of the waning support, the owner of a Telegram fundraising channel with more than 600 subscribers complained to her readers about the lack of donations and shared her channel statistics. Although, over the course of a month, her channel had 10,680 views and 108 shares by individuals from all over the world (default languages included Russian, German, French, English, Arabic, Serbian and Turkish), there had been no donations.
As a result, these channels have had to become creative and employ the best practices used by regular charity fundraisers. One channel, before asking for donations, created a poll asking subscribers if they were willing to help women in the camp. Respondents were given the following answer choices: yes, no, and “only with prayer.” According to the poll results, 49 percent said they were willing to help, and 51 percent said they would only pray for the women. The owner of the channel then challenged those who said yes in the poll to contact her for details on how to give. It worked. The same day the challenge was issued, 30 people out of the 300 who responded to the poll in the affirmative contacted the channel owner, an unheard-of response rate for this type of effort.
Recipients of money from fundraisers tend to share photos of kids holding money in order to prove that the funds reached their destination. The same option isn’t available to those who receive funds intended to be used to escape. Money for escape does not enter camps as cash, so recipients of these funds have to use other ways to show to their supporters that the money got to the intended recipient. In particular, recipients of escape funds post bank receipts. One Telegram channel published 25 such receipts of small donations ($2-$20) in one month alone. Receipts for much larger donations depict money coming from Germany, Austria, France and Greece—meaning that the majority of donations come from Western Europe. Some channels even highlight that the majority of their money comes from Europe. For example, after collecting enough money to help a woman who already escaped from the camp to buy a flight ticket to a safer country (the name of the country was not mentioned), one fundraising channel posted: “We want to personally thank a sister from France, a brother from Austria and others for their donations.” In many cases, women are not careful and are openly posting names of those who sent money, which leads to problems for the funders.
In one case, there were also online messages from the mother of a woman seeking funds for escape who said she was “thankful to those who helped her daughter leave the camp, and she would pray for them.” And sometimes those who successfully escape with the help of a particular fundraising group also make a video address that is then widely distributed with the name of a fundraiser.
But how do donors actually send the money? The countries that the women receiving the money are from and the location of their benefactors determines the methods of collecting and transferring money.
Bitcoin. Women in al-Hol rarely use Bitcoin. It is simply too complicated for many. So it is used only by women who are particularly concerned about the security of the transaction and who have enough knowledge and language skills to understand Bitcoin. The detainees who fall into this group are mostly Western Europeans. Bitcoin is more commonly used by major Islamic State fundraisers based outside of Syria and by foreign armed groups in Idlib. In rare cases, even Bitcoin is not considered secure enough, and a more secure cryptocurrency, Monero, is used.
Bank Accounts. Bank accounts are the least secure way of transferring money because the names of both the sender and the account owner are unprotected. So, bank accounts are usually used by women from countries that do not prosecute for such donations. In one case, a woman in al-Hol from Maldives said that she transferred donations she received to an account registered to her brother.
Western Union/MoneyGram. Wiring money via Western Union or MoneyGram is the fastest and most convenient method, but it is used only in cases where secrecy is not a concern. For example, I’ve been told that in several Eastern European countries, law enforcement told the parents of detainees in the camp that they could send money without being arrested. However, Western Union often blocks suspicious transactions. In one case, although a government allowed the mother of an Islamic State-affiliated woman to send money to the camp, Western Union blocked that mother from using their services (probably because of the suspiciously large number of transactions to Turkey). This mother now sends money to a relative in another Eastern European country, who then sends it to Turkey, and it is then transferred from there to Syria.
PayPal. Although I’m told that PayPal is a popular way to transfer money for Westerners, it is not considered secure because the names of both sender and receiver are known.
Qiwi Wallet. Qiwi Wallet is popular with Russian-speaking Islamic State affiliates and group supporters. This Russian system of money transfers does not identify either seller or receiver, which makes it reliable for secret transactions. However, accounts are still being blocked from time to time, so many fundraisers ask donors not to use this method for sending less than $13, because if there are many small transactions, the account might be blocked.
Lately, because of a recent arrest in Western Europe for money transfers to Syria, fundraisers have become more careful. Whereas account information may have been public in the past, now potential donors may have to message the owner of a fundraiser first to get account info. Although Islamic State women are usually careful about pretending not to communicate with males, they don’t bother with fundraisers. Only one fundraiser offered potential donors the possibility of choosing whether to communicate with a man or a woman.
In several money collection campaigns, there was also an option of giving cash in person to fundraising organizers. In particular, this option was offered in Austria. Other fundraisers are now explicit about their transaction security. Here is an example of one such disclaimer:
It is not dangerous for you to make donations. We take complete responsibility for it. All bank requisites are legal and are in the name of people of good standing in society [not marginalized] who do not have problems with the law. We collect money from bank accounts but do not send it across the border so it never draws attention to you. We withdraw all money and carry cash to people in Turkey who then distribute humanitarian aid.
Some fundraisers went even further and are no longer accepting individual money transfers. Their Telegram channels now say, “For those who are in Europe please collect money in your town and country and we would then pick it up from you and then transfer to Syria.”
