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First Lady of ISIS, now ‘the other woman’ of US Rep, Tania Joya got lucky unlike many others

The question of repatriating ISIS members looms large—but if Tania Joya’s story is anything to go by, there was never a bomb under her burqa.

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The question of repatriating erstwhile members of ISIS looms large — but if Tania Joya’s story is anything to go by, there was never a bomb under her burqa.

‘ISIS bride’, ‘First Lady of ISIS’, and now ‘the other woman’ of a Texan Republican — she has known many names. Joya, who was notably married to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s top-ranking leader of American origin, Yahya al-Bahrumi, is back in American news. This time, as a willing participant in a seven-month-long political sex scandal with a Republican congressman — Representative Van Taylor. Somewhat unpredictably, she was her own whistleblower and had contacted Taylor’s opponent to talk about the affair. Her motive, she said, was to call out his hypocrisy.

Like Joya, a lot of women have found themselves wedded to the Islamic State. Unlike her, however, they aren’t always given the opportunity to reinvent themselves and reintegrate into society.

Tens of thousands of ‘ISIS brides’ and children are currently languishing in captivity in camps like the Al-Hol camp in Syria. In 2021, the United Nations urged 57 countries to repatriate over 64,000 women and children from such camps. But repatriation poses a risk: what if those returning are still radicalised? There are at least four Indian women who joined ISIS and now want to come back home — and the Indian government still hasn’t decided what to do. The women were being held in a prison in Afghanistan after surrendering to Afghan forces, and there was a glimmer of hope for their repatriation when the Taliban broke open jails in Kabul in August 2021.

“I see everyone praying for the safe return of children from war-torn Ukraine,” said Bindu Sampath, a Malayali mother whose daughter joined ISIS in 2016. “I, too, pray for the safe return of my child,” she said.

Also read:Peshawar attack shows Islamic State has come home — in arms of jihadists Imran Khan embraces

From London to the Levant 

Tania Joya was one of the lucky ones.

Her story begins in a small suburb of London. The daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, Joya reportedly had a difficult childhood, which she blames on her “upbringing within a conservative Bangladeshi-British family”.

She befriended a group of ultra-conservative students as a teenager and began to wear a jilbab and study the Quran. While her family hated it, she began to feel like she’d found her place in society — ironically, she was becoming more isolated with her increasing radicalisation.

When she was 19, she met an 18-year-old American convert to Islam: John Georgelas. The couple married in 2003 and moved to Texas, where she experienced living as a conservative Muslim in the American South. She found a stronger community here and put down more roots when her husband was briefly imprisoned for accessing passwords and plotting to hack the website of a pro-Israel lobby — this was also when she began watching TV and ‘wearing colourful headscarves, form-fitting clothes, three-quarter-length sleeves’.

Eventually, when her husband was released from prison and done with his probation, he took their family of five to Egypt, just in time for the Arab Spring. From there, the family found themselves in Syria, which is where Joya drew the final line. Her husband dropped her off at the border of Syria and Turkey and handed her and their children to a human trafficker smuggling refugees.

At that time, Joya had three sons and was six months pregnant with her fourth child. She weighed 43 kg. Somehow, the family went from Istanbul to London and then finally to Texas. Joya maintained that she didn’t want to be in Syria because of how she was being treated — jihad was no longer about “academics, theory, and dreaming,” and she didn’t want to be involved.

“They believed their religion would deliver them justice  — so they went with an idea of Islamic utopia,” said Dr Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, told ThePrint.

In Joya’s version of the story, she only knew her husband was networking with various militants. But reports point to a far more insidious truth: Yahya al-Bahrumi was the Islamic State’s main producer of English-language propaganda, laying the blueprint for what would become a highly successful propaganda machine. He is believed to have died in 2017.

Also read: Pakistan has failed in meeting global demand for dismantling terrorism mill that churns out terrorists: India at UNHRC

Radicalisation and reinvention 

Joya’s story didn’t end there. Ever since she left both her husband and Syria in 2013, she has pivoted to focus on “reprogramming” extremists and helping them reintegrate into society — something she feels equipped to do as a “former Islamic jihadist”.

She divorced her husband in 2015, split the custody of her four sons with her parents-in-law, and started a new life. Her dating profile divulged that her “husband had gone off to be the next Osama bin Laden”. She met and married Craig Burma and began to explore Christianity — by 2019, she was exploring Judaism too.

That brings us back to the present day. Joya, who has been profiled by the international press multiple times and is fixated upon by British tabloids, found herself in a situation poised for political sabotage.

The affair between her and Rep. Van Taylor took place between October 2020 and June 2021. Joya met him through her de-radicalisation work, and the two hit it off. She describes herself as “pathetic and lovesick”, and says she was planning a future with him.

At one point, Taylor reportedly tried to end things with her by saying he wanted to see other Indian women. Joya, whose family is from Bangladesh, found the comment “extremely offensive”. Towards the end of the affair, he paid her $5,000 to keep quiet about it.

She went public when she saw that he’d called out a rival politician for having an affair and decided she wanted to expose his hypocrisy. There on, Joya contacted a candidate opposing Taylor, Suzanne Harp, in the hope that she would confront him privately and get him to resign from Congress. Instead, the story was leaked to the press on 1 March, complete with scandalous screenshots.

Taylor is considered a RINO — Republican in Name Only — by far-Right conservatives because he supported President Joe Biden’s election victory. The sex scandal gave more conservative Republicans what they were looking for: an excuse to attack Taylor’s morality.

And it worked. The next day, Taylor ended his re-election campaign to the House of Representatives after admitting to having an extramarital affair with Joya without mentioning her by name. Headlines, however, zeroed in on Joya’s past life as a woman married to a terrorist. She’s still being judged for her choices.

The agency of women joining ISIS has been called into question over and over. Even if women join ISIS voluntarily, the extent of their participation isn’t always known — most women are homemakers.

“My daughter was fully forced into joining ISIS. I raised her myself — I know this was not her choice,” said Bindu Kamath. “It has been 2,198 days since I’ve seen my daughter.”

ISIS’s propaganda was also effective at getting people on the ground, even if it was misleading them. “In most cases, there’s complete agency to travel,” said Dr Anne Speckhard. “But the understanding of what they were going into – for both men and women – might have been missing.”

Also read: India remains steadfast in its commitment to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan

The issue of integration 

“We have lots of success stories, but we also have cautionary tales,” Dr Anne Speckhard told ThePrint. “And what the cautionary tales teach us is that we need to have good intelligence.”

She pointed to the recent case of Jennifer Wenisch, a German ISIS returnee who claimed innocence to evade the legal system. However, she later confessed her crimes to an intelligence agent posing as a fellow ISIS supporter online and admitted that she was a member of ISIS’s morality police. Had she not been caught by intelligence agencies, she would have travelled back to the terrorist group.

Repatriation includes charging and prosecuting ISIS returnees and eventually rehabilitating them. More countries are beginning to rise to the challenge: Belgium, Germany, and Denmark recently repatriated several women and children.

The case of Shamima Begum, another British woman of Bangladeshi descent, also generated international debate: the United Kingdom cancelled her citizenship in 2019 amid questions over her decision to join ISIS as a minor (she was 15).

“Every State is responding to this kind of thing in a different manner. There’s no universal law on how this works — it’s political and societal, and no one has clear answers,” said Kabir Taneja, a fellow at Observer Research Foundation, who has also written about the policy challenge this issue poses across the world.

Until there is some sort of answer, it’s nothing but a long and lonely wait for the families of those who joined ISIS.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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