Tori Barbino, Westhampton College ’15, has identified and is in contact with women within the Islamic State for a research project in which she will study how they perceive human rights and laws in the United States.

An Arabic studies minor, Barbino has long been interested in Middle Eastern affairs. When Buzzfeed first published a series of articles chronicling the “Chilling Online World of the Women of ISIS” in early September, the topic seemed like a natural fit for Barbino’s research assignment.

Barbino found the women of ISIS to be particularly interesting because she said she believed the Western World assumed they were oppressed and therefore did not have a voice. She discovered these women regularly share information about ISIS through social media.

“After following the links on Buzzfeed to the Tumblr accounts, I found two women that I especially gravitated toward because they’re so similar to me, and not in the fact that I want to join a terrorist organization, because I don’t, but because they seem like normal girls,” Barbino said. “One of them is 19 and I’m 20. One of them is a nursing student and she works in hospitals, and I found their stories really interesting because even the way they phrase things, they say it like I would. There are just certain things that remind me that they are typical girls around the same age I am, going through the same developmental cycle.”

At first glance, the “women of ISIS” Tumblr accounts appear to have similarities to many of the pages and profiles that dominate the Western blogger world. On the ISIS Tumblrs one can find tips on how to style hair underneath a burka and various cake recipes for fall entertaining. The stark difference is that the women of ISIS also blog about weapons, their fears for their husbands away at battle and their hopes for the success of the group.

“One of them I have messaged once or twice and she’s responded,” Barbino said. “She’s very skeptical of me right now because she gets a lot of reports from journalists and people asking her questions about you know the Islamic State or Daesh, so I’m trying to talk to her about her taste in music because I think her taste in music is really interesting. I’m trying to find other ways to make a connection with her so she’s knows I’m not a reporter.”

Despite being an Arabic studies minor, Barbino's Tumblr conversations are in English. However, she does believe that her knowledge of Arabic and understanding of Middle Eastern culture has helped her gain the trust of these ISIS members and build a steady relationship.

“I think my background with Arabic does help me form connections with these people in a way because I understand more of their cultural norms. I can say a typical Muslim greeting to them in Arabic and it kind of breaks the barrier,” Barbino said.

Barbino said she hoped to foster understanding with these women online. She in no way defends the violent atrocities committed by ISIS, but instead seeks to understand the roots of ISIS’ goals as a terrorist organization.

“There’s just no defense to beheading innocents. But it draws attention and maybe we wouldn’t have given them attention if they hadn’t demanded it,” Barbino said. “Ironically, what they’re trying to do and what they see themselves doing is reclaiming the world for goodness.”

Barbino went on to explain that her goal in communicating with the women of ISIS is to foster understanding and create dialogue. “If I can begin to spread the message that they’re trying to spread, in a more peaceful way and she can spread the message of an American girl to ISIL, potentially we won’t have to resort to violence anymore.”

If possible, Barbino is interested in contacting a high-ranked leader of ISIS in the future, made possible by her relationship with the Tumblr contacts. “In order to get the full story of really what’s happening in Syria right now and what’s happening in the Islamic State, I think it would be important to hear actually from their side what’s happening. That’s what I seek to achieve is to have a primary source from the Islamic State helping me, or explaining to me why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

When asked how she felt about the FBI or NSA potentially tracking her down via her Internet search activity, Barbino said she was not particularly worried about the U.S. government and was far more fearful of ISIS itself.

“I have so many fears for my personal safety," Barbino said. "My number one fear is being tracked down by the Islamic State, which isn’t too likely because they’re not here. But one of the biggest things I fear is that through this work, the Islamic State will see me as one of them because I’m not. I want them to see me as someone who is willing to talk to them but I don’t want them to see me as someone who is joining or that I want to become a militant because I don’t.”

Barbino’s project is for her Rhetoric and Law course taught by Mari Lee Mifsud. Mifsud does not require students to choose particular topics for this assignment nor does she require students to contact human subjects as a part of their research. Additionally, Barbino plans to submit the findings of her work to a personal story for digitalamerica.org.

Contact reporter Katie Thomson at katie.thomson@richmond.edu

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