As caliphate crumbles, ISIS ‘turns to female suicide bombers’
Beirut - Several women carried out suicide bomb attacks in the contested Libyan city of Sirte, killing four soldiers and wounding 38, underlining how the Islamic State (ISIS) is resorting to throwing women into battle for the first time as it comes under intense military pressure in its key urban strongholds in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Rida Issa, spokesman of the Western-backed pro-Government of National Accord forces, said there were three attacks December 2nd involving women who had been given safe passage to leave ISIS-held buildings that were under bombardment.
These incidents and others raised fears that this emerging sisterhood of sacrifice, emulating female suicide bombers in Lebanon — where the first such attack was carried out by a 17-year-old girl in April 1985 — Israel, Russia and the Indian subcontinent, could also target Western Europe as ISIS strikes back to avenge the impeding defeat of its crumbling caliphate, the embodiment of its jihadist cause.
US and Western intelligence services increasingly fear a wave of ISIS attacks across Europe, particularly France and Belgium, where the jihadists have a cell network despite major crackdowns triggered by attacks in Paris in November 2015 and Brussels in March in which 162 people were killed and more than 650 wounded.
On November 25th, French authorities claimed they had foiled a plot to attack Paris and Strasbourg on December 1st, possibly including the Christmas market on the Champs-Elysees, a Paris Metro station and the Disneyland Paris theme park. Five men were arrested in connection with the alleged plot.
At the same time, the Americans have intensified their campaign to assassinate key leaders in ISIS’s expanding external operations group. Three senior figures have been killed in the last year and, on November 22nd, the US State Department added a top ISIS leader to its list of specially designated global terrorists, which makes them prime targets for US forces.
One of those was identified as a 26-year-old Moroccan, Abdelilah Himich, whose nom de guerre is Abu Suleiman al-Fransi (Suleiman the Frenchman), a former soldier with the French Foreign Legion who fought in Afghanistan and whose knowledge of France elevated him to a key role in the external operations unit.
Himich “is thought to have planned both the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels”, analyst Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, which monitors global terrorism, reported on November 22nd.
Himich also formed the Tariq Ibn Ziyad Battalion, a European foreign terrorist cell that has provided operatives for ISIS attacks in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
It is against this backdrop that there have been perplexing signs for several months that ISIS was training cadres of female suicide bombers, particularly in Morocco and across North Africa, which Islamist groups have used as a springboard for attacks on Europe since the late 1980s.
One of the first significant signs of ISIS’s new tactic came on August 19th, when Western-backed National Accord forces in Libya said ISIS had started using female suicide bombers in the battle to hold the group’s last stronghold in the strategic coastal city of Sirte against a major offensive.
Several women wearing explosive vests attacked loyalist forces pushing into the ISIS bastion “but they were shot down before they detonated”, said loyalist spokesman Mohamed al-Ghasri. “It’s the first time we’ve seen women fighting. It shows how desperate ISIS is.”
US intelligence source said about 200 ISIS fighters hold a few city blocks after being pushed out of Sirte, a city they captured in 2015 and was considered one of the caliphate’s most important cities along with the Syrian city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital, and Mosul in Iraq.
Both cities are expected to fall to Western-backed forces with vastly superior numbers and heavy firepower in the coming months.
On October 5th, Moroccan security authorities arrested ten women, several of them teenagers, who were allegedly preparing to carry out suicide bombings in Rabat, the capital, the tourist centre of Tangier and other cities on behalf of ISIS. Moroccan police seized chemicals and bomb-making equipment in the raids on the all-women cell.
“This is the first time we’ve found a terrorist cell that was entirely composed of women,” said Abdelhak Khayyam, director of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations. “Terrorists are focusing (recruitment) efforts on minors who are female. That’s very worrying for all of us. It’s an alarm bell.”
Tunisian authorities detained several women on October 27th for plotting what the Interior Ministry termed “suicide operations” against “several security facilities”. The ministry gave few details but said the would-be suicide bombers included the sister of Mourad Gharsalli, a Tunisian who headed an ISIS cell and was shot dead in 2015.
It noted, without elaboration, that the planned operations were modelled on murderous suicide attacks by Chechen women known as the Black Widows, female relatives of Islamists killed by the Russians in the Islamic insurgencies of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Their revenge attacks killed hundreds and include blowing up two Russian airliners in flight and a Moscow train station.
Another Tunisian ISIS cell headed by a 20-year-old medical student named Fatma Zouaghi was rounded up in Tunisia in October 2014. The 13-member unit was affiliated with ISIS’s Maghreb network known as Katibat Okba ibn Nafaa and commanded by an Algerian veteran named Loqman Abu Sakher, until he was killed by Tunisian security forces in March 2015.
That cell “showed that women are ruthless”, said Wiem Jrad, head of the Tunisian League of Female Members of the Security Forces.
“One of the women in the cell fought the police by using her baby as a shield. Fatma Zouaghi achieved a leadership role because she was active, strong and radical. The women like her in these organisations are not the victims that some might think.”
“Seven hundred Tunisian women have joined the Islamic state organisation over the last five years,” Badra Gaaloul of the Tunis-based International Centre for Security and Military Studies said.
“Women are more dedicated and ready to carry out suicide operations,” she said. “It’s not unusual that the number of Tunisian women in extremist organisations is relatively high because the total number of Tunisians within these organisations is estimated to be more than 6,000.”
With ISIS on the retreat in Syria and Iraq from Western-backed forces and facing the collapse of the self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate the group established in June 2014 spanning both countries, Western security services have been bracing for some time for a retaliatory wave of attacks, including suicide bombings.
These setbacks for ISIS and the looming prospect of losing their last urban strongholds have forced it to overcome its long-held policy of refusing to allow women combatants.
This “would suggest the group is starting to feel heavily the pressure from the action taken against it”, said Rachel Bryson of the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics in London.
“As ISIS and others… lose more ground, their pool of recruits will grow smaller, meaning they’ll need more women to take up combat roles,” she told the British daily the Guardian.
“ISIS knows that the death of a woman evokes a larger response worldwide than that of a man and for ISIS’s PR machine increasing the group’s media platform is an attractive prospect.”
Despite widespread security crackdowns, cells in France and Belgium remain intact, difficult to infiltrate and a constant threat.
Moroccan authorities estimate that 1,500 Moroccan Islamists are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Many women from North Africa and other Arab states have been recruited by ISIS to marry fighters and “populate the caliphate”.
Tunisian Women’s Affairs Minister Samira Merai estimated that 700 Tunisian women have gone to Syria and Iraq to join women-only units, including al-Khansaa Brigade, set up in Raqqa and Mosul in 2014 to enforce sharia law on women in the caliphate. It reportedly also provides recruits for suicide missions.
Western intelligence sources say ISIS’s female wing in Syria is made up of women from the Maghreb, the Gulf states and Western Europe.
Monia Arfaoui, a Tunisian expert on radical Islamist groups, said Tunisian women comprise one-quarter of the 70 members of the al- Khansaa unit in Syria.