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The young women behind France's 'terrorist commando' network

AFP screengrab | A Peugeot 607 car packed with gas cylinders is secured behind police lines in Paris on Sept. 4, 2016.

The recent arrest of four Frenchwomen linked to a failed Paris terror plot has exposed the increasing role women are playing in conducting attacks as the Islamic State (IS) group comes under increasing pressure.

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France is no stranger to terror attacks and plots hatched or inspired by the IS group. But a recent terror plot has exposed an alarming new jihadist trend.

Four women have been charged with terrorism offences over a plot to attack a Paris train station, according to French prosecutors. The terror plan was thwarted after a car packed with gas cylinders was discovered September 4 near the Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of the French capital.

The high-profile roles that women have played in the latest plot – as well as the resistance some of them put up during their arrest – have raised eyebrows in anti-terror circles.

Paris prosecutor François Molins has called the young female suspects a “terrorist commando" network, a label quickly adopted by journalists attempting to unravel the links between the women and Rashid Kassim, a well-known jihadist, as well as other Frenchmen and women involved in a number of terror attacks in France over the past two years.

A history of female jihadists

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks put a spotlight on global jihadism, women have featured in jihadist circles in largely secondary roles, mainly as companions or propagandists.

FRANCE 24 DEBATE: Women and Radicalisation (Part I)

Unlike several nationalist movements – such as the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers and Kurdish peshmergas – takfiri Salafist groups have primarily viewed women as supporters, not actors, in the global jihad.

Prominent female jihadists have included Malika El Aroud, a Belgian national of Moroccan origin who was married to a jihadist who killed Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban resistance hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, on September 9, 2001. She later married Moez Garsalloui, a well-known figure linked to several French jihadists, who was killed in a 2012 US drone strike in Pakistan.

But Aroud and al Qaeda’s other self-styled “female warriors” were not combatants for the cause. As wives, widows or sisters of Islamist militants, the women mostly served as incubators for a next generation of jihadists.

That has been the ideal adopted by the IS group when it emerged out of the Syrian conflict. The February 2014 launch of the IS group’s all-female al-Khansaa Brigade once again put the spotlight on the role of female jihadists. But the propaganda put out by al-Khansaa members has repeatedly stressed the importance of the sedentary life for women away from the battlefield.

For the African outposts of global jihad, groups such as Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Somalia-based al Shabaab have occasionally used females – particularly girls – mostly because females do not invite the same level of scrutiny by security services as their male counterparts.

‘Where are the brothers?’

That was also the case with some of the gas cylinder plot suspects, although some were on France’s “S” list of individuals considered a security risk. But the women appeared to have been under less scrutiny – even after some of them were questioned by French intelligence services upon their return from Turkey, where they attempted to cross the Syrian border.

FRANCE 24 DEBATE: Women and Radicalisation (Part 2)

By all accounts, the recent gas cylinder plot appears amateurish. But the fact that a group of French women were actively planning an attack has set them apart from their al Qaeda and other militant Salafist sisters.

Their readiness to act was evident in the resistance two of the women put up during their arrests in the Parisian suburb of Boussy Saint-Antoine, when they attacked police officers with kitchen knives.

Their “valour” was hailed by Kassim, the suspected mastermind of a number of jihadist attacks in France. In a posting on jihadist media, Kassim taunted the French males in IS ranks. “Women, sisters have moved to attack. Where are the brothers?” he asked. “She brandished a knife and she hit a policeman… Where are the men?”

Profiles of female jihadists

But the men are having an increasingly hard time doing their jihadist business, with IS group territory shrinking in the Syrian and Iraqi heartlands. In Europe, tightened security has resulted in the thwarting of several terror plots.

If the time has come for Europe’s female recruits to put their propaganda into practice, security experts need to study the female suspects in the recent Paris plot.

Sarah H.: Engaged to terrorists

The 23-year-old native of France’s southern Var region was born into a Christian family and led a “normal” life before her sudden radicalisation, according to French media reports.

Sarah H. came under the attention of French security officials in March 2015, when she was apprehended in Turkey while attempting to cross the border into Syria.

She was then placed in a Turkish detention center awaiting expulsion to France. Upon her return to Paris, she was returned to her mother, who was expected to keep her daughter out of trouble – an uphill challenge, as many parents of radicalised youths have attested.

