Sep 19, 2006

Lady Killer

Terrorism is no longer a male-only preserve.

Lady Killer

by Peter Bergen & Paul Cruickshank

The New Republic Online

Post date: 09.11.06


Their arrest last month hit front pages around the world. Married for only three

years and with an eight-month-old baby, they are now in British police custody,

suspected of plotting to bring down several U.S. passenger jets over the

Atlantic--a plan that, had it succeeded, could have killed thousands. Ahmed

Abdullah Ali, 25, is charged with conspiracy to murder. Historically, Islamist

jihadis have kept spouses, siblings, and relatives in the dark, but not in this

case: Abdullah's wife, Cossar Ali, 23, is charged with failure to disclose

information about the plot.


If they are convicted, the Alis would not be the first couple to sign up for

holy war with Al Qaeda. On November 9, 2005, Muriel Degauque, a Belgian convert

to Islam, became only the second woman to conduct an Al Qaeda suicide bombing,

detonating a bomb near Baghdad in Baquba as she drove past a U.S. patrol,

killing herself and injuring one soldier. (Little is known about the first

female Al Qaeda suicide bomber, who attacked U.S. and Iraqi forces in Tal Afar

in late September 2005.) Degauque's husband, Hissam Goris, a Moroccan Belgian

who had accompanied her to Iraq, died the same day, shot by U.S. forces as he

prepared to launch a suicide attack near Fallujah. Across the border in Jordan

only hours after Degauque's attack, another Al Qaeda husband-and-wife team

walked into a wedding reception in the Radisson hotel in Amman, Jordan. Only a

faulty explosive belt prevented Sajida Al Rishawi from becoming Al Qaeda's third

female suicide bomber, she confessed later. The man she married just days

earlier had pushed her outside before blowing himself up.


Five years ago today, 19 men brought jihad to America's attention. But terrorism

is no longer a male-only preserve. In a perverse kind of militant Islamist

feminism, radical Muslim women--particularly from Western countries--are signing

up for Al Qaeda's jihad, often in tandem with their husbands. This growing trend

means that Al Qaeda's narrative (of the United States and its allies at war with

Islam) is taking hold in the Muslim world--and not just among rogue men with

something to prove; it is also taking hold among women and families. It means

that Al Qaeda's campaign is entering a new phase. Among the Sunni militants who

make up its ranks, there has always been a strong taboo against the use of women

in combat. But, under the pressure of Islamist propaganda (images of Muslims

suffering in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon), that taboo has crumbled. Women now

threaten the United States just like men.


During the Afghan war against the Soviets, women could only provide moral

support from the sidelines. One such woman, Khawla Bint Al Azoor, complained to

the Osama bin Laden-funded Jihad magazine in 1987: "I urge you, O young men, to

undertake Jihad and martyr yourselves beside your Afghan brothers who are

fighting against oppression. I only wish I could give my life and my spirit as a

gift to this pure land as a martyr, but I am a girl and not able to do

anything." But bin Laden now seems to have embraced women jihadis. Two months

after the September 11 attacks, bin Laden told the Pakistani journalist Hamid

Mir, "I became a father of a girl after September 11. I named her Safia after

Safia who killed a Jewish spy at the time of the Prophet. [My daughter] will

kill enemies of Islam like Safia of the Prophet's time." In 2004, an Al

Qaeda-affiliated website named Al Khansaa was launched in Saudi Arabia to

recruit female jihadis.


Al Qaeda is turning more to female operatives and husband-and-wife teams because

they give operations a greater chance of success; they attract less suspicion

and are less likely to be flagged for security checks. And attacks by women

generate maximum publicity. For the same reasons, Chechen and Palestinian

terrorists have also increasingly used female suicide attackers for their

operations after overcoming initial reluctance. Chechen terrorists deployed

"black widows," for instance, to help storm a Moscow theater in 2002 and to

bring down two Russian passenger jets in 2004. In 2005, Islamists used female

suicide attackers for the first time in Egypt and Kashmir.


Al Qaeda and its affiliates have had particular success in recruiting Western

Muslim women, because--being more emancipated than their counterparts in the

Middle East and South Asia--they have found it easier to become active within

militant groups. Degauque's story is instructive: Little about her youth marked

her as a candidate for "martyrdom" in a distant land. Growing up near the rust

belt city of Charleroi, south of Brussels, she rebelled against her Catholic

petit-bourgeois family--experimenting with drugs and dating a string of

less-than-suitable boyfriends before running away from home, converting to

Islam, and marrying Goris, a militant fundamentalist. According to Belgian

police, the couple became increasingly radical when it joined the circle of

Bilal Soughir, 32, a Tunisian-Belgian suspected of leading a recruiting cell for

Al Qaeda in Iraq.


