Tunisians brace for threat of female jihadists

The monitoring, tracking and investigation of women by security services as potential jihadist members or even would-be suicide bombers face cultural sensitivities and logistical problems.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Not only victims. Tunisian forensics inspect the site of an attack by a woman suicide bomber in Tunis, last October. (AFP)
Not only victims. Tunisian forensics inspect the site of an attack by a woman suicide bomber in Tunis, last October. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s progress in tackling local jihadism has been tangible. The country has gone nearly four years without a major attack in its main cities and it has contained sporadic jihadist raids in rural areas.

Security experts warned, however, that Tunisia could face a new generation of terrorists if it were to overlook the potential for radicalisation of female jihadist sympathisers.

“While its rival al-Qaeda often relegates women to raising the next generation of jihadist children, [the Islamic State] ISIS has put women at the front and centre, relying on them for propaganda, logistics, policing and attacks,” said Omar al-Hajji, a senior Tunisian Interior Ministry official.

“With ISIS’s emergence came a radical change regarding the role of women in jihadism,” Hajji said at a recent conference on “Terrorism and Women” organised by the government-run think-tank Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES).

The recruitment of female jihadists highlights the challenges Tunisia faces because most of the Tunisians who survived the jihadist battlefields in Syria, Iraq and Libya have yet to return.

Hajji gave no precise figure on how many Tunisian women travelled abroad in the name of jihad but said there was about one female jihadist to every ten males. He said about three-quarters went to Syria and Iraq, 10% to Libya and about 11% to other conflict zones.

Experts at the conference implored authorities to abandon a simplistic view that women who join jihadist groups are “victims” and they downplayed the repeated rebukes of “sex jihadists.”

The role of Tunisian female militants with ISIS in Syria and Libya suggested they were there to enjoy a life mirroring their own understandings of Islamic life.

“Female jihadists who returned home showed no repentance. In comparison to their male counterparts, these women insisted they will continue on the same path by educating the next generation of holy fighters,” said ITES Director-General Neji Jalloul.

“They constitute a danger. They conveyed no remorse and no repentance. They stick to their convictions more than men,” he said, citing ITES interviews with female jihadist returnees in prison.

The Tunisian government said approximately 800 jihadist returnees, among an estimated 3,000 who joined Islamist armed groups abroad, are imprisoned or under house arrest but it gave no male-to-female breakdown.

Tunisian experts presented examples of female jihadists at home and abroad, pointing to the case of Umm Rayan al-Tunisi, who allegedly led ISIS’s al-Khansa Brigade in Syria, which oversaw “moral enforcement” related to social and private life activities for women.

They also named Umm Hajer al-Tunisi, who supposedly headed ideological coaching classes and recruited women into Diwan al-Taalim (Education system) and Diwan al-Siha (Health Department) and Umm Abdul-Rahman al-Tunisi, who was said to arrange marriages for fighters in the Mayadin region of Syria.

The monitoring, tracking and investigation of women by security services as potential jihadist members or even would-be suicide bombers face cultural sensitivities and logistical problems.

“Our traditions and religion impose upon us the full respect and esteem of the woman. She has a special treatment and handling,” said Hajji, “but ISIS tends to take advantage of all the possibilities it can get from women.

He cited multiple tasks female jihadists take on, including intelligence gathering, transporting weapons and food and staging attacks.

“Who can order a woman to get out of her car at night and do a body search?” he added.

Amel Grami, a university teacher and sociology researcher, has studied jihadists in Tunisia and Iraq to understand why women join groups opposing their genuine rights.

“There is no notion of the ‘woman jihadist’ or sympathiser to jihadists. There are women. Behind every case, there is a story, a narrative of a woman. There is no profile or classification or ideological or psychological order,” she said.

Grami cited domestic violence, feelings of insecurity and seeking revenge for slain loved ones as powerful recruitment tools for jihadists.

“In the cases of female jihadists, it is important to understand the peripheries to understand the central issue,” she added.

Some women who experienced abuse sought refuge in the virtual life of the internet.

“They meet jihadist groups on the internet who offer the illusions of safety and security they’ve lost with their family,” Grami said. “They enter this virtual world where they find a dream for a better life.”

Grami and Jalloul said the main issue for the fight against extremism and jihadism lies in the ideological battle between “progress, enlightenment and the fundamentalist obscurantism.”

“When the spirit of progress shrinks, obscurantist ideas dominate,” said Jalloul, giving examples of some 500 girls from Western countries who joined ISIS.

Sami Kallel, a psychologist who studied cases of jailed jihadists, said: “The question now is who will forge policies to fight terrorism threats.”

5