In an interview with the regional daily Nice Matin in March 2015, her mother, a hairdresser, provided a harrowing account of her daughter’s conversion to the jihadist cause.

“Sarah looks like all girls her age,” said the mother, who was not named. “At 22, she shares the joys and sorrows of a generation seeking answers.” But then she went on to describe her daughter’s rapid radicalisation as a “psychological rape”, after Sarah began encountering jihadist figures on social media sites.

These included her future fiancés, men she was supposed to marry before they too were killed while committing terror attacks in France.

French investigators say Sarah was to marry Larossi Abballa, the man who killed a police couple in June in their home in Magnanville, outside Paris, before being killed in a police raid.

She was then engaged to Adel Kermiche, who slit the throat of 85-year-old French priest Jacques Hamel on July 26 during the morning Mass in a Normandy church. Kermiche and another attacker were shot dead by police.

Sarah then got engaged to Mohamed Lamine A., known to be radicalised and the brother of a man jailed for the Magnanville murders.

During her arrest on September 8 in the Parisian suburb of Boussy-Saint-Antoine, she attacked and wounded a police officer with a kitchen knife through his open car window, according to French prosecutors. Witnesses said the young woman shouted “Allah-u Akbar,” or God is great, during the arrest.

She was subsequently charged with terror offences and remanded in custody pending a trial.

Inès M.: Car owner’s daughter and on the “S” list

Born on March 15, 1997, in the Parisian suburb of Tremblay-en-France, Inès M. was classified as a “dangerous individual” and on France’s “S” list at the time of her arrest on September 8.

The third in a family of five sisters, she quit school without a diploma and had difficulties finding a job, according to French media reports. Neighbours say she began wearing the veil three years ago.

Despite her youth, the French teenager appears to have played a central role in the gas cylinder plot. The Peugeot 607 car that was discovered with gas cylinders near Notre Dame cathedral on September 4 belonged to her father, who was taken into custody shortly after it was found. He had reported his missing daughter and car to the police, according to investigators, and was later released.

Sources close to the inquiry said Inès M. came to the attention of French authorities after attempting to visit Syria as part of an  entourage that included Hayat Boumeddiene, the fiancée of Amedy Coulibaly, who was killed by French police after he attacked a Paris kosher supermarket on January 9, 2015.

She was active on social media networks, using the name Umm Saifullah on messaging application Telegram to chat with jihadists.

On September 4, after failing to set fire to her father’s car and set off the gas cylinders, she took refuge with Sarah H. at the home of another suspect, Amel S., in the Parisian suburb of Boussy-Saint-Antoine.

Inès M. resisted arrest by lunging at a police officer with a knife. She was shot in the leg but her injuries were not serious.

Investigators say that at the time of her arrest they found a handwritten letter pledging allegiance to the IS group in her purse.

Ornella G.: Marriage on the telephone

The 29-year-old mother of three was born into a Christian family and converted to Islam when she married a Muslim in 2009.

She came to the attention of French authorities in September 2014 when she was questioned by the DGSI, France's internal intelligence service, upon her return from Turkey. Ornella said she had gone there with her three children for a vacation. But she admitted to closely monitoring the situation in Syria and contacting friends there online. She was placed on the "S" security watchlist and put under house arrest at her home in the central Loiret region.

Investigators say Ornella, who wears the full burqa, was in touch for several months with a man calling himself Abu Omar via Telegram. She separated from her husband and married Abu Omar in a religious marriage, of sorts, conducted during a telephone conversation.

According to French daily Le Parisien, her new husband introduced her to Kassim, who asked her to take action. She was also put in contact with Inès M. Overnight from September 3 to September 4, after failing to set the Peugeot 607 on fire, she fled at the sight of an undercover police officer, Le Parisien reported.

She then visited her former husband and the father of her children in a distraught state, sobbing and confessing her actions, investigators say. He agreed to take her and the children to Marseille, but the family was apprehended on a highway en route to the southern port city.

Amel S.: The landlady providing logistical support

At 39, Amel S. is the oldest of the “terrorist commando" women. The network was uncovered after the suspects were found at her home in the Parisian suburb of Boussy-Saint-Antoine.

A mother of four, Amel has told investigators she was merely helping provide logistics for her friends. Police searching her home found seven empty glass bottles and pieces of paper that "could look like paper fuses" but no explosives. 

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