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France arrests show terror isn't just male pursuit

Elizabeth BryantSeptember 9, 2016

French officials have dismantled a female terror cell that was plotting an imminent attack. It may be uncommon for women to engage in terrorism in France, but they have long done so elsewhere, Elizabeth Bryant reports.

Frankreich Frauen planten Anschlag auf Pariser Bahnhof
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/C. Ena

There's a twist to France's latest foiled terror attempt: Authorities say the extremist cell they smashed was a three-woman operation.

On Friday, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the three women - ages 19, 23 and 39 - had taken inspiration from and pledged allegiance to the "Islamic State" (IS).

"The vision of women being confined to domestic and family roles by Islamic State has been overtaken," Molins told reporters at a press conference on Friday, adding that "the terrorist organization not only uses men, but also young women who understand and breed their project virtually."

Potential attack

Police arrested the women Thursday night in Boussy-Saint-Antoine, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Paris. Molins said the officers shot and wounded one of them after two had attacked them with knives.

The arrests are linked to an abandoned car found near Notre Dame Cathedral over the weekend loaded with gas canisters. Investigators found a blanket and a cigarette butt laced with diesel fuel in the trunk, Molins said, adding that a single explosion of one of the tanks could have exploded the car.

They also found a letter in the purse of the driver, 19-year-old Ines Madani, pledging allegiance to IS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Several other people have been detained.

"There's a group that has been annihilated, but there are others," President Francois Hollande warned on Friday.

Effect of radicalization

The top suspects in previous terror attacks in France have almost always been men. Yet the fact that women have taken an interest in terror does not come as a shock to many who follow extremism.

"I am not surprised," said Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist who has worked with scores of radicalized French youths and their families. "I've been talking about it for two years."

Bouzar said women might be drawn to Islamic extremism for different reasons - the possibility of doing humanitarian work in Syria, for example, or perhaps of marrying IS fighters - but the recruiting methods and the radicalization process were the same as for men.

"These women are just as dehumanized as men," Bouzar said. "They want to die. They want to kill."

For IS and other militant groups, women can be an unexpected weapon, Bouzar said, predicting that militants could turn to ever more shocking tactics - such enlisting teenage girls who might not otherwise be racialized as "Muslim" - "because that will sow terror even more."

'It's nothing new'

In 1985, a 17-year-old Syrian girl blew herself up next to an Israeli convoy and about a dozen other women have targeted Israeli interests in the past decade. Women have staged attacks in South Asia, Africa and elsewhere, as well.

"It's extremely frequent with the Tamil Tigers, and Boko Haram is doing this almost every day," the French criminologist Alain Bauer said, referring to the use of female suicide fighters by militant groups in Sri Lanka and Nigeria, respectively. "It may appear new because it happens here - but it's nothing new by itself."

Even in France, women have played roles in recent attacks, although it's unclear just how big. Hayat Boumeddiene, partner of terrorist Amedy Coulibaly, escaped to Syria shortly before Coulibaly killed four people at a kosher store in January 2015. Photos showed her first posing in a scanty bikini and later clad in a face-covering niqab, gripping a crossbow.

French media reported that the women who were arrested on Thursday were in contact with Boumeddiene and had ties with other known extremists. Molins, the prosecutor, said one of the women, identified as Sarah H, had been engaged to the men who carried out separate deadly attacks in recent weeks against police and a Normandy priest.

Hasna Ait Boulahcen, the cousin of Paris attacks organizer Abdelhamid Abaaoud, also expressed admiration for Boumeddiene on her Facebook page. Though she helped Abaaoud hide from police after the November 2015 attacks, it's unclear what, if any direct role she played in the assaults. Both cousins died in a police raid a few days later.

"Women are smarter - they're more suspicious," Bauer said. "They lie better than men."

The journalist Mathieu Suc, author of a book on female terrorists, said that though IS has assigned roles to men and women - with men used as cannon fodder and women in supporting roles to shore up the 'caliphate' - a number of young women want to be in the action.

About 250 women are among the nearly 700 French citizens currently in IS-held areas of Iraq and Syria, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said earlier this week.

"Women are often the motors," Suc told France Info radio. "That was the case of Hayat Boumeddiene."

The anthropologist Bouzar said any fallout from this week's arrests might be felt most keenly by other Muslim women at a time of deep divisions in France over burkinis and veils.

"There will be searches, verifications based on Islamic references and whether they wear a headscarf," Bouzar said.

That, in turn, may increase the sense of persecution among Muslims, Bouzar said - "and that is the first step to radicalization."