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Why ISIS Is Recruiting Women

After a police raid in search of the Paris attack mastermind, Hasna Ait Boulahcen was erroneously thought to be Europe's first female suicide bomber. News that she was a cowboy-hat wearing drinker turned alleged ISIS supporter has caused even more...
November 19, 2015, 11:30pm
Photo by Urs Siedentop & Co via Stocksy

Update: September, 20, 2015: New information from French authorities reveal that Hasna Ait Boulahcen "did not blow herself up," according to the Guardian and NBC News. A spokesperson from the Paris prosecutor's office told the Guardian with certainty that "Hasna was not the kamikaze." This post has been updated to reflect that.

Emphasized by crude, cartoon infographic (complete with clip-art explosions) the Daily Mail's coverage of yesterday's police raid in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis is uncanny. The British rag originally reported that a woman named Hasna Ait Boulahcen became "Western Europe's first female suicide bomber" that day—though we now know that Ait Boulahcen is not the person who detonated a bomb during the hunt for the alleged "mastermind" behind the devastating attacks in Paris earlier this week, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. When police entered the apartment building in which Abaaoud was rumored to be hiding, Ait Boulahcen screamed "Help me! Help me!" An unidentified person standing next to her then detonated an explosive vest, the Guardian reports.


Since Thursday, both rumors and truths have circulated about Ait Boulahcen, due to the fact that a radicalized woman is seen as an anomaly. Reports have emphasized that she "expressed a wish to travel to Syria and become a jihadi," but have also maintained room for the possibility that she is a victim herself.

According to the Daily Mail, the 26-year-old liked eating at KFC, drinking alcohol, and wearing cowboy hats over her dyed blonde hair; her nickname was "the Cowgirl." Reports have stated that, though the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she was born and raised in Paris and lived a secular life. She only starting wearing a veil a month before her death. The picture that the British newspaper used showed Ait Boulahcen in a niqab, mean-mugging as she held up two peace signs—an image that is contrary to the shocked quotes that the publication gathered from her neighbors. "They said she had a bubbly personality, adding that she was 'outgoing, a bit clueless,'" DailyMail reported.

The only other outlets that have aimed to construct such a detailed portrait of Ait Boulahcen, who allegedly expressed are French and British tabloids. CNN has confirmed her name with a Belgium counterterrorism official and that she is, in fact, related to Abaaoud. NBC News characterized her as a "party girl." But salacious particulars don't exactly fill out the rest of the narrative. There are still a lot more questions than answers when it comes to Ait Boulahcen, who reportedly posted on Facebook in June about plans to travel to Syria.


Earlier this year, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue released a report that stated an unprecedented number of Western "women [are] traveling to support ISIS." Reasons for this include, "feeling isolated… within a Western culture, feeling that the international Muslim community as a whole is being violently persecuted," and feeling "an anger, sadness and/or frustration over a perceived lack of international action in response to this persecution."

And according to Mia Bloom, the author of Bombshell: Women and Terrorism, Ait Boulahcen might be part of the Islamic State's growing recruitment of female insurgents who are no longer just fulfilling the passive role of "bride." Over the phone, before she dashed off to make appearances on a slew of nightly news programs, Broadly spoke to Bloom, about how and why ISIS are recruiting women and, in turn, using those women to recruit more men.

BROADLY: I first read about Hasna Ait Boulahcen in the Daily Mail, a publication that's known more for its sensationalism than its reporting. They characterized her as a very "normal" woman who suddenly became radicalized. Given your extensive research on female terrorists, can you speculate on the case of Ait Boulahcen?
Mia Bloom: There's two possible dynamics going on. One is, going back to the 9/11 Commission Report, the instructions to a [potential suicide bomber] would have been to look as Western as possible. Female suicide bombers among Palestinians, for example, were told to wear sexy outfits and to look like an Israeli woman—don't look Palestinian. One of the women was so offended by an outfit she had to wear during an operation that she backed out at the last minute. Part of the plan is to look perfectly normal and assimilated so that you'll be the last person that anyone would be scrutinizing, compared to someone who is wearing traditional clothing. So there's that. The Chechen black widows—these were also Islamic suicide bombers—also dressed very "Western" on purpose, so that if they were involved in something they could blend into the crowd.


But the other thing we've seen with a lot of women who become suicide bombers, or become radicalized, is that it's precisely because they are Western that they suddenly shift. There's something within Islam called a "rebirth." That's someone who grew up very Western, not especially religious, and they are born again as Muslims. They think, "I need to be a 'good girl' now" and they are susceptible to the radical distortion of Islam because they don't have any real knowledge of the Quran.

Ultimately, we don't have enough information to say if Ait Boulahcen's [behavior prior to the attack] was a ploy, or if she was drawn to the group because she has a "checkered" past. This is all speculation based on the cases of Jihadi female suicide bombers that we definitely know. We don't have any prior examples from ISIS because this is the very first woman ISIS has used in an attack like this.

It seems like this is something you sort of predicted in your book. You wrote, "It is clear that women are the future of even the most conservative terrorist organizations."
When I wrote the book in 2010/2011 ISIS didn't exist yet. But I did say that we were definitely going to see more women in Islamic fundamentalist groups because every single group at the outset always says, "We don't need women." Then at some point they actually do. They use women strategically if they're having a problem recruiting men. Because society has rigid perceptions of masculinity, they taunt the idea of women doing the fighting and men staying at home, shaking in their boots, to provoke a response. So when you start recruiting women, you tap into another 50 percent of the population, but you also guilt and shame men into stepping up.

This isn't completely foreign, though. In Israel, when the paratroopers brigade—it's called the Hativat HaTzanhanim—sends men out on their first jump, the person who leaves the plane first is the person who trains them. The person who trains them is always a woman. And since a woman is the first person to jump out of the plane, there are no guys afterward who refuse to jump. I've also heard, though I haven't confirmed this, that the American jump school at Fort Bragg is also going to start doing this.

Wow. I guess sexism is effective.
It's very effective. Even in secular groups; this happened in Sri Lanka, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This cuts across a lot of different cultures.

Women in ISIS, for the most part, are used as a commodity. They use them to reward male foreign fighters. When a foreign fighter dies, the woman who has been married off to him, after a requisite mourning period, they just re-gift them to someone else—and this is the Sunni women, who have a good position. We already know what happens to the Shi'a and the Yazidi women who are basically sex slaves. It's really heartbreaking to see these women who think they're going to go to this paradise or reach a nirvana of their existence when the reality is it's horrific.