Soughir's cell was particularly innovative in its recruitment of women to fight

in Iraq. According to Belgian law enforcement officials, another couple, Brahim

Fahmouti and Zorah Bahssi, were also about to leave Antwerp for Iraq in the fall

of 2005. And, in the small town of Riemst, a young Rwandan convert--to date

identified only as Angelique--was being pressed to travel to Iraq by her

Belgian-convert boyfriend, Pascal Cruypennick. Angelique, who was not indicted,

later gave an emotional interview on Belgian television about how Cruypennick

had tried to manipulate her into going to Iraq. (Soughir and Cruypennick are now

in Belgian custody awaiting trial.)


In the Netherlands, women played an especially assertive role in planning

attacks by the Hofstad group, an extremist network whose wives watched videos of

female suicide bombers and posed for photos holding guns. One of the wives,

Soumaya Sahla, a 21-year-old nursing student, helped coordinate the attempted

assassination of former Dutch legislator Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an outspoken feminist.

She worked out the logistics of the attack and accompanied her husband, Nouredin

al Fahtni, as he set out with a machine gun to conduct the attack. Before he

could kill Ali, Dutch police overpowered the couple, and Sahla is now serving

time for weapons possession. Ali, reflecting on the prominent role women played

in Hofstad, told the Los Angeles Times, "Western Muslims, whether they like it

or not, have grown up with the idea of women being equal."


According to the FBI, Al Qaeda has already recruited at least one senior female

operative in the United States, Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT alumnus and

neuroscientist of Pakistani descent in her mid-thirties. Siddiqui and her

husband first attracted the suspicion when American investigators learned that

their bank card was used in December 2001 to purchase $8,000 of night goggles,

body armor, and military equipment to be shipped to Pakistan. During the '90s,

Siddiqui lived in Boston and was an activist for Islamist causes like the war in

Bosnia. According to Deborah Scroggins, who profiled Siddiqui for Vogue, she was

also an active member of the Al Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, New

York--essentially Al Qaeda's U.S. headquarters in the early '90s. After his

March 2003 capture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the September 11 mastermind,

reportedly told his American interrogators that Siddiqui was plotting to launch

attacks in the United States. She disappeared into Pakistan sometime in March

2003, and her present location is unknown.


Malika el Aroud is a textbook case of how a woman brought up in the West can be

drawn into al Qaeda's ambit, and she told us how women jihadis were both gaining

acceptance in the Muslim world and goading men on, not to be outdone themselves.

Aroud, a Moroccan-Belgian woman, plunged into fundamentalism after a rebellious

youth of drinking and clubbing. She married a Tunisian-Belgian fundamentalist

who was killed by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan after he assassinated its

leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, on orders from Osama bin Laden that he kept secret

from her. In her own community, Aroud says, attacks by female jihadis like

Degauque send a message: "It's a woman saying, 'Look what I, a woman, have done.

And you, the men--are you capable of the same?'" A poem posted by an

unidentified man on a jihadi web forum following Degauques's suicide attack in

Iraq makes the point:



Sister you have embarrassed me

You have accomplished what I failed to do.

And what men with long beards and turbans have also failed to accomplish.

What have you done to us?

You relentless, honorable woman.



The fact that women are enlisting for jihad will make Al Qaeda's campaign more

sustainable in the long term. One reason that Hamas, for example, has been able

to prolong its suicide bombing campaign for so long is because its bombers are

lionized by men and women alike. Another is that, by accepting female jihadis,

terrorist groups double the number of potential recruits.


Alarmingly, the radicalization of Muslim women in Western countries is

increasing, and their militarization is bound to follow. When one of us went to

a meeting organized by the Saviour Sect, a now-banned British Islamic group

in East London in June, several rows of women, fully veiled, were sitting

attentively behind their husbands--a scene that is now typical in such meetings

across the United Kingdom but was almost unthinkable ten years ago. Attendees

were shown footage of bin Laden calling for jihad and images of Muslim

casualties in Iraq. The next month, just blocks away, Abdullah Ahmed Ali and his

wife Cossar were reportedly planning to down U.S. airplanes.


Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New American Foundation and the author of

The Osama bin Laden I Know. Paul Cruickshank is a fellow at New York University Law School's Center on Law and Security.