As caliphate crumbles, ISIS ‘turns to female suicide bombers’

Sunday 04/12/2016
In this September 2015 file picture, Spanish police arrest an 18-year-old Moroccan woman suspected of recruiting other women via the internet to the jihadist group Islamic State (ISIS), in Gandia. (AFP)

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.