Money in the Camp
Women living in al-Hol can get money either through the camp’s office (maximum amount is $700 per month) or through unofficial “money-transfer offices.” In both cases, women go to the location and there they are given the name of a person in Turkey to whom money should be sent from abroad. According to several interviewed women, those names are almost always different.
Syrian Democratic Forces-aligned Kurds tend to work in a camp’s office, and women from the camp work in the unofficial offices themselves. In the Iraqi section of the camp, there is no limit on the amount of money someone is able to receive. This means that money from abroad tends to be sent there first and then brought to the foreign annex—where non-Iraqi and non-Syrian detainees tend to reside. There, unofficial offices distribute the funds to women. Even for smaller amounts of money, many women prefer it be transfered that roundabout way instead of through an official way in order to keep camp administration in the dark about the total amount of money a particular woman is receiving.
Because women who work in those unofficial money-transfer offices (which are their own tents) are getting a fee for their service, there is competition among the unofficial offices to get camp residents’ business. And as in any other industry, they compete by lowering transfer fees and advertising their services widely on internal Telegram channels. For example, those advertisements might read, “Umm Usuf Money Transfers. Western Union- 9% commission, Turkey/Idlib- 6% commission; Bank Accounts- 12% commission. Fast! Reliable! Good Quality!” and “Umm Yunus. Western Union 8%; Idlib 5,5%; Bank account 12%.” Recently those money-transfer offices also started offering transfers through Qiwi Wallet.
The majority of women benefiting from general fundraisers and conducting fundraisers themselves are still pro-Islamic State, so these devotees are usually the ones working in the unofficial money-receiving offices. And sometimes this arrangement becomes a big problem for women who are anti-Islamic State. In one case, when a woman who is against the Islamic State came to collect money sent to her, she was refused service. A woman working in the unofficial office told her, “We only offer services to our sisters [pro-Islamic State women].” As a result, the money was sent back to the sender—not only was the woman left with nothing, but she also lost her transaction fee. Such incidents often become a source of bigger conflict between pro-Islamic State and anti-Islamic State women.
Pro-Islamic State women are also trying to keep the amount of money being transferred to them a secret, especially if it comes from a fundraiser. There are also conflicts between pro-Islamic State women about individual fundraisers, which are almost often based on jealousy. If one channel is becoming particularly popular and receives a lot of donations, it is not rare for other women to start badmouthing the channel’s owner on social media, accusing her of being not fair, not an Islamic State supporter and sometimes even accusing her of being a mistress to Kurdish camp guards. As one fundraiser organizer wrote on her channel, “I hear that people are saying that I collected an enormous sum of money. Those people forgot that, for blackmouthing a person is being thrown to Hell …. I am asking Allah for a curse on a liar. ”
Camp authorities are trying to close down those unofficial money-transfer offices in the foreign annex of the al-Hol camp, but it is not easy. In August 2020, when guards came to search the tent of a woman operating an unofficial money-transfer office, money and cell phones were confiscated, but she managed to run away and was not caught. When guards left, she started working again.
In some cases, women try to save money on transfer fees and transaction time, so it is not rare to see messages like this one on internal camps forums: “If someone could give me money here in al-Hol, my people would give your people money in Roj camp/Idlib/European countries (Russia, France, Germany).”
Use of the Money
In the majority of cases, money sent to camps is used for food and other basic necessities. But money sent to Idlib is often used to pay for women to be smuggled out of the camp. That large amount of money does not enter camps. Of course, it is a dangerous system to build on trust, and the women are often scammed and lose all their money. In probably the best known case, an Azeri man based in Turkey collected around $700,000 from foreign women in al-Hol for smuggling services in the summer of 2020 and then disappeared. It was later mentioned on several internal Islamic State channels that he was found and severely punished, but there was no information about whether money was returned.
When a woman does escape from the camp, money is then sent to her to support her living in Idlib (there, money transfers are known to be controlled by Uzbek foreign fighters). Usually the foreign women from camps are considered rich by Idlib standards, where the average salary of a foreign fighter is around $100 a month. According to an interviewed foreign member of one of the armed groups in Idlib, “Sometimes our guys take those Islamic State women as second wives. He and his first wife then get the money being sent to her by her family and Islamic State fans, and she gets protection in Idlib.”
The fundraising campaigns are a big problem. They provide a large source of money for the Islamic State and help organization members to escape detention camps and disappear. Platforms should crack down on the fundraising campaigns, and authorities should look to prosecute local organizers for material support of terrorism, where applicable. But neither takedowns nor prosecutions will solve the problem in the long run. It will not stop until there is no longer a demand.
How can demand be reduced? First, foreign women in the camps should be repatriated back to their home countries, and those remaining should be able to feed themselves and their families, for example, by working, so that they don’t have to rely on outside money. Or there should be a legal and controlled way for their relatives to support them from outside. There should also not be any possibility of escape.
Of course, that won’t solve the biggest supply-side problem: the large numbers of people willing to help Islamic State-affiliated women escape and potentially reengage in conflict. That problem will be fixed only with broader efforts to counter extremism around the world.