Dead or alive? Charlie Hebdo jihadist widow eludes capture

Paris (AFP)

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Described as France's most wanted woman, Hayat Boumeddiene has been on the run ever since her partner Amedy Coulibaly killed a policewoman and four Jews in the January 2015 terror attacks that shook the country.

Boumeddiene left France in the days before the attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket left 17 people dead. The track has run cold ever since.

Speculation she was dead was contradicted by reported sightings in Syria and authorities do not know if she is dead or alive.

Coulibaly was killed by security forces in the aftermath of the massacre, as were the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo, meaning that none of the actual killers can face justice in a terror trial that started Wednesday.

Boumeddiene, the only woman among the gunmen's fourteen alleged accomplices on trial for the attacks, stands accused of association with terrorism. She will be tried in absentia along with two others.

Prosecutors believe Boumeddiene -- who was 26 at the time -- knowingly participated in the attacks, collecting funds and organising the logistics.

She was last seen on January 2, 2015 -- less than a week before the attacks -- as she passed through security at Madrid airport and then boarded a plane to Istanbul.

She passed through Istanbul's Sabiha Gokcen airport unnoticed, with airport security footage showing her entering the country like any tourist wearing a headscarf and accompanied by a bearded, unidentified man.

Boumeddiene then travelled to the south of Turkey and within a week after her arrival passed over its southern border into northern Syria which was then under the control of Islamic State (IS) jihadists.

There, she largely slipped off the radar.

- Bikini to niqab -

One of seven children, Boumeddiene's mother died when she was six. She spent her childhood hopping from one foster family to the next.

Boumeddiene first made contact with Coulibaly in 2007 through a joint acquaintance while he was in prison for minor crimes relating to drugs and hold-ups.

But he met radicalised Islamists in jail, and became radicalised himself. The couple married in a religious Muslim ceremony in 2009.

The photos of the pair smiling on the beach in swimming trunks and a bikini gave way to a shot a year later where Boumeddiene wore a black niqab revealing only her eyes and carrying a crossbow. Coulibaly held a gun.

Boumeddiene began working to convert young girls to her new way of life.

In 2010, Coulibaly was sent back to prison for participating in the attempted break-out of Smain Ait Ali Belkacem, convicted for a 1995 attack in Paris.

French police interrogated Boumeddiene. Islam brought her peace, she told authorities, but they noted her radicalised discourse.

Coulibaly was freed in 2014. In the months leading up to the January 2015 attacks, the couple undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Boumeddiene gathered funds through fraudulent operations and emptied her bank accounts.

- No remorse -

In phone calls intercepted by French police after the attacks, Boumeddiene said she was not aware of the planned attacks and simply did her partner's bidding by fleeing to Syria to join IS jihadists.

But she expressed no remorse for the attacks, saying she was treated "like a princess" in Syria as the widow of a "martyr".

"It's amazing," Boumeddiene told her sister by phone in April 2015 in the call intercepted by police. She said she wanted the same destiny as her partner's: "the death of a martyr".

For several years after the phone calls, police lost track of her whereabouts and some reports indicated she had died. Until last autumn.

A Frenchwoman who had returned from Syria said she recognised Boumeddiene in October 2019 in the huge Syrian refugee camp Al-Hol, where over 10,000 foreign jihadist women and children are being held.

Since October, Boumeddiene is believed to have fled the camp, possibly towards one of the last pockets of jihadism, in the Idlib province in northwestern Syria.

Paris-based anti-terror monitor the Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) said in May she and 12 other suspected female jihadists had escaped from prisons in northern Syria, now Kurdish-controlled.

Prosecutors argue Boumeddiene must have known that the funds would go towards terrorist acts.

She is also suspected of acting as the go-between between her partner and Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who carried out the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Over 500 calls were exchanged between Boumeddiene and Kouachi's wife, according